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January 27, 2015

How to Create Characters Worth Reading

Close of an eye with an intense stare with text: How to Make a Character Compelling

There’s no shortage of blog posts about what makes characters likable to readers. I’ve written about the issue myself. Theories abound with different approaches we can take as writers to create likable characters.

But with every one of those posts, some will rightly bring up the fact that not all protagonists are likable. Depending on the genre or story, the protagonist might be anywhere from prickly to a full-on antihero.

Yet readers still read and enjoy those stories. Why?

It’s because likability is not the end-all-be-all for creating compelling characters that readers want to find out more about. Yes, likability is important for many stories and genres, but we can also create compelling stories and characters without that trait.

So let’s instead take a look at what options we have for creating characters that compel readers to keep turning pages…

Elements that Make a Character Compelling

Characters are a mixture of elements, and several elements other than likability can make a reader compelled to keep reading. What elements make readers want to follow these characters on the story journey? What makes them readable?

Compelling characters might be:

Likable:

Yeah, yeah, let’s get the obvious out of the way first. *smile* As I mentioned in a previous post, likable characters:

  • have “good,” unselfish goals,
  • aren’t annoying,
  • treat others well, and
  • have “good” motivations.

In addition, the subtext behind their reactions isn’t undermining their “goodness.” A likable character might be someone we’d choose to be friends with in real life. They might “save a cat” or do some other good deed. We might see them being a good friend or taking care of others. It’s easy for readers to root for these characters.

Interesting:

Many antiheroes are compelling to read about because they’re strong in this category. Interesting characters might have:

  • a compelling voice,
  • an interesting job,
  • an admirable skill or knowledge (including being funny),
  • a strong character growth arc, or
  • an interesting situation or premise, etc.

Think of those characters with very little development that we read about in plot-heavy thrillers just because their situation or the premise catches our attention. But also think about characters with loads of development who pass through a strong character arc.

It can be interesting to read about a spy trying to stop a terrorist. Just as it can be interesting to read about a normal character who experiences an inspirational amount of growth.

Relatable:

Some characters are so relatable to readers they become compelling. They might:

  • experience the same situations we do,
  • struggle with the same setbacks we do,
  • share our same flaws,
  • make us laugh, or
  • have similar goals or needs, etc.

Regardless, we understand where these characters are coming from. We might turn the pages to be inspired in a “if they can succeed, maybe I can too” way. Or maybe we root for them because we think we deserve success, so they must deserve success too, and we want to be there when it happens to get a vicarious thrill.

Sympathetic:

Sympathetic characters are often victims of undeserved misfortune. They’ve suffered from being:

  • mistreated by someone more powerful,
  • unable to get a break,
  • in the wrong place at the wrong time,
  • humiliated, abandoned, or betrayed,
  • in danger of losing relationships, jobs, home, or life, or
  • powerless to stop something.

These characters deserve better than their situation. Whatever bad thing happened to them was not their fault. It’s an injustice in their life, and readers long to see the wrongs put right.

Note: Sometimes these characters don’t think they deserve better. They might suffer from low self-esteem or guilt and and self-blame. This technique can make a character even more sympathetic—as we see the damage for how they’ve been wronged—but if overdone, it could also make a character seem pathetic. Use with caution.

Mix and Match Elements

The best characters will often have a mix of multiple elements. They suffer from a backstory wound that makes them sympathetic, but they also have flaws that make them relatable and character traits that make them interesting and/or likable.

For example, an antihero might have a unique skill or knowledge that we admire despite ourselves (interesting). They might make us laugh (relatable). And they might have a tortured backstory to explain those antihero traits (sympathetic).

Or a thin character in a plot-heavy story might be essentially “good” (likable), have a special skill and be in an unusual job and/or situation (interesting), and want to fight an injustice (sympathy).

So if we get feedback that readers don’t like our character, rather than file down their prickly edges until we don’t recognize them anymore, we might instead be able to increase the mix for these other elements.

Disclaimer #1: Know Our Genre’s Expectations for Characters

Some genres allow for less of one element as long as another element is really strong. Some genres are more flexible about which elements are important or required. We need to read widely to know the expectations of our genre (and subgenre).

For example, many assume that a genre like romance requires likable characters, and some romance subgenres do have that requirement. After all, romance is all about rooting for these characters to get together, and we wouldn’t care about an unlikable character’s success and happiness in love.

However, in some romance subgenres, the likability of the hero is less of an issue. Hundreds of billionaire or gritty romances include heroes who are jerks—but they make up for it with the other elements. They’re usually super-competent in interesting ways and are often tortured by sympathetic backstory wounds, and most importantly, many of them become likable (at least to the heroine) as part of their character arc.

Disclaimer #2: The Most Compelling Character Doesn’t Have to Be the Protagonist

We can probably all point to examples like The Great Gatsby for stories where readers have debates over which character is the true protagonist: Nick Carraway, the narrator, or Jay Gatsby, the compelling core of the story. My friend Serena Yung shared another example last week when she told me about a book she was reading that was heavy on plot and light on character development—all except for the villain.

