Friday, September 21, 2018

How to Create Characters Readers Care About

Readers need both an emotional and intellectual connection to fiction or they won’t continue reading. If this connection isn’t created, readers will simply say: So what? Then they’ll toss what they’re reading aside and look for something else. Since we writers put their blood, sweat and emotional existence into giving birth to our babies, it’s natural to want our work read. So how do writers create fiction that readers will care about? It’s not a secret. The answer lies with the characters.
Writers must first know their characters.
It is not enough to have a general idea of a character in your head when you start writing. You have to live and breathe the character, know him/her the way you know yourself. In essence, realistic characters are extensions or facets of yourself. My suggestion: Create a detailed written character study of each main character before you begin to write your story or novel.
Here are a few items to consider:
Shakespeare asks: What’s in a name? Clearly, a whole lot. A sweet young thing might have a soft-sounding name while a villain might have a hard-sounding one. What about ethnic names? Are they appropriate or inappropriate for your work?
Another thing you need to keep in mind is not to give characters names that might confuse readers. Names that are too similar in nature--for instance, Jane and Jana--should belong in different stories.
The name of your character will likely cause an assumption of gender, unless you are trying to keep it ambiguous. When I introduced African-American detective “Bert St. Croix” early in the novel THE DROWNING POOL, it comes as something as a surprise that she is a woman. She is tall, strong and fierce. A more masculine name fits her character. Readers don’t learn her back story right away, only the contrast that she has great sympathy and compassion for those who are in need of help but is tough with criminals. Nicknames are also something to consider. Does your character have a nickname like “Bert" short for “Roberta”? What might that suggest about the character?
Age at the time of the story is significant. Is your story about an adult, a teenager, a child?  Point of view and voice differ with each. Also consider how the time period the character lives in effects personality and beliefs. This is especially important in historical fiction.
 In THE THIRD EYE: A PINE BARRENS MYSTERY, the novel is told from two distinct viewpoints--that of a teenage boy and his troubled mother. Point of view is very important. The chapters alternate between Jim and his mother. Jim tells his story in the first person present tense while his mother’s chapters are in third person past tense. Vocabulary and use of language are unique to each character.
Also, the reader understands things the characters do not comprehend particularly when the main character is telling the story from a first person viewpoint. The unreliable first person narrator is very common to mystery fiction. Sometimes the reader knows just what the narrator knows while other times the reader knows more. Dramatic irony can build tension and suspense.
Back Story/Personal History
Although you know your character’s back story or personal history, the reader should learn it slowly, piece-meal, bit by bit. This makes your character interesting and adds an intriguing aura of mystery which causes readers to turn the pages to find out more details about the character.
Making Your Character Sympathetic
Characters need to be relatable as well as real. This means they need to have good qualities that readers like but also character flaws just like an ordinary person. They also need to have goals and ambitions that they’re striving toward. I prefer to make my main characters sympathetic but complex.
Danna the main character in THE DEVIL AND DANNA WEBSTER wants to leave her life of poverty behind. Her ambition is to be an artist. But Danna is confused in her values and family perceptions. Jennifer Stoddard in THE INHERITANCE is a widow raising a small child and in financial distress.
It’s important to know how your characters look. Not only should you have a picture in your mind but you need to describe in words how the characters appear: short, tall, handsome, beautiful, ugly, fat, thin, eye color, hair color.
Mannerisms are important as well. Does your heroine bite her nails, twist locks of her long hair? Does your hero flex his muscles? Does your villain speak in a soft, menacing voice?
Start first with the family members, especially if they are an important part of the story. Who are the parents, siblings and extended family of your character? It’s not enough to just come up with names for them when developing your main subject. What are they like? Provide descriptions, personalities, etc. Are there any problems your character has with them? Kim Reynolds, the academic librarian sleuth first introduced in THE INFERNO COLLECTION, has a complex family dynamic that includes dark secrets.
What about friends? If they play a part in the story, we need to know your main character’s interactions with and feelings about them. In the Kim Reynolds mystery series, Kim comes to love police detective Mike Gardner. Their relationship is complicated in THE TRUTH SLEUTH by the return of Mike’s wife, Evelyn, who becomes THE BAD WIFE in the 4th novel in this series.
Kim and Bert St. Croix also become close friends, and in THE BAD WIFE, they work together and quite literally save Mike’s life.
 Get to know your character’s strengths and weaknesses, attitudes, fears, obsessions, special talents and hobbies. How does your character think, speak, act? What do other characters say about him/her?
Weave body language in with dialogue. This often creates subtle emotional signals. What is said may be in contrast to what the character actually thinks and feels. Val Williams, the central character in my new YA novel WITCH WISH, has a sharp sense of humor, but she is also jealous of her older sister and hurt by her mother’s antipathy.
When you write a scene where there is interaction between characters, try to visualize it as you would see it in a film. There’s nothing wrong with having the image in your mind of real people. It’s also okay to eavesdrop on conversations and be an objective observer which will provide you with material for your writing.
In DEATH LEGACY, Michelle Hallam is a mysterious English woman who has been trained in intelligence work. She is wary and guarded while Daniel Reiner appears to be open and more balanced in his approach to life. They are very different people who come together as lovers and detectives to solve a murder espionage mystery as their lives are placed in jeopardy putting them increasingly in danger. In DEATH PROMISE, the two return to solve yet another murder mystery; their complex relationship remains a key factor in the novel. The dialogue between them shows their differences while being entertaining and advancing the plot.
Okay, I’ll reiterate a few points:
1. Be selective in choosing the names that convey what you want readers to visualize about your character.
2. Appearance is important. What does your character look like? Description can convey much about character. But don’t overdo it. As the old saying goes: show don’t tell.
3. What is special about your character’s speech? Are there unique phrases used? Dickens was a master of this. Also, dialogue should seem natural, the way real people talk.
4. Get into the mind set of your character. How does your character think?  James Joyce is a good writer to read for internal monologue technique.
5. How does your character act, react and interact with others?
6. What do other characters say about him/her?
7. Does the entire presentation have verisimilitude? Do your characters seem real and believable?
8. What values and goals are unique to your character?

