Monday, March 30, 2015

Three Ways To Build Characters That We Will Relate To, Love, and Cheer For

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

When Frozen was still in the theater, we took our kids. At age six, McKenna was the perfect age to fall in love with a story, and did she ever. McKenna was instantly obsessed to the point that we sometimes had to initiate rules like, "No talking about Frozen for the next fifteen minutes."

To understand how McKenna's obsession relates to today's topic of crafting characters we identify with, I need to tell you what was happening in our home at that time:

A few weeks before we saw the movie, we had learned that our (then) three-year-old son had epilepsy. One night, dinner was interrupted by Connorwho was sitting across the table from McKennastarting a seizure. We dropped everything to rush him to the hospital, where he had to be sedated before the seizure would stop. A nurse rushed McKenna to another room to distract her with TV, and then we had to call grandparents to come pick her up because Connor was admitted to the hospital for observation.

Over Christmas, we experienced long periods of time where Connor made strange vocal outbursts and didn't seem to know who we were. Once McKenna was supposed to have a friend over, but we ended up back in the ER instead. On Christmas day, present opening was interrupted by yet another seizure. I could go on with more examples, but I think you get the point. Life was confusing, and it revolved around Connor.

So while all her friends walked away from Frozen singing "Let it go" and pretending to have ice powers, McKenna connected deeply with Anna. And as I watch the movie again (and again, and again, and again) with her, it's easy to see why. The parents who are always hovering around Elsa? Anna, off playing by herself, and she doesn't totally understand why? All those closed doors? Of course McKenna related to Anna's character.

McKenna as "coronation day Anna" for Halloween.

How do we do the same thing in our stories? How do we create a character that our readers will recognize themselves in? How do we make those characters not just someone readers can relate to, but also someone from whom they can borrow strength?

Here are three ideas:


Sympathetic situations

I'll keep going with Frozen since most of you have probably seen it and because I feel they did this exceptionally well with the sisters. (If you haven't seen it, I'm going to spoil the ending, so...)

Anna is lonely and there are secrets being kept from her. We know what it's like to be lonely, right? Maybe we even know the hurt of having secrets kept from us. Because of Anna's sympathetic situation, we understand her lapses in judgment like getting engaged to a man she's only known one day.

But Elsa's situation is very sympathetic too. She's also lonely, and there's something about her body that she didn't choose and that she can't control. If Connor were a bit older, I think he would connect very strongly with Elsa because he would recognize the truths of her struggle in his own life.

To borrow from another movie that many of you have probably seen, Guardians of the Galaxy opens with a young boy, our main character, losing his mother to (I'm guessing) cancer. This is a remarkable way to open a sci-fi movie. Instead of just plopping us into the weird, we see something familiar to usif we haven't yet lost someone close to us, we dread the day we doand already we feel deeply connected to Peter. I've yet to make it through that scene without crying.

Apply it to your manuscript: What universal emotion is your character experiencing in the opening of the book? Don't be afraid to make that clear and strong.

Sacrifice

A character who makes a sacrifice for someone else instantly wins a reader's love. You can use a character's sacrifice as a way to not only deepen your reader's affection for the character, but also as a way to encourage your reader to live a noble life.

Elsa chooses loneliness because of her love for Anna and her fear of hurting others. That's a great sacrifice for her. On the flip side, when Anna sees that Elsa is about to be killed, she chooses to save her sister instead of herself.

Jill did this beautifully in her medieval fantasy book By Darkness Hid with her main character, Achan. More than anything, Achan wants to marry Gren, but when Gren's safety is at stake, he sets aside his dream of being with her and instead convinces Gren's father to give her in marriage to someone else as a way of protecting her.

Apply it to your manuscript: Does your main character sacrifice something? If not, can they?

Tenacity

In real life, we admire people who work hard for something worthwhile and achieve their goal. We love that in stories too. A character's ability to stick-to-it creates a tight bond with the reader.

Anna sets out by herself to find Elsa. She doesn't let snow, strangers, wolves, cliffs, or even Elsa get in her way. McKenna once told me that she likes Anna because her super power is love, and we see that in the choices Anna makes to achieve her goal.

It's also why we love Samwise from Lord of the Rings, because not only does he stick with the difficult road, he encourages his friend along the way.