The villain was more fleshed out than any of the “good guys,” so she actually ended up enjoying that character the most. Despite that whole “villain” thing. And despite the fact that the character was actually a computer.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this computer character was why the author had wanted to write the premise to begin with. Or maybe the computer character was the “story seed” that had first given them the idea for the story.

The #1 Tip: Ensure the Compelling Elements in Our Head Make It to the Page

We often have to be careful about how we portray our characters. We may love one of our characters, but we might struggle with how to show on the page what makes them awesome in our mind.

That strong character might come across as too arrogant or unrelatable. That sarcastic character might seem bitter or mean. Or that emotionally hurt character might sound whiny or pathetic.

So no matter how we want our characters to come across, we need feedback from critique partners, beta readers, and/or editors to ensure that the character on the page matches the character in our mind. If readers don’t get the right impression, chances are good we’ve missed showing a critical element that makes us understand them. Without, showing that element, readers will be in the dark about what makes the character cool.

We can review the list of elements above to see which apply to the character in our mind and then ensure that we’ve shown that element on the page. Or check to make sure a word or phrase doesn’t undermine the impression we want. We can tell readers all we want that a character is a good guy, but if the subtext shows the reader something else, the impression isn’t going to match what we intended.

It’s easy to use a word or phrase that leaves an unintended impression on readers. Or to forget to show the aspects that make them or their thoughts or actions sympathetic. Honestly, sometimes it’s a wonder we manage to make our ideas translate into others’ heads at all. But with a mix of the right elements, we might get close enough so readers are compelled to keep reading. *smile*

Have you struggled to write likable characters? Did you change the character, or did you try to make the character compelling in other ways? Do you think strengthening these other elements might help? Can you think of other elements that might make a character compelling or readable?

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What do you think?

33 Comments on "How to Create Characters Worth Reading"

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Davonne Burns

I think you are right about the main four elements. It made me think of Star Wars and how I found both Vader and Boba Fett (from the original trilogy) much more interesting than Luke or the others. They each had at least one of the elements you’ve mentioned.

My current WIP is a romance where one of the MCs is a sarcastic, violent little sh*t but he’s proven to be a favorite among my betas. Reading your post I realized I somehow managed to make him have all four elements. He’s likable in that he is motivated by his love for and loyalty to the Queen. He is interesting in that he’s lead a very unusual life and always has some sarcastic remark. He’s relatable in that he failed his last mission, nearly died and has since lost his job. He is sympathetic because he also has to deal with racism and harassment from those above him.

Now I just need to figure out how to balance that with the other MC so that he’s not totally overshadowed.

I can’t think of any other ways aside from those mentioned to make a character compelling. You’ve done a great job outlining the primary methods.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Hey Jami! I’ll make a few short comments for now: YAY I got mentioned! 😀 LOL yeah he’s a computer. XD And I think it is indeed very likely that the computer was the story seed. Oh I find that at least for me, usually if I find a character likable and relatable, they are interesting to me; and if they are interesting and relatable to me, they are also likable to me. 😀 Though of course there are examples that break these rules where someone could be likable but not that interesting, or interesting but not very likable. And in general, if they are similar to me, I am likely to find them interesting and likable, lol!! But the cool thing about being relatable and interesting in terms of being similar to you, is that this can be subjective! I would probably find someone who’s also a bit obsessed with robots and the Transformers more relatable and interesting, but someone else might think, “yee what a geek! I hate robots and machines!” LOL they might find them too geeky and robo-philic to like as well, lol. Oh on likability, a lot of people dislike saintly characters because they are TOO noble and moral. Yet I personally really like such noble and moral characters, moral exemplars. 😀 There are also idiosyncratic things people are automatically uninterested in. Like for me, FOR SOME REASON when I learn that a character is a lawyer, I have an automatic ho-hum reaction. Lol! I… Read more »
Sharon

Jami-
In the book I tried to market to agents last year, I had changed the MC too much because my betas all found her unsympathetic. In the end, I didn’t like her anymore and the story became quite blah.
I’m hoping that the beta readers for my most recent book (you might remember it) will see the same characters I tried to write. They are much clearer to understand since I followed your advice. But, did my picture make it to the page?
I find that what I read as subtext often goes unnoticed by my readers. How do I get what I’m thinking onto the page?
Thanks for another helpful post. I hope I won’t have to change Akolo and Zi Yan too much after the betas finish reading, but this article has given me a place to start if I do.

dolorah

That last tip is the hardest to do, making sure the concept actually makes it to the page. Thanks for all the help here. Compelling characters are hard to translate to the reader.

