At the 2014 Rainforest Writer’s Retreat, I was lucky enough to meet Diana Pharaoh Francis. In addition to just generally being a great addition to the retreat, Diana gave us two informative presentations about writing. One of these was about engaging characters, and I thought I’d share some of the things I learned. Buckle up–I’m about to lay a lot of information on you!
Getting a reader engaged with your characters is of paramount importance. Without an emotional connection, the reader is likely to put the story down. It doesn’t matter how clever or exciting the plot might be; people want to identify with the characters, whether it be loving them/wanting to be them, hating them, or a combination of the two.
Let’s start with some examples of likeable qualities we can give our characters. I’m sure you can think of even more.
- Redemption: If the character doesn’t ever show any redeeming qualities or hints that they’re going to improve, you’ll lose them. Going out of their way to help someone is an endearing quality.
- Justification: Give them a good reason to do what they’re doing. Something that the character believes in will hook the reader, for instance. Don’t info dump, though. Slow reveal, dribble bits of it here and there, so the reader’s always looking for more.
- Make sure your character shows likeable qualities; but only part of the time. (All the time is too much). The bad stuff, the character needs to own it.
- Competence is a big one. We like watching people who are good at what they do. Consider James Bond: he’s a violent psychopath who doesn’t particularly respect women, trashes nearly every piece of equipment he’s given, and kills indiscriminately. But he’s really good at what he does, and we love him for it.
- Have your character do things readers can identify with. Let readers live out their fantasies through the character, things they would never do in real life. Think vigilantes, etc.
- Make them someone who smiles through the pain. Despite angst, they keep going, no whining.
- They should make attempts to be good every once in a while. This doesn’t mean they’re just generally ‘good guys’… I’m talking about actual conscious choice to do something abnormally ‘good’. This is that little thing Taylor likes to call “Save the Cat”.
- The character should recognize their own failings on some level; maybe not enough to change, but maybe enough to wish they could change.
So now you have a bunch of ideas about what qualities your likable characters might have. Think about them, and take a week or so to put them together with some of your characters. Next time, I’ll tell you about some unlikeable qualities, and how to get them across to your readers.