On April 27, I had the privilege of speaking at Kiski Area High School (near Pittsburgh, PA) about writing and editing. I was really impressed with the young men and women there: they seemed engaged in the talk and asked some intriguing questions. I wanted to address a couple of their questions here because I thought it was a topic that many struggle with.
- How do you get an audience to care about characters?
- How do you write characters/descriptions so the reader feels their experiences?
Number 1: One of the things I mentioned to the students was to make a character whose personality changes over time or who grows as they have experiences (this is called a “dynamic character”). People will sympathize with their struggles and cheer them on as they encounter obstacles. Sometimes that person starts as an underdog, but through their development, they come out on top.
Number 2: Think about your own life and who you encounter. Are you more likely to care about someone who shares their ideas, happiness and sorrows, difficulties and triumphs with you? Do you necessarily care (on a deeper level) about a stranger on the street if you never speak to them? Reveal your character’s inner thoughts as you write about their journey. Discuss how they feel about people they are interacting with along the way and the situations that are acting on their personality change. You can also include a little bit of back story that explains why they might feel a certain way.
Number 3: Something else I think is important is to include enough dialogue. Hearing a person speak to you, especially when it’s something important to the plot or profound, can make a difference in getting the audience to care about the character.
If you read a paragraph about something that happened, like in a news story, do you really feel connected with the people there? Now think about what happens when you get a quote from a witness or you read what a character said when they rushed from a burning building or placed first in their baking contest or finally figured out how to throw a javelin. Writing “Samantha dove into the lake and swam to the bottom to retrieve the golden key” is a lot less connective than “I can’t believe I’m doing this. The golden key will unlock the door I’ve been trying to open for years. If I can just fight the pain from this murky water in my eyes, I will have it in my grasp. Just a bit further . . .” (This technique can also help add length if you’re struggling with that aspect!)
Number 4: Adding dialogue falls a bit into this category, too. When you want someone to really get a feel for your character’s behavior and personality, showing—not telling!—will help. Instead of telling me that your character is trustworthy, mention that time when they returned a stolen wallet or have them tell the person in front of them in line at the coffee shop that they dropped something. One of the songs from My Fair Lady features Eliza Doolittle singing to a suitor that she wants him to show her how much he loves her: “Don’t talk of stars, burning above / If you’re in love, show me / Tell me not dreams, filled with desire / If you’re on fire, show me.” (If you aren’t familiar with My Fair Lady, check out the classic with Audrey Hepburn. The lead male character is a linguist!) Your characters become much more believable if you show off their attributes, feelings, etc. instead of listing them.
Number 5: When I start out Confessions of the Editor Brigand, Zhanna is a bit of a crab and, well, a snob, too. But as you go through the first chapter, you see that she’s lonely. You learn about how she doesn’t fit in at work and doesn’t have friends in the town she lives in. You also discover that she’s stressed out, hasn’t taken a vacation in years, and isn’t treated very well by her coworkers. Remember that your character doesn’t always have to be likeable for people to sympathize with them either. We’ve all felt isolated before, for various reasons, and I think that the examples I write about in the book work to make Zhanna an ironically likeable character, especially once you see her interacting with her best friends.
This list is only a small sample of what you can do! When you’re reading, think about why you like certain characters. Analyzing other literature can help you improve your writing. You may decide that lots of sensory details or highly descriptive words that express an exact shade of meaning make characters feel more richly developed. You may discover something new! I found some other great examples of ways to make your characters feel more rounded and relatable at Writers’ Relief, Men with Pens, and The Write Practice, so you might want to check them out!
If you would like to suggest a topic for me to cover, please let me know in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org.