You can create charming good guys and vicious villains, the hookiest of hooks, brilliant worlds, and twisty plots with the most intense cliffhangers, but if readers don’t care about your characters, they won’t recommend your book to their friends. Or worse, they’ll put the book down and never buy your books ever again. Why would they do that? Because they didn’t connect with your protagonist, antagonist, or viewpoint characters. Your reader wants to connect with at least one of those characters. They open the book wanting to love or hate your characters. But creating characters your readers connect with takes work. What makes readers not care? It could be one of several problems.
You’ve put a lot of work into writing your book. You love your characters and your story but your readers, be they critique partners, alpha or beta readers, or your book reviews, tell you your book was boring, or they couldn’t finish your book and put down your book, or they didn’t like it at all. It hurts. A lot. But it’s time to put aside your emotions and examine your reader and your story.
If one reader has issues, the reader is probably not your target audience. If more than one reader makes similar complaints, it’s probably something your book does or doesn’t do. Evaluate it as objectively as you can. (Ask for help if you can’t.) Does it suffer from one of these common issues?
No worries. All authors experience at least one manuscript with faults that stop the reader. Take heart. There are ways to fix these problems in your writing. You can learn to create characters your readers will love or hate and will pay to read more of their stories.
If your character is happy and content, why should the reader care? Even if the story problem is a big bad guy or a world-ending catastrophe, if your character doesn’t care deeply and personally, neither will your reader. Being an altruistic superhero isn’t enough. The problem must matter to the protagonist or it won’t matter to the reader.
Remember the 2008 movie, The Incredible Hulk? Not a blockbuster. People didn’t connect with the film or the character because Banner’s needs and problems were largely unconnected to Hulk. In fact, he wanted to control Hulk. And Hulk’s limited reactions were usually “Hulk angry” or “SMASH!”
Compare that movie to the deep characterization of the 2018 movie, Black Panther. We see T’Challa as a child yearning for a place he’s never seen. We feel the trauma of his father’s murder and we know his need to find his place, his destiny, to be the man his father wanted him to be. Most people can relate to that. Watching him struggle and fail and struggle again against a foe and against himself, we grow to care about him and his challenges. The problems T’Challa faced mattered both personally and in his larger world. His personal connection to the problem became the viewers’ connection.
The challenges we choose or we make for ourselves may have some level of altruism, but deep down, it is something specific and personal. Look for a personal connection your protagonist has with the problem in your story. Ask yourself:
In fiction, conflict exists when some person, place or thing keeps your character from what he wants. It’s what forces your character to re-assess what he wants or how he’s going to get it.
The reader is interested in how your character struggles to get what he wants. Describing action which takes place off-stage is a variation of telling and not showing. It distances the reader from your characters and from your story.
Guess what? If you avoid conflict in real life like many introverts do, there’s a good chance you’ll avoid it in your story. When the confrontation with that obstacle isn’t on the page, you must tell us what happened. So no matter how difficult or heroic that fight may have been, we hear it from the protagonist, which makes any actions he took less immediate and less important. A conversation or flashback can’t make him or the reader feel the immediacy of an on-stage conflict. And it can make him sound conceited.
Let your reader see, hear, taste, smell, touch, and viscerally feel his emotional responses to the obstacle. The reader can connect with those. Make those responses strong enough and it hooks the reader. Make them personal enough and the reader will not want to stop reading.
Sometimes things need to happen off-stage. Make certain what happens off-stage is not a pivotal point for the story. Backstory is an off-stage thing—usually. The character tells us about backstory; we don’t experience it with the character. Some backstory may be necessary to include in your book, but break it up into tiny slivers of information that you tell the reader over many pages. Let your reader walk in your characters’ shoes.
A common scene that lacks conflict is a travel scene. A detailed description of a character traveling from point A to point B is a usually a bore even if fantasy plants and creatures fill the forest. Should your character need to travel, don’t drag us along on the journey unless something important challenges him or changes his course or you’re writing a travelogue. Instead of a travelogue, give the reader a summary statement or a jump-cut.
If your protagonist acts in ways that are unrelated to the main story problem or unrelated to previous actions by your antagonist, you have created a haphazard appearing plot. There’s no relationship the reader can discern between the cause of one action and the effect. Note, we are not talking about subplot cause and effect. Your main story problem must remain both center stage and be a progression of challenges of increasing difficulty.
How do you make certain you’ve got cause and effect?
Stereotypes and trope-based characters are one-dimensional characters that go through the motions to fulfill the plot. The dialogue is task oriented and the characters only care about getting this plot thing done.
There are some genres where character doesn’t matter as much as plot or location. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that character doesn’t matter at all. Your readers will respond better to your story if you give those stereotypes or tropes a little twist. Often in these types of stories, honor or duty can drive your characters’ actions. Give him a background need that motivates him. Maybe he needs to prove himself to his father. He could have done something dishonorable in the past for which he must make amends. You don’t have to, and probably shouldn’t, go deep into the emotions or needs, but sprinkle tiny doses throughout this type of story and your plot-loving and trope-loving readers will eat it up.
