Think about the last great story you read. What made it amazing? Pick one of the following.
A) The setting
B) The plot
C) The characters
D) The subject matter
If you answered C) the characters, you’d be like the majority of people from a quick Twitter survey I posted. People read books for the characters.
More than anything, readers want to connect with interesting characters. But how can we be sure we’re writing them in such a way to attract readers? Is the most important thing about them what happened in their past? Is it how they deal with their problems? Is it their strengths or skills? Their flaws?
What keeps us turning pages late into the night when we have work or school the next day?
The most recent book I adored was called Landline by Rainbow Rowell. I’d have to say what kept me reading was the main character named George McCool (yes, that is a cheesy last name, but it didn’t stop me from reading) and her husband Neal. The writing was engrossing and I wanted to see what would happen. The beginning hooked me when her husband Neal decided to take the kids to his mom’s house for Christmas which left Georgie alone to work over the holiday. I wanted to know what caused him to make such a decision. I’m used to families doing what they can to be together during this special time of year, so I wanted to see how it played out. You might say it was the subject matter that interested me because I’m also have two daughters and if my husband did that to me, I’d be devastated.
Once I was hooked, the characters kept me reading.
Several things about the characters drew me in and made me want to finish their stories...
Georgie’s sloppy style that didn’t seem to go with her successful career as a television writer
The unique way Georgie provided a lot of money for her family and her husband stayed home with their girls
The way her daughter communicated with her like a cat. Instead of saying, “Hello, Mommy,” or “I miss you,” she said, “Meow.”
I was fascinated by Neal's silence because I wanted to know what he was thinking.
Georgie’s relationship with her best friend, Seth, who always dressed in style (such a contrast to Georgie). I was curious if there was a romantic relationship lurking between them.
I wanted to know why Neal seemed so upset with Georgie.
I wanted to see if Georgie would give up on her dreams of writing her own television sitcom for her unhappy husband.
It seems clear that while characters were the most important, it was their situation (both plot and subject matter) that kept me curious. There was definitely enough tension to keep me wondering what was going to happen. Would Georgie’s and Neal’s marriage survive this Christmas apart? There was also a magic phone (which is why the book is called Landline).
Now that I’ve analyzed my reasons for loving the book Landline by Rainbow Rowell, let’s examine the elements of writing great characters.
The first thing I notice from my list is that Georgie possessed strong and unexpected character traits. It was interested that she was driven toward success but also dressed sloppily.
Tip #1: Give characters unexpected or ironic traits.
Next, it’s important to write the story in such clear detail, it’s like you’re there. Why would a writer bother to have a daughter repeatedly say, “Meow,” in a story? In this one, it worked really well because it showed how cut off Georgie was from her family (and from communicating with them). Besides this, it made the story seem so real. Have you seen children speak to their mothers this way? I’ve spent a lot of time around children (because I’m a teacher and mom) and I could totally picture this interaction.
Tip #2: Make the details so specific the story seems real.
In Landline, the characters were written to maximize tension. Would Seth flip out on Georgie because she was so poorly dressed and showed up late? Would Neal get so mad with Georgie’s extroverted lifestyle he couldn’t handle it anymore?
Tip #3: Write characters so there’s built-in tension.
In this case, an extrovert driven by success marries an introvert who doesn’t share the same goals. They say opposites attract, and I’m not sure if that’s always the case. What I do know is it works well in fiction. Not everything about the characters has to clash, but they ought to have conflict. That’s real life, too. I can’t think of anybody in the world who’s exactly like me, so there are always differences of opinions and disagreements.
Finally, I notice from my list that I could really relate to Georgie. Like Georgie, I could spend days in the same outfit while living off of whatever food somebody else prepared for me trying to write a masterpiece. I could imagine myself in her situation, so I wanted to finish reading the book. That brings us to our fourth and final tip.
Tip #4: Write relatable characters.
Characters don’t have to be exactly like somebody you know, but something about them must be relatable. They can be indecisive and confused. They can spill seafood chowder down their sweaters. They can laugh and cry and want more. They can do anything we would do, and readers will enjoy reading because they can identify (at least on some level) with the character and what’s happening.
To summarize, we can write interesting characters if we...
#1 Give them unexpected or ironic traits.
#2 Make the details so specific the story seems real.
#3 Write characters so there’s built-in tension.
#4 Write relatable characters.
What’s your favorite character from a book? What makes you enjoy reading about them? I’d love to know what you think, so feel free to drop a comment.
If you enjoyed this post, you may enjoy reading my non-fiction resource Focused Backstory: The Key to Writing Deep Character Journeys on Amazon.
Happy reading and writing, my friend!