Friday, February 27, 2015

Write Characters Worth Caring About

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a focus on youth and young adult ministry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

I finished reading a book recently. It was an exceptional book. Well-written. Clever. Unique.

From all appearances, the author accomplished what she set out to do, but you know what? I didn't really like it. And here's why:

I didn't care about a single character.

Not the protagonist. Not the antagonist. Not the sidekick.

It's certainly possible that other readers felt differently--likes and dislikes are a tricky thing--but this book forced me to think about why I fall in love with certain stories and why I don't.

While story worlds can make or break a tale, it's the characters that compel emotion from me. Either I connect or I don't.

In Blake Snyder's book, Save the Cat, he says this:

 
So how do we do that? How do we create characters that are worth caring about? A few ideas:

Show your character doing something noble. Snyder calls this the Save the Cat scene. Early on, you can pen a moment in which your character does something that endears him to the reader. He can save a cat from a tree or help an old lady carry in her groceries. She can stand up to a bully or rebuild something that was broken. Whatever it is, it must scream, THIS CHARACTER IS WORTH YOUR TIME!

Show your character struggling. We all struggle. Our characters should too. It helps readers connect when they can identify with the imperfections in your fictional people. It keeps the pretend real. But don't just tell us what your lead struggles with. SHOW us. Write that struggle in. How does she deal with it? Does she fail every time? Maybe the struggle is another person. Maybe it's internal. Show us.

Show your character is redeemable. This is especially important if you're going the antihero route. An antihero is a lead character who lacks conventional heroic attributes. Maybe your character is not brave or kind or noble or fearless, but you must show your character to be worthy of the fictional air you've pumped into his lungs. If your readers do not care whether your lead lives or dies, you've missed something somewhere.

Show your character is special. While there is a desperate need in all of us to be normal, there is also this warring notion that somehow, some way we must also be special. Where does your character find herself in relation to this? Does she feel TOO special? Is she attempting to hide her uniqueness? Or is she trying to find what makes her different from everyone else? Maybe she's trying to master her special gift? Like Spidey learning how to shoot webs. Opening up this struggle to the reader will endear us to your lead.

Now, it's not necessary to show ALL of these things about every character, but making the effort to endear your readers to the main characters will pay off in one simple way. They'll keep turning the pages. They'll HAVE TO KNOW what happens.

They'll care.

And in that way, you've spun a little magic.

Tell me, what makes you care about a character?

52 comments:

  1. I love it when a character shows kindness, like you mentioned in #1. Now that I'm editing, I'm trying to figure out where I can stick some kindness in, where the kindness will actually have something to do with the story. Thanks, Mrs. Dittemore!

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  2. I love the antihero type character when it's done right. It's just all the more satisfying when you're character is finally redeemed, I think.

    Thank you for the tips, Mrs. Dittemore. I recently had to read Death of a Salesman for school, and it was so easy to peg why I didn't like it. The characters. I didn't like them, therefore I couldn't sympathize with them. Therefore the rollercoaster ride of emotions I'm supposed to feel when bad things happen to them wasn't there. :(

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    1. That's how I felt about Wuthering Heights. Lots of people enjoyed it, but I hated all the characters, so no rollercoaster.

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  3. My hero is noble, in a way I suppose, and certainly brave and fearless, even though it takes his a while slay his fear of fire. But not kind. His Assassin training took that out of him. But in a sense, he feels compelled to help the people who need it. This stems from the way his parents died, in a ruthless arson, and whenever he sees someone bullied or the likes, he sees his past and comes to their aid. Perhaps I should show this early on.

    I love the anti-hero type too. So much better when you see they have a glimmer of good in them after all.

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    1. I like that idea, Jonathan. In my WIP, one of my main characters is also an assassin. In the opening scene of the book, he is hard and cold but I show him doing one semi-kind thing (though for the wrong reasons), and I've had several of my early readers comment that that was the moment that they began rooting for the character. It doesn't have to be a big moment, but it does help.

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    2. Kewl! I really like your ideas! In my WIP, I have an assassin who has a soft spot for orphans. I find contrasting the likeable side to the dark side really makes your character interesting.
      Example: The most wanted person in his country saves abandoned animals. A retrieval specialist, hitter, who loves to cook. An assassin who would jump in front of a bomb to save a seven-year-old boy she doesn't even know. As long as it works with backstory, these types of characters are my favorite.

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    3. I love that you're dissecting your characters, Jonathan. Only good can come from knowing your characters!

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    4. Thanks, Anonymous. Yes, contrasting the dark side to the good is wonderful. An assassin with a soft spot for orphans? I'm intrigued. I'd love to read your book.
      Tricia, I'm considering showing my MC, Dorlin Hull, doing a semi-kind thing. I'm in the plotting stage, though I have written a few chapters before in various versions, but when pantsing it's nice to have a small sense of where one is heading, so I'm using the first few steps of the Snowflake Method to sense the path ahead. Harder than I thought. Anyway, thanks again. :)

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    5. And yes Mrs. Dittemore, only good can come from dissecting your characters :). Words of wisdom.