Your comments, observations and input are very welcome here!


  1. Wonderful points that every writer must take to heart if they are going to create living characters. Every writer should read this! Susan, aka Janis

    1. Susan,

      Thanks for your comments. I do appreciate them!

  2. Wow, Jacquie what wonderful and useful advice!
    Thanks for sharing
    Good luck and God's blessings

    1. Thank you, Pam. I'm hoping this article will prove useful to fellow writers.

  3. Very comprehensive listing of areas to cover when creating a character. Recognizing the flaw in each character is important; otherwise the characters are flat no matter how well described. I especially liked the reference to James Joyce for tips on internal monologue. His short stories are among my favorites.

  4. These are all wonderful valid points that are super important to story. Great article.

  5. Hi Susan,

    Sometimes when we want to create a sympathetic character we make them too perfect. It's important to remember that real people are flawed. So our characters should be as well.

  6. Great stuff, Jacqueline, as always.

  7. A solid checklist, Jacquie. As Earl Staggs said, "Great stuff....

  8. Thank you, Betty. I hope this proves helpful to other writers.

  9. Thanks for the organized criteria list for building character. Every single aspect of a character is important in building the overall impression for readers. I know you put them all into practice in Witch Wish!

    1. Saralyn,

      Thanks for dropping by and reading this blog. In WITCH WISH, I actually was more concerned with developing character than depending on supernatural elements. I wanted to leave readers, teen and adult alike, with something meaty to consider.

  10. Great overview of what a writer must know about his or her characters. I especially liked what you said about appearance. A couple years ago my husband and I were at Disney World riding one of the buses back to our hotel when a woman boarded and sat opposite me. She was short, probably 5'2", had short, curly brown hair and brown eyes, a nice figure, and a cute face. She was my P.J. Benson (from The Crows)in the flesh. I felt as though I knew her...but, of course, we'd never met and I never saw her again.

    1. With me it's the reverse. I meet someone I consider striking for one reason or another and make a mental note. Then I'll use that description for a character in one of my novels. One woman in particular had long shiny black hair and the lightest gray eyes. She became the heroine in a novel entitled The Chevalier.

  11. Most helpful post, Jacqueline. I will copy this one for my file.

  12. Terrific post, Jacqueline. And one definitely needs to know their characters inside and out, especially to make sure their consistent throughout the story.

    1. You are so right about consistency. It's easy to make mistakes if you don't have a character bible. And readers do pick up on those things.

  13. Excellent advice for authors of any experience-range. Thanks for another helpful post for us writers!

  14. Thank you, Susan, for reading this article and commenting.

  15. Terrific overview and reminder. I do the same for some minor characters as well. I'm having trouble relating to my characters in my new WIP. This will help.

  16. Hi Carole,

    So glad to hear that this will be useful for you.

  17. These are great tips, Jacquie. I used to overdo it before I started writing with tons of attributes and descriptors. Then I swung the other way to discovering more about my character as I wrote. Now I'm at an in between place, that's more like what you described. It's best to have some idea of the character as conflict can also spring from characterization. Nicely done!

  18. Hi Maggie,

    I like the way you handle character. I've read a number of your novels and like the way you create sympathetic characters in depth but also use humor effectively.