We all want to write vibrant, lively, realistic characters that leap to life from the page. We want our characters well-rounded and interesting. We want our characters to each have their own “voice.”
In pursuit of this worthy goal of creating a realistic character, we write lengthy character histories, we write journal entries from the point of view of our character, and we fill in character worksheets.
Yet sometimes we do all of these things—we endow our character with personality, background, depth, and breadth—and still, our beta readers say they just don’t “connect” with the character.
In other words, they didn’t care about the character.
How do you take your well-rounded character and carry him over that giant chasm that separates “realistic” from “relatable”? How do you give him the traits that will make a reader stay up all night with him, anxiously turning page after page just to know if he achieves his goal?
The answer is simple:
To be relatable, a character needs to be vulnerable.
Obviously, the concept of creating vulnerability isn’t a well-guarded secret in the writing world. If you’ve watched your share of Disney animated features, you know that almost no Disney character is entitled to grow up with both parents. (Of course, this truism isn’t limited to Disney—Harry Potter, Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, Luke Skywalker, and Katniss Everdeen have all lost at least one parent.)
Vulnerability gives a reader something to root for. Vulnerability opens a character up to empathy.
So if this rule of endowing a character with vulnerability is so simple, why aren’t all of our characters sympathetic, relatable heroes?
The reason may be that—like many concepts in writing—creating vulnerability in a character is much easier to understand than it is to execute. Here are a few things to consider when thinking about your character’s weaknesses:
Vulnerabilities should directly relate to your character’s goal and motivation. In the Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss’s loss of her father is more than just a personal loss—it sets in motion her strong desire to protect her family. It also influences the actions she is willing to take to obtain her goals. Having lost her father in a mining accident, setting off an explosion in a mine is not a tactic she can endorse.
Your reader will relate more to a character’s fears if they share those fears themselves. Harry Potter is thrown into an unfamiliar world and learns immediately that someone very powerful and evil wants to destroy him. Part of why readers find him so relatable is that we all fear the monster under the bed—the unseen thing that wants to harm us—and Voldemort embodies that perfectly.
A loss that creates both a weakness and a strength can be especially compelling. Luke Skywalker learns that his father was a great Jedi. Knowing this makes the fact that he never knew his father all the more painful. Yet Luke has this incredible legacy that empowers him. (And when Luke ultimately learns that his greatest nemesis is actually his father, this vulnerability gains a whole new level of uniqueness and complexity.)
What do you think about creating relatable characters? Do you have an approach to ensure that your characters have a balance of strengths and weaknesses? Please share your thoughts in the comments!