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  4. Getting attached to characters through writing and reading is good. I've read a couple of books that-to me-- didn't seem all that well written but I got attached to the characters so that helped me enjoy it a little. Thanks for the post! :-)

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  5. THIS POST WAS PERFECTLY TIMED! I'm redoing the first chapter of five of my POV's, and I've been looking around for this kind of post. Showing a redeemable side to characters is important. I didn't do it to my anti-hero the first time around *winces*. It didn't go so well ...

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  6. I love characters that make me want to give them a big hug. *cough*Jace*cough* I really don't know if my characters are endearing. I mean, I love them, but will others? How will I know this?

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    1. Oh, yes, Jace! Seriously, the poor guy needs major hug time (though it would probably make him hugely uncomfortable).

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    2. It can be difficult to know if you've nailed this. A couple things to keep in mind: have you done some of the things I listed above? Even in a modified way, they can be helpful. Also, when your story (or portions of it) is ready for feedback, find a writer pal or two to read it for you and let you know their thoughts. As them directly, did you care about my characters? Why or why not?

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    3. I loved your characters when I read the first chapters of your story in the critique group, Alea. Mrs. Dittemore is right, it can be tough to nail it. Trust your instincts :).

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  7. Wow, perfect timing! I've been taking a peek at my current characters to make the final chapters go along smoothly! Are you a super special mind reader? = )
    Characters who question what they can do or what they are doing really appeal to me, especially the ones who call out flaws in the world logic, i.e. 'Why am I running around for this?'. Like Mackie in 'The Replacement' and Simon in 'Mortal Instruments'.

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    1. I DO have mind reading powers. It happens when you become a mom! ;)

      Characters who question things are awesome! Very good point!

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  8. This is a really great post! I've read several books which were technically good but that I couldn't get into because there was no character connection. I connect the most when the main female has something or someone she really wants but is willing to give it up for the happiness of a friend or family.

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    1. Oh yes! The sacrificial lead! That's HUGE! A very redeemable quality!

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  9. I'm going to be using this in my current book! My MC definitely has struggle, and im trying to show it, not tell it. I'm making my villains also human, so ppl deal they aren't too evil, becaus always having a total evil villain seems unrealistic and redundant.

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  10. Characters that we can like, sympathize and connect with are so important in books. Of course, a good plot can also help make a wonderful book, but without likable characters, the reader isn't going to care what happens to them. I think these are great tips. In some cases I have a hard time with making my characters have flaws and be likable at the same time, but these tips should help.

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  11. Thank you for this post! I'm brainstorming a book right now, so it came at a good time.

    One of the things that makes me really really care about a character is that I feel something about them, their hopes and hearts, in addition to their circumstances. Sometimes a book can be brilliantly plotted and well written and have a nice sympathetic situation for the MC, and while I'll like the novel and might have enjoyed the ideas explored, if I didn't feel like I truly knew the MC as an irreplaceable individual, I probably didn't love the book until its cover was halfway fallen off. Which isn't to say I demand utterly unique noncomformist characters... some of my favorite books have "normal" people at the center (like a nice teen girl) doing something for the usual reasons (like fighting evil to save a younger sibling.)

    I guess what makes me care about them goes back to your point about showing the struggle instead of telling it: if the author portrays a teenager in all their strength and insecurity, and convinces me that the younger sibling matters desperately to the girl, then I'll totally love the MC. But if the MC is just fighting evil and saving a sibling because That's What Good People Do, I'll be less in love. (Well, if That's What Good People Do is a mantra at the heart of the MC's value-centered worldview, then I bet I'd still be smitten, so I suppose what it boils down to a book being populated with that kinda nebulous term "real characters." )

    However, I'm also the type of reader who is happy with meandering books if there's an interesting character to hang with, and the kind of writer who finds character stuff easier than these pesky things called structured plots, so I'm pickier about "caring about the characters" than say, my dad, who loves fantastic and intricate political thrillers in which characters...play a part, and that's that. But that's generally how characters in very action-y stories are. I think some of this stuff is subjective preference.

    Wow, I got a bit carried away. Sorry. Again, this is a great post!

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    1. I rather like being carried away. ;) I agree with you. Books with intriguing main characters earn the reader's permission to meander more than others.

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  12. This is very helpful... My characters are real, funny, caring, brave in my head, I can see them in my head because I've created them. My worry is that they aren't real, funny, caring, brave in the story itself. In the actual writing, do my words scream their personalities? I'm not really sure how to tell for sure or not because I know them really really well. I'll have to go through and work with this! Thanks! (P.S, do you have any epic writery excersize that can help you add this into writing? Or a way to make it all weave together well in a prompt type of thing?:)

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    1. I can totally sympathize. I always have this problem. I positively love so many of my MC's; to me they are the most amusing and fulfilling company. Yet when I tell others about my characters, everyone's like, "Mmh." Not impressed. Makes me wonder how they truly seem in my written words. If I convey them anything close to how I know them. It's actually a little bit sad. I feel my characters deserve to be loved by more than one person--besides each other, that is.

