Creating Characters that Count

Think back to the last good – really good – story you read. The one you couldn’t put down, the one that made you cry in the middle of the fifth chapter, the one you finished late at night because you couldn’t go to sleep until you found out how it ended. And then when you finished it, you closed the cover of the book and ran your hand over it with a sigh.

There’s a good possibility the biggest thing that drew you into that book and kept you there was a memorable character.

Oh yes, story is important, but unless your readers have someone to care about, even the best story will be flat.

Here are some ideas to make your readers care:

  1. Give them a likeable hero or heroine.  Make sure she’s someone you want to spend time with, and your reader will, too. Give her a sense of humor, deep feelings for her family and friends, and someone who likes her. Make her smile once in a while, even if she’s going through adversity. Make her strong enough to stand what you’re going to put her through in the next 250 pages.
  2. Give your hero/heroine a past. Everyone has a past that affects them. He’s trying to live down mistakes – or hope no one finds out about them. He’s lost loved ones, had a crush on the girl next door, still misses his favorite dog, or burned a bridge he wishes he hadn’t. People are affected by their past. Your hero’s past determines his actions today.
  3. Give your hero/heroine a future. Give her dreams. Dreams motivate us and make us do things – interesting things. Every decision your heroine makes today is weighed with the future in mind.
  4. Make your hero/heroine three dimensional. There’s nothing interesting about cardboard. You say he’s tall, dark and handsome? Don’t let him be caught in a stereotype. Make that tall, dark and handsome guy scared of heights, but he still rescues the heroine’s kitten from a tree. Make him brave in the face of gunfire, but a wuss when it comes to spiders. Know what makes him happy, what makes him angry, what delights him, what scares him. Make him real.
  5. Give your hero/heroine someone to love. When we identify with a character’s emotions, we’re drawn into her story. We want her to marry the guy, or reconcile with her sister, or forgive her mother. We want to feel her longings and heartaches on the way to her happy ending.

Characters are what make the story – make them count!

What are some of your favorite characters, and what makes them memorable?

18 Replies to “Creating Characters that Count”

  1. Great list, Jan! It’s one I’ll want to turn back to because it gets my imagination-wheels turning.

    My favorite kind of characters are ones who make selfless sacrifices of epic proportions (Titanic). On their way to getting there, they’re honest about their weaknesses.

    1. Oh, you’re right Cheryl! Selfless sacrifices are the way to plant your characters firmly in the reader’s heart! We love a hero who can put his own agenda aside for someone else.

  2. Characters are what make the story – make them count!

    That is so true, Jan! When I finish a really good book I feel satisfied and dissatisfied at the same time. Satisfied because the writer gave me answers to the story questions, but sad because I am going to miss the character. It’s like making a wonderful new friend and then not knowing if I will ever see the person again.

    1. That’s one reason why I like sequels, Sharon. We get to find out what happens next and live with our favorite characters for a little while more 🙂

  3. Characters are the difference between getting a book at the library to consume the story and give it back , and buying the book so I can read it again and “hang out” with “my friends” inside a nice read one more time.

  4. This article came at a time when I am responding to feedback from my readers about my novel–they wanted to know more about one of my characters. Why did he respond the way he did? What’s his back story? I had done it so well for my other main character and left him as more of a cardboard cutout. Thanks for the list. I’m working on the book this morning.
    I love your description of running your hand over the book with a sigh. To me, touch shows affection–for my grandkids and my books.

    1. Don’t forget the secondary characters, too! They don’t need as many dimensions, but your readers will still enjoy getting to know them.

      And you’re right – touch is so important when showing affection! No grand children around here, yet, but I try to give my adult children affectionate touches every day (whether they want them or not)!

  5. Such a good list to use in character development, Jan! I loved your characters in LOVE BEARS ALL and would have run my hand over the cover if it wasn’t in manuscript form at the time and resided on my Kindle. 😉

    1. Thank you, Barbara! Such kind words brought a smile to my face this morning!

      You’ll be able to run your hand over that cover next spring!

  6. I love a character that makes my heart beat just a bit faster. Feeling their fear, passion, angst. I also appreciated your word picture of brushing a hand across the book cover with a sigh. I’ve done just that many times.

    1. I love feeling those emotions through fictional characters – it really makes the story worth reading, doesn’t it?

  7. I loved your post. Characters do make the book. I just finished the Hunger Games Trilogy and I loved Catness. She made the series, I cried with her, I got angry with her, but most of all I loved her.
    Glenda Parker

  8. Great article. I recently published a memoir, but I am now in the very early stages of writing a novel, about family, loss, and revenge. The likeability and strength aspects of the main character(s) are great reminders. Thanks!

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