There are no great stories without great characters. Great characters feel real, which makes their stories feel real.
Their victories feel like our victories (and their setbacks, too). We begin to see ourselves as them, and in some cases we identify so closely with them, that it is as if we are right there.
We automatically form a bond with the characters we read about. This empathy is so strong, that it’s almost impossible to NOT feel something when you read about a well-crafted character. A talented writer knows how to use this to keep readers hooked… for hundreds, if not thousands of pages.
Why do readers want to form a connection with your characters?
Entertainment, first. We read to be entertained, and when you love a character, you can’t stop reading about them.
As an added bonus, reading great characters can make us wiser. We explore new feelings and gain new experiences—ones that might otherwise be impossible for us to have.
Let’s explore that reader/character bond, and why it should matter to you as a writer:
When you are immersed in a character’s experience, you feel their emotions, positive and negative. You love watching them win, and you get tense when the situation looks risky.
As humans, we form deep emotional connections with fictional characters. And, we do it automatically.
This connection goes deep. When you like a character, you start to see yourself in them. Their story becomes your story.
This is why movies and TV shows captivate our attention: great actors bring emotions to life with their faces, body language, and dialogue delivery. You can form an empathetic connection with an actor just by looking at them.
Books can do this and more. They let us hear a character’s inner thoughts, adding a whole new dimension to this emotional connection.
For novel or serial writers, if you can take advantage of that extra dimension, your characters will start to feel more real. To do that, start by focusing their inner thoughts on:
Readers want your characters to want something. A character’s emotions will change based on how close they are to their desired outcome. One great way to do this is to give your character a goal that they want badly. Then, give them a flaw that prevents them from reaching their goal.
For more on character motivations, here’s my best article on how to motivate your characters. It talks about using backstory, creating conflicting motivations, and more.
In general, we are extremely social beings. Many of the most introverted humans love human connection, including myself.
Stories with great characters immerse us completely in the relationships and social dynamics. Everyone wants to know what other people think and to see how they react to conflict-rich situations.
Books can give readers both.
Books let you imagine friendships with characters who feel real, they let you run alongside them as they navigate social and physical worlds, they let you pick sides when characters clash, and their stories let you experience the delightful ups and dreadful downs of complex relationships.
When you read, you enter social situations that would otherwise be too costly or dangerous to experience on your own. You become wiser and thoughtful in real life.
And, don’t forget: we’re here for entertainment. Watching relationships unfold is an exciting experience, no matter which way they go.
When we get immersed in a great character, our empathy lets us feel all the good things they do… and the bad.
We imagine ourselves struggling with their problems (be they small obstacles or unbeatable villains), and the more we identify with the character, the more tension we feel.
The good news is that means, when the hero finally wins, we win with them. Their victory is our victory. And we feel like we EARNED that victory because we were there for all the ups and downs.
Creating a sense of progress for a character we love gets us absolutely addicted to that character. Progress is the foundation of writing a great protagonist, and for moving your story along at a satisfying pace.
Great characters will hook your readers, and keep them coming back for more. They’re especially powerful in series (be it a serial novel, a trilogy, or a 22-volume epic), because they enrich every page.
When you develop better characters, your readers will:
Perhaps best of all, great characters are great fun to write…
Here’s a list of my best posts:
I recommend you start with the first, as it gives you a complete overview of writing a great character.
P. S. Hoffman
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