Justine Sebastian
Justine Sebastian
Great post and some good points made—good suggestions also. 🙂 After reading your post the first thing that came to my mind was that I hate traditionally likable characters for a multitude of reasons. I say that because most traditionally likable characters read as Mary Sues and there is nothing I despise more in writing than those lame ladies (and their pals, Gary Stus). Once I come across a character that is “sooo sweeeet” she makes babies laugh and birds sing then I am pretty much done because she becomes Useless Female Character toot-sweet. You find a similar foil in gay fiction where one half of the power couple is simply UFC with male hormones (so we are told; he usually reads like a woman who happens to be named Fletcher or some other porn star name). The second thing I wonder about is why we should adhere to genre expectations. I write character-driven stories—but I also write horror and suspense thrillers. People actually don’t seem to mind so long as I keep the external plot involved (everything from the mafia to the Big Bad Wolf being real… yeah… I’m uh… varied…). I also do critiques and edits for a mystery writer who got so sucked into the “write to audience expectations” that she slaughtered her characterizations in the name of plot because she thought that’s what people wanted to read—all plot, characters there only as machines to push along the action. No, no, no! As a reader I am… Read more »
Calisa Rhose

Great tips and wonderful examples, Jami. I guess I did something right in my heroine in Risk Factors because my reviews have an even amount of readers wanting to slap/shake her for being a doormat and not standing up to the hero, who is borderline beta (to me). But she seems to redeem herself in her actions in the end and readers are all happy again. Which, of course, makes me very happy. LOL

The thing is, she IS something of a doormat due to overbearing, horribly critical parents. Her character growth is when she finally stands up to her parents and then the hero, whom she desperately loves even though he refuses to trust her with his child, and tells him ‘there is no us’ until he can change. Even though it breaks her heart, she has to protect herself.

Love this conversation!

Julie Musil

Excellent advice, Jami. I tell ya, transferring all that data from our head to the page–in an engaging way–is tough. It’s something I’m constantly working on.

Carradee

My fans generally tell me—either on their own or if asked—that they love my characters. That they love how even the side characters have more to them than what’s necessarily on the page.

I’ve even been asked how I do it. I think the two main things that help me are:
1. everyone makes sense to themselves, on some level
2. everyone—side characters included—has their own goals and lives that continue even when they’re off the page.

That latter one’s really where the narrator for book 2 in one series came from. Well, there and my subconscious. She has some notable personality shifts within book 1, because of the crap going on in her own life that leads to…well, she kinda develops a world-specific form of multiple personality disorder. But book 1’s narrator doesn’t realize that, though she sees side effects and gets confused. The character herself doesn’t even really understand what’s going on. Book 4’s narrator understands more than she does.

I admittedly end up with some REALLY twisted up characters and plots. I suspect—but am not entirely sure—that the tangled plots are at least partially caused by the characters.

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[…] comments on my last post about how to create compelling characters asked similar questions: How can we make sure the cool character in our head makes it onto the […]

Lara Gallin
Lara Gallin

This is exactly the problem I’m having with my main character at the moment. I don’t think there’ll be any problem with creating sympathy for her past, it’s giving people a reason to care about what ‘s happening to her now I’m finding difficult. I’m having no trouble coming up with flaws and hang ups but I can’t think of anything that makes her likable. I’m doing that rookie thing of basing a character on myself so it’s possible I’m projecting :p

Fortunately there’s one character I’m finding much easier to write. She’s one of those extroverts that you always feel on edge around, the type with an addictive personality and who’s slightly unhinged. I think most people will have come across someone like that so she’ll be the easiest character for readers to recognise.

I’m only on the second draft so I’m not stressing about it too much just yet. I’ll leave that for later drafts!

Glynis Jolly

I like writing stories that are driven by the characters. Yet the one I’m working on now is plot driven. As I type away, I wonder if I’m telling enough about the characters. Because I’m a pantser, my worksheet for each character is sketchy at best. This is my 1st draft, so I’m thinking I can embellish the characters more in the 2nd draft. Have you heard of anyone writing this way?

Luka-Micheala
Luka-Micheala

I’m just gonna say that I disagree on the back story bit. I think it’s far more important for the back story to be believable than to be the reason you are sympathetic towards a character. It’s become a cliche in Urban Fantasy for the characters to have lost a parent, been robbed blind then lost a parent, had the apartment building explode by mutant cheese.

I think we, as writers, need to figure out how to make a character sympathetic but maybe not necessarily by back story.

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[…] How to Create Characters Worth Reading — Jami Gold […]

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[…] How to Create Characters Worth Reading This post explores elements that go into a compelling character that readers will want to read about—not everything is about likability. […]

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[…] know as readers that even the best-plotted book will suffer if the protagonist isn’t at least compelling. So as writers, we do everything we can to make readers invested in our characters in […]

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[…] How to Create Characters Worth Reading Why character likability shouldn’t be seen as the end-all-be-all for why readers feel compelled to read a story. […]

Bella Ardila

What do you think about male characters in many romantic korean dramas? I think that I hate some of them because the thing of super hot jerks become the lover of the main protagonist is too bad. Because they can be a total douchebag while other hot male character was nice to the main character. But eventually the girl chose the jerk instead because of the director

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[…] is the reason that we talk about making our characters compelling or likable. Readers usually read to follow the protagonist’s journey, so we need to give them […]

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