I have seen too many stories fail because of a lack of empathy for the characters. After all, if your reader is in no way invested in the story’s characters, then why do they care to continue reading? Of course, to the author, the characters may seem like the most loveable darlings in existence…but to readers, they’re a pain in the rump. Now why is that?
Well, I have some good news. (or bad news, depending on who you are) Factors that contribute to a character’s unlikability is often multi-fold (and the ones who aren’t are easy to spot), so there’s usually a lot of things you’re doing wrong with an annoying character. (how is that good news? Well, for the chads out there who like a challenge…)
But first of all: when I say “characters we actually care about” I mean “characters the reader cares about”. Sure, you could have your character check all the boxes: they have a good motivation to do what they do, they’re not unreasonably powerful, you show their talents instead of just telling the reader about them. But the approval rating of said character can still drop in spite of all this.
I’ve made quite a few “check-the-box” characters guides. In this article, we’re not focusing on making good characters. The thing we most want is creating characters the reader can grow invested in. While the two often (and should, for that matter) overlap, they are not always both present.
But I will say this before I get into the guide: when you think of characters, try to make them as likeable as possible. When you write them, focus on making them good, well-reasoned characters within the narrative. Returning to your original character vision will help you not wander too far from your plan.
Now, creating characters we care about is not necessarily a matter of how many dark backstories of emotional conflicts you put behind your characters, but rather how you make your characters handle problems. The most poetically tragic story in the world won’t make the reader care about your character. How the character handles aid poetically tragic backstory is how you make the reader care about the character.
Because that’s what a lot of people will tell you: “Just make sure to throw a few tragic monkey wrenches in the hero’s way, and you’ll be fine.” This is some pretty destructive advice, and there are a bevy of characters in poorly-written literature and movies who have tragic pasts but we can’t bring ourselves to care.
Consider this character: He’s a man who allegedly lost his wife ten years ago (let’s assume that the spouse was a loved one in both of these instances) but A). Doesn’t bring it up “because he doesn’t want to talk about it”, B). Reacts in extreme anger/sorrow in the exact same way whenever it’s brought up by someone else, and C). Never passes beyond this attitude towards his dead wife.
Now consider this character: She’s a woman who lost her husband ten years ago but A). Doesn’t bring it up because she doesn’t care anymore, B). Reacts with indifference to anyone who brings it up, C). Never gives up this attitude toward her dead husband. Now which character do we care about more?
It’s a false choice. The answer is that we don’t care about either of these characters because they deal with trauma and pain in ways that aren’t realistic. These two people are representative of two sides of the “dealing with tough things” spectrum, two extremes. Needless to say, you definitely do not want to fall into either extreme.
The problem with the first character is that he is being beaten to a pulp by his loss. In other words, he’s a loser. We don’t care about people who aren’t even trying to overcome their problems. Likely this character will always be brooding on the death of his wife, and even though he never brings it up, he literally won’t act any other way about it. This character quickly becomes annoying.
The second character also reacts in an uncharacteristic manner: she’s either callous and heartless, or she’s so strong the the death of her husband no longer effects her. Both are bad paths for a character to take for several reasons: we don’t want to read about a character who doesn’t care, because we’ll be the ones not caring at the end of the day. And if she’s already resolved her inner conflict and is no longer effected, the tragic backstory carries no weight. In other words, it’s useless to you.
So how do I make a character who my readers will care about? Well, the tragic backstory idea was on the right track (before it got derailed), but you need more than just that. The key here is to make both the tragedy and the handling thereof exist in unison.
So we start with something that would be traumatic/emotionally damaging to a character, but we don’t have them shrug it off or become consumed by it. They remember about what happened to X, and they’re still obviously hurt by it, but clearly the pain is not as fresh as it was. The best way to do this is to introduce a character whose pain is more internal than external. Give the reader hint to the conflict that goes on inside of the character, even though the character shrugs off questions about his or her past when asked about it.
Whenever possible, you need to conceal a character’s tragic past and give subtle hints to it to establish that the pain is there, but the character does a good job of hiding it. The most important thing here is to make the pain and the coping exist in the same person. You want the “someone we can get behind and depend on” vibe as well as the “this person’s had a lot of bad things happen to them vibe”. The sooner you can get the two to coexist, the better.
And since this article is long enough already, I’ll leave you with a few things you’re going to want to avoid: avoid impeccable characters or Mary Sues. Tragic backstory or not, you NEVER want a character who always succeeds. One-line answer to fixing Mary Sues: make them have flaws that actually have consequences plot-wise.
I’ve addressed this before, but avoid making your characters one-note. Part of the reason why our widower was annoying was because he had two modes: mournful and asleep. In order to do something interesting with the character, you actually have to make them capable of doing something other than pouting and brooding.
Good luck, and happy writing!
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!