Apply it to your manuscript: Do you show your character sticking with something that's hard? Have you made their struggle difficult enough?

Think about one of your favorite characters. Do they have a sympathetic situation? Do they sacrifice something for something greater? When the going gets tough, do they stick with their goal? What's something else about that character that draws you to them?






32 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for this post, Stephanie! I have had a hard time really brining the relation and depth to my main character, but this post has helped me a lot! :)

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    1. I'm so glad, Mickayla! I like the word brining for the process of developing a character. It's very applicable :)

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  2. What a great post. I think I've got the tenacity and sympathetic situation down, but I should probably insert some sort of sacrifice my MC makes that would make readers want to stick with her through the story.

    Just a thought--could these three character "needs" be each act of a novel? Like, Act 1 you open the story with MC's sympathetic situation, Act 2 shows MC making a sacrifice to go on his journey, and Act 3 shows MC pressing on despite hardships. Would that work? Just curious.

    Thanks, Mrs. Morrill!

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    1. Linea, you could certainly highlight each of those things in an act. Most stories have the "pressing on despite hardships" in act two and the sacrifice in act three, but every story has different needs.

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  3. One of my favorite characters that I wrote is Dorlin Hull, the MC in the fantasy I'm working on. He's a royal assassin working for the Emperor, the one who killed his parents in an arson: only thing is that the Emperor can bend minds and warp memories and he's made Dorlin believe that the elves started the fire. Early on Dorlin is terrified of flames because of that very reason, and that he hates the Emperor and is filled with anger. What makes it worse is that Dorlin is a Flameweaver but he doesn't know it, and his hands and body erupt on fire randomly. Sometimes he can control it, and other times he can't, but because he doesn't embrace the power, whenever this happens it hurts. A lot.
    This creates a lot of sympathy, and Dorlin does stick with his goal, which is taking stopping his rival who has come back from the dead from killing the Emperor, even though he soon discovers the Emperor *is* the enemy. I should put in a sacrifice somewhere in there. Dear, I've been ranting. Thanks, Mrs. Morril!

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    1. someone with pyrophobia and firepowers? Now that's just mean...and genius!

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    2. That sounds like a neat story, Jonathan!

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  4. This, this, this. My pet peeve especially regarding this is when characters don't have to work for anything (*coughcough* Harry Potter *coughcough*), because I want to see them struggle to get what they want; I want to see them have to sacrifice and pay for it. My favorites are usually the ones that really do have to work, and give things up, and don't have an easy time of it.

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    1. I wholeheartedly agree.

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    2. The struggle is something that really endears me to a character/story as well. I'm not as big of a fan in real life :)

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  5. This post has not only made me think about my characters but myself as well... I will be praying for you and your son and your entire family. I have been going through a very hard time a certain diagnosis... And I realized that I can relate to Elsa very deeply as well and maybe that's why I wanted to see more of her in the movie... And I feel that I attach myself to those characters with deep fears and who feel isolated becuase I can feel that way sometimes... Thank you for speaking about this Mrs. Morril. I don't know why but this post has really touched me... :):)

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    1. You're so sweet, Melody. Thank you for the prayers :) Our day-to-day life is much better than it was a year ago.

      I'm glad the post meant something to you beyond writing. I'm so sorry you're going through such a difficult time :(

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  6. Your kids are too adorable :)

    I absolutely love when I can relate to characters. It forms this attachment between me and that character, helps me to sympathize with him/her better, and gets me more invested in the story. I think the best example of this was when I read your Ellie Sweet books. I have NEVER sympathized better with a character. Everything she was feeling and going through...I don't know. I guess I'd just felt the same way a lot of times--except for the whole love triangle thing. Can't say I've experienced that.

    Thank you for this awesome post! By the way, Anna is my favorite character in Frozen. :D

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    1. Oh, you're so sweet, Ally! I'm touched to hear you feel that way about Ellie :) She was hard to write in that she felt like a much more personal character than I had ever written. It's always nice when the work pays off.

      And I adore Anna, Partly because I adore Kristen Bell, I think :)

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  7. I'm so glad sacrifice made it onto this list. It just doesn't show up in books as much as it used to do a hundred or so years ago, but it's still really important. If the hero has to actually give up something the story really matters to readers instead of being just another cool adventure. And besides, it gives readers all those great feels!

