Creating Characters Readers Care About

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!

  

11 Responses to Creating Characters Readers Care About

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Mar 10 2014 at 8:09 am #

    I would think it depends on the kind of vulnerability. Superman is vulnerable to Kryptonite but that doesn’t make him sympathetic. You should be able to tell the stories of Potter and Skywalker with no magic at all and still make me care. Sympathy, practically by definition, means that they feel like me, and I feel like them. The magic and the Force aren’t the issue, it’s the vulnerability in his human qualities that make for sympathy.
    There are ways to create these human vulnerabilities, some more effective than others. None of your methods described above work for me as an author, and I wonder that they work for anyone as a reader. I’ve written on the subject of character creation already ( http://authorguy.wordpress.com/2011/02/20/if-i-build-it-will-they-come/ ) and I see no need to change anything. I find my characters’ vulnerabilities, and thus my own, in the most surprising places sometimes, places that wouldn’t be obvious given a simple list of character traits. My technique isn’t ‘what would I do, say, feel, if I were them?’, rather it’s ‘I am them, so what am I feeling now?’ In essence, I don’t write characters to feel like me, I write myself to feel like them, and then put that on the page. I have no way of knowing if this ‘ensures’ sympathy by itself, since the majority of the few books of mine that are out there have been sold pretty much directly by me (no bookstores carry my stuff). The readers know me personally, and that may affect the sense of the book they come away with. I’d be very interested to see a study of the reactions to a book that incorporated personal interaction the author as a variable.

    • Julie
      Julie Mar 10 2014 at 9:57 am #

      Hi Marc, Thanks for your input on the undeniably complex issue of character development. I’m sorry you don’t find my methods helpful as a writer. As for whether ” they work for anyone as a reader,” I can say they work for *me* as a reader – that’s why I used the examples I did. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Leandra Mar 10 2014 at 9:07 am #

    Thanks for the great breakdown! I also love to see humor in a character, that always helps me feel more connected to them. Even if it’s a more doom and gloom type setting, a funny line here or there always ups my empathy level with the character. Prolly b/c I’m the type of person that sometimes jokes about stuff that’s bothering me- crying about it all the time in no fun! 😉

    • Julie
      Julie Mar 10 2014 at 9:58 am #

      Leandra – that is such a great addition to this post. Humor always helps me empathize with a character. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment! 🙂

  3. sonja Mar 10 2014 at 4:03 pm #

    Thanks for the great tips on how to create a relatable character.

    • Julie
      Julie Mar 11 2014 at 1:04 pm #

      Hi Sonja, I’m so glad you found these tips helpful! 🙂

  4. Hamed Mar 10 2014 at 4:08 pm #

    I have this folder in my laptop named “ let’s learn writing” and it’s mostly your amazing, brief and extremely useful posts like this one. It seems like a very first attempt to write a how-to-write book. Which makes me ask: ”don’t you want to gather theses article in a book for YA writers?” it could be a real help.
    Like always, I have a question. How can we avoid getting trapped into writing a stereotype while trying to create a sympathetic ,vulnerable character? When I try to shape a character whom my readers can say “I know this person”, how can I make my character to be original and yet familiar?(so many WHs in this awful sentence.)
    About strengths and weaknesses, I just can say they both are the same. You know, just like warmth and cold. The two are faces of one phenomenon :temperature. Like happiness and sadness. Sometimes I look back into my worst failures and say to myself “it could be avoided if I wasn’t so gullible” but then I know I love that part of me who can trust people and be trusted.

    • Julie
      Julie Mar 11 2014 at 12:06 pm #

      Hey Hamed! I’m so glad you find my posts helpful! 🙂 Your question is a good one. In fact, when I was writing this post, I worried that it would come across too much like a “formula” for writing relatable characters.
      The truth is, of course, that there is no magic formula. Revealing your characters’ weaknesses and vulnerabilities helps to make them more “real,” but there are so many other elements to character creation. I think as long as you’re always on the watch for cliches, and never settle for easy or obvious answers, you’re working from a strong position. Also – I LOVE your thought here: “About strengths and weaknesses, I just can say they both are the same.” So true! Thanks for adding your thoughts!

  5. Alexa S. Mar 16 2014 at 8:51 pm #

    I really liked this post, Julie! I think it’s true that vulnerability is definitely the best way for a reader to be able to relate to and connect with a character in the novel they’re reading. I often find that the characters I love best are the ones that have that emotional openness that I can really feel for myself!

  6. Julie
    Julie Mar 31 2014 at 10:30 am #

    Hi Alexa! Thanks for the comment! I also find that characters with a degree of openness (or even those I would describe as “guarded” but whose vulnerabilities are still evident) are the ones that draw out the most empathy in me. I’m so glad you liked the post!

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