If you aren’t writing one of those genres, take a hard look at your characters. One or two one dimensional characters can glide through certain stories. Your protagonist and antagonist need to be more.
To make certain your characters aren’t stereotypes or trope-based characters readers don’t care about...
Maybe you have a meaningful theme, a thrilling struggle, and intensely personal character problems, but your readers still don’t care. That often happens when you are telling instead of showing what your character feels or why he does what he does.
To put your reader in your character’s shoes, she needs to do more than see what’s happening. She needs to feel your protagonist’s doubt, his hope, his fear. She wants to hear what he hears, smell what he smells, taste what he tastes, feel what he touches and how his body responds to the situation.
Don’t know how to do that? Learn how a human body reacts to these intense feelings. Study why people similar to your characters think and act as they do.
Do you need a degree in anatomy and physiology and one in psychology to put readers in your character’s shoes? Not unless you want to.
Start with yourself. Record what you feel in which body parts and what you sense (sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing) when you experience intense emotions. Journal interactions between people you watch at the mall, the restaurant, or the public park. Save snippets of other authors’ writings you felt viscerally when you read it. Practice writing variations of those feelings. It will get easier and more intuitive as you practice.
You don’t have to create a good or likeable character. Even if your WIP is an anti-hero story or a horror story, your reader needs to connect to your protagonist or viewpoint character. Look for successful examples in fiction or (cautiously in film and television) Examples like: Sauron, Professor Moriarty, Hannibal Lector, or Shere Khan.
When you create situations and conflicts that your protagonist does not or cannot solve, the reader will feel your character didn’t earn the victory or the tragedy at the end of the story. Even in a story with an ensemble cast, there has to be at least one member of that team with whom the reader connects on an emotional level.
I get it. You love your characters so much you don’t want to hurt them that badly. That is what Janice Hardy calls “the Nice Writer Syndrome.” That can be deadly to your readers’ interest.
Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.HELEN KELLER
Throughout your book, your protagonist must make tough choices and do things that he doesn’t want to but feels he must or the antagonist forces him to do. Embarrass him. Set him up to make bold choices that frighten him. Make him fail even when he tries his best. Make him try harder. Create a situation where your protagonist must do something awful, so bad he can’t see a way to redeem himself. Make your character give in to temptation, then make him pay the consequences for his actions. Prey on his weaknesses. Break him. Make him claw back toward redemption. Make him avoid learning or improving until he can’t help but learn. Hint: the lesson learned is the theme of your story.
For most stories, the character’s pain and the way he deals with it are the emotional frame of your story. Your reader recognizes it and relates to it even when your protagonist is a superhero or alien.
One way to increase your character’s pain is to brainstorm different outcomes for each scene.
Yes. You need to bring your protagonist to the edge of destruction. Bring him to a disaster that has the real potential of breaking him beyond repair. While some genres demand the disaster be a world-ending trauma or event, it doesn’t have to be. But your protagonist needs to think and feel the wrong outcome will destroy his world.
Making a horrible thing happen to your character isn’t enough. Why? Because horrible things happen every day. Horrible things happen to many of us. But none of us are who you’re writing about. You’re writing about someone specific. If the disaster you have planned is equally horrible for any of your characters, you haven’t found the right horrible thing yet. Why does it matter to this character? Root the disaster in your character’s greatest fear, his misbelief. For example, one of T’Challa’s misbeliefs was that his father never failed him. Yet his father killed his brother and orphaned his own nephew, who became “a monster of our own making.”
Every decision your protagonist has made during the story has led him to this moment, to his dilemma. Meaning it’s all his own fault! Without that disaster, without his self-indictment, the reader doesn’t cheer for the character when he finally overcomes the disaster.
Learn to hurt your protagonist in the feels. No, not necessarily a bodily injury or even death. Start with something small but vitally important to him. Dangle it in front of him, then snatch it away. Pretend you’re just teasing until you can take writerly pleasure in torturing your characters.
Having trouble getting to that point?
We humans suffer various degrees of challenges every day. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” We can say the same of reading fiction. Our readers read to see how story characters react to suffering and what meaning those characters find in their suffering to escape or cope with real life. If you deliver a character journey where the protagonist suffers and survives and finds meaning, your readers will pay to love and hate your characters.
How have you made characters in your WIP suffer and find meaning?
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Lynette M. Burrows is an author, a blogger, a creativity advocate, and a Yorkie Wrangler. She writes thrilling science fiction about women who make courageous choices.
Her Fellowship Dystopia series, My Soul to Keep and If I Should Die, takes place in an alternate 1961. Miranda, the daughter of America’s premier preacher-politician, breaks the rules and discovers the world beyond privilege is far darker and more dangerous than she knew. The third book in this trilogy, And When I Wake, will be published in 2024.
Lynette lives in the land of Oz. When she’s not procrastinating by avoiding housework and playing with her dogs, she’s blogging or writing or researching her next book. You can find Lynette online on her website, Facebook, or on Twitter @LynetteMBurrows.
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