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    1. Agreed. It's a hard thing to do to a character, but you're right that it pays off big time!

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  8. Ah, you ask about a favorite character with a sympathetic situation? I could probably mention a few... More than a few... Nonetheless, I'll pick Lady Daylily from Anne Elisabeth Stengl's Tales of Goldstone Wood. She always looks like she has it all together. She's the daughter of a baron, she's stunning, she's brilliant, she's talented, she's witty, she has the whole of the court of Southlands falling for her! But she struggles with something that no one can see, and it is tearing her apart from the inside out... Spoilers! :P

    And I'm so glad that you mentioned Samwise Gamgee! He's one of my all-time favorite characters, and one of the ones that I would just love to sit down and have a chat with. Maybe he'd have a few tips for my various plants. But I think that the fact that he's so very loyal to Frodo is what draws us to him. He's certainly one of my favorites. :)

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    1. I think that's exactly what it is. That depth of relationship is so rare in our lives.

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  9. Your kids are adorable. Hope everyone in your house is doing okay!
    I'm so glad you put sacrifice on here. It's one of my favourite points for characters, and I really like the tenacious ones, but giving something up makes the collection of words real. It drives me crazy in books if the sacrifice gets turned back around. The consequences have to be there for the character, no matter what they gained. Maybe I'm too pessimistic.

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    1. Thank you, Kelsey! We're certainly much better than we were a year ago.

      I'm fascinated that you get mad if the consequences of the sacrifice get turned around. Does it bother you in Disney movies too (Frozen, Beauty and the Beast, and Tangled all have that) or does that feel like a different category?

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    2. I was a little vague, sorry. Turn around is good so long as we can see the impression that near sacrifice left on the character. Most movies/books get that right but some don't.

      Does that make sense? In particular with movies we see at the ending how things have changed in the character's life. They don't dust everything under the rug, even in Disney, but let it change them. Rapunzel forever valued freedom because she came close to losing it all, and Anna continued to love her sister because she'd made the ultimate sacrifice to prove the point. Movies can be depended on for that. I read plenty of books where the character almost has no clue what happened to them a dozen pages ago. The sacrifice never taught them the value of what they came close to losing. They move on, unaffected.

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    3. Ah, I see what you mean. Thanks for explaining! I'm always interested in reader reactions :)

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  10. I have got a character with abandonment issues. Neither of his parents really paid much attention to him and neither did the other people around him. The task everyone wanted him to do was accomplished in his first day of life.

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    1. I think that's a great sympathetic situation.

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  11. Ooh, this post is brilliant. It is so important for readers to relate to and care about characters, because if they don't, the plot won't matter to them. I'm not really sure if my MC for my current WIP is in a sympathetic situation. She is being in a role that at first she didn't want to take (kind of like Bilbo), but I'm not sure if that's sympathetic. However, she does have tenacity and she makes a HUGE sacrifice at the end of the book.

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    1. It sounds like you've done a great job, Ana!

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  12. I always love rooting for the underdog.

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  13. Great post! I will be another to thank you for including Sam for tenacity. He would be perfect for sacrifice too. And Frodo would be even better, and fit tenacity too. The military show the same depths of selfless love and sacrifice these two do. What inspirations! I think of Luke Skywalker too risking his life and soul to come to his father in the hope of returning him to the side of light. And of Anakin's sacrificing his life to save his son. I have woven some elements of sacrifice in my own WIP.

    Praying for your son and your family!

    God bless, Anne Marie :)

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  14. Great post! I've definitely got a sympathetic situation (he's an orphan and a foster kid) and a sacrifice (hard to explain without telling you the entire story), but tenacity isn't exactly my MC's strong suit, lol. Still, I'll definitely be looking for ways to add that in.
    Also, I haven't even read By Darkness Hid, but just based on this post, I think I already love Achan. Because, oh that is beautiful!


    Alexa
    thessalexa.blogspot.com

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  15. This is such a wonderful and practical post. I think sometimes I can get too caught up in trying to figure out plot and stuff without really considering how it affects the character as a person or the reader's view of the character.

    I also agree that sacrifice is something that usually makes a book a five-star for me. And also ends up making me cry. It's such a beautiful and admirable thing when done right. :)

    Thank you for the thought-provoking post!

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