Today, I’m delighted to welcome Angela Ackerman to the blog. She’s an insightful writer and blogger who is the coauthor of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. In today’s tip, she talks about how you can create characters that hook a reader’s heart. (And check out below how you can win an electronic copy of The Emotion Thesaurus.)
Who Are You: Characters That Stand Out To Readers by Angela Ackerman
There has always been a debate on what is more important–plot or characters. For a long time, I stood on the PLOT side of things, because I felt that it was my cool plot twists and turns that kept readers glued to the page. Characters were just the people populating my world, the ones I did things to for the to story work.
And, well, I was wrong.
The more I thought about what makes a great read, the more I came back to characters. If you think about the stories you loved and the books that made you forget to eat or workout or walk the dog…what about them stays with you? Do you wish you could read more of the same plot, or more of the characters?
I’m not saying that plot and world building aren’t important, because they are. But it is the characters readers connect to and root for, and this happens because of one very important word: EMPATHY.
When characters are unique, well-rounded and familiar in some way, we connect with them. We empathize with what they are going through, become tense when trouble hits and relax when they emerge in one piece. We care what happens to them, because our emotions are engaged.
So how do we build strong characters that command our attention?
Create Empathy Through Action, Not Circumstance
Some writers try to use hardship as a way to elicit reader empathy: characters who are kicked around, impoverished, have some sort of physical disability or handicap. Stories start out with dead parents, being moved across the country, losing a job or discovering a spouse was cheating. At times, this technique can have an overused feel if it touches on a too-common plot theme (like moving to a new town in Middle Grade or YA Fiction). Readers might feel sympathy for what the character is dealing with, but they might also grow bored or impatient because they have seen this scenario before.
What pulls a reader in and makes them care is to see how the character acts despite hardship. The actions that they take regardless of their circumstances is what we find compelling. If a character is a frazzled mess after discovering his spouse gone and a Dear John note dropped on his nightstand, and yet he manages to shove hurt aside and make his shift at the TeenDistressCallCenter, that makes us care. That is what causes us to root for him.
Understand What Came Before
The character’s life did not begin on page one, so we need to spend some time thinking about their past. What events and traumas shaped them? What happened to them that left them feeling utterly helpless and weak? Who let them down in life, and who built them up? What marked them, wounded them? How do these past events now influence their personality and behavior?
We all try to avoid the hurts of the past, and to keep bad things from repeating. Thinking about who and what hurt your character will help you understand how they behave now to emotionally protect themselves.
Give Them Flaws, Self Doubt & Let Them Make Mistakes
People are unique, and characters must be as well, but that doesn’t mean they should be foreign to the reader. We are all flawed and expect to see faults in others. If a character is too perfect and too confident, they won’t feel real. Showing a character’s shortcomings makes them feel more authentic and rounded. We empathize when we see another’s flaws and watch them make mistakes. It is a reminder of our own imperfections.
YOUR TURN! How do you create complex characters worth rooting for? What ways do you help them to stand out to readers? Tell me in the comments!
About the author. Angela Ackerman is a Canadian who writes on the darker side of Middle Grade and Young Adult. A strong believer in writers helping writers, she blogs at the award winning resource, The Bookshelf Muse and is co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression. Angela is represented by Jill Corcoran of The Herman Agency.
About the book: The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression is a writer’s best friend, helping to navigate the challenging terrain of showing character emotion. This brainstorming tool explores seventy-five emotions and provides a large selection of body language, internal sensations, actions and thoughts associated with each. Written in an easy-to-navigate list format, readers can draw inspiration from character cues that range in intensity to match any emotional moment.
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