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    2. We can be blind to our character's faults, but I find a writing friend, even if they're invested in the characters, will be able to tell you everything honestly, as long as you trust them to give an honest opinion.

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    3. I DO have a fabulous showing exercise, Emma! I'll blog about it soon. Maybe we'll do a contest or something.

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    4. Nice! Love contests and writing prompts! So much fun! (kinda nice to get out of that 'I'm stuck in this story' rut for a bit! :) and for Anonymous, I have TON'S of writing pals that I've linked up with to get feedback and stuff and that is quite helpful for that sorta thing! (thanks for mentioning it though!) I do find that my characters flaws are for sure present in the story itself, but the question is, do the quirks that I see them do actually appear there present in the story, or are my characters coming off as big snobs and aren't actually as likeable to everybody else as they are to me. Think that I'm starting to learn the ropes of characterization though, didn't realize how important it was until my second draft. Hoping to breathe some more into their flesh, thanks for all of the tips!) Oh, I have one more thing, stubborn characters are VERY hard to write. (you know, the kinds that refuse to talk to you and clog up your brain? Yeah that kind!) Actually though, if you can pull it off, they come off as the most believeable characters in stories I've read, (or so I've found) they actually are easier to show their thought process. Just something for your brains to chew on! (and P.S.S, I LOVE WRITING CONTESTS! Just the gratification of having someone else read my writing is astounding! :) Thanks for all you do! :)

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    5. Thanks for the advice, Anonymous! Thank God, I do have my writer-friends with whom I can share my work, but what I meant by "others" was my non-writer friends. Because after all, likely the majority of those who read my story (if anyone ever will) will be--well, simply readers, not writers. I hope I am NOT blind to my character's flaws... I always try make sure my characters have a good balance of vice and virtue in them. Because honestly, perfect characters are hard, if not impossible, to pull off without readers rolling their eyes.

      And I love contests too!! Thanks for this great article, Mrs. Dittemore.

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    6. I like the idea of a contest!

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    7. Yes Hanan, I agree with you! :)

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  13. My favorite characters are the broken ones. The ones that have lost everything or have everything to lose, but they're brave through it all.

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    1. Do you have any advice on how to get past a I-know-what's-going-to-happen-next-but-I-really-don't-want-to-write-it writer's block? In other words, I'm working on a story and I know what's going to happen next, but something is keeping me back from writing those scenes. Do you have any suggestions? Maybe tips on how to make it a little more interesting to write? Because if it's boring to write it's going to boring to read.

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    2. If you are not invested in those scenes, they will turn on you, but you can try: reading similar scenes you've written, take a break and write what you want to write, listen to music putting you into the mood. These are general tips that may not fit your circumstances. If you can't work it out in a few days, I would suggest going to your writing friend who knows enough about your story to help brainstorm.

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    3. Broken characters are real. I dig it.

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    4. The only thing better than a broken character is one who has overcome their brokenness.

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  14. I've only started on my new story- just one good sit-and-write so far - but the MC has got me worrying. I should weave in a fear or two to compensate for her over-confidence in herself. :) My last MC was SO unsure of herself, so I don't know how this one will work out, but we'll see. Thanks you for the post!

    http://teensliveforjesus.blogspot.ru

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    1. Remember, you don't have to nail all these things in the first draft. Or even the second. Write in whatever way works best for you, but in your editing process, don't forget to consider how a reader will connect with your characters.

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  15. Making my main characters likeable is a huge problem of mine! I normally end up loving the sidekick much better. I wonder why, any ideas on how to make the main character the highlight?!

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    1. When I have this problem I usually end up giving the sidekick a POV, but without knowing your situation I have no clue what advice to give you. General advice is to find out what qualities you like in your sidekicks that the mc is missing. If you are having trouble with your mc, make sure you are letting your mc show you who they are instead of forming them. If you have a clear idea who your mc is, but still are having trouble you might be forcing your mc into a place they don't want to be. Still, this advice may be worthless because I have no idea the circumstances surrounding your story.

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    2. Sidekicks are often easier to love because we don't feel the same obligation to GET THEM RIGHT. We can play with their personalities a bit without affecting the overall thrust of the story. It's important to give yourself this kind of permission in regards to your main characters as well. Especially during the drafting phase. Let yourself be playful. Try new things. You may like your character a little more.

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  16. I show little things that make readers connect. A disability, a desire to become something else or something readers take for granted the character never had.

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    1. You're doing things right. Little things add up to make the best characters.

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  17. Huh. I'm with you all on the redeemability (not an actual word...) of characters. Why do you guys think that is? I mean, we all obviously find that attractive, right, and who ever heard of it being attractive to have a really delicate character with a hidden tough spot???

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  18. I totally agree! The characters are always the most important element to me!
    My favorite characters are often antiheroes, or people who just seem to have gaps in their stories. Like there's so much more to them than meets the eye.


    Alexa S. Winters
    thessalexa.blogspot.com

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  19. I totally agree! The characters are always the most important element to me!
    My favorite characters are often antiheroes, or people who just seem to have gaps in their stories. Like there's so much more to them than meets the eye.


    Alexa S. Winters
    thessalexa.blogspot.com

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