When I’m reading a book, I want the characters to come to life between the pages. I want to know what they look like, see their quirky habits, hear their voices in my head. I want to know what motivates them and what keeps them awake at night. For readers to invest in a story, they need to have a meaningful connection with the characters.
Of course, readers meet characters at the beginning of the story, before they’ve fought the dragon, fallen in love, lost their best friend, or whatever challenges we, the writers, will throw at them. But if we craft our story well, readers will want to follow those characters into battle, watch them strive and fail and strive some more. If a reader feels compelled to laugh, cry, cringe, or yell at our characters during the course of the journey, we’re doing our job. They’re invested!
So, how can we effectively bring our characters to life on the page, give them depth, and invite our readers to care deeply about them? Here are some suggestions to think about:
1. Know your character inside and out.
When I mentor younger writers, I have them create a detailed character sketch for their main characters, both the heroes and the villains, and a slightly less detailed one for the supporting cast. I have my students consider everything from physical characteristics and habits, to history and family make-up, to whether that character would make their bed in the morning or not! As a writer, I have to know my characters intimately so that I can effectively and strategically reveal them to the reader throughout the story.
2. Reveal a character’s flaws.
Readers don’t like perfect characters. They aren’t interesting or relatable. Sometimes a character will have a pretty big flaw, or they will suffer a Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi crisis of faith, but sometimes subtle works in storytelling too. Are they cranky in the morning? Do they chew their fingernails when they’re nervous? Do they have trouble articulating their feelings? Create opportunities to show your character’s relatable humanity.
3. Bring authenticity to your character’s experiences.
Find places in your storytelling where you can draw from personal experience. When readers meet the female protagonist in my sci-fi series, she’s alone and on the run in the wilderness. I’ve done a good bit of camping and hiking, and I grew up in a rural area, so the scenes where she finds water, builds a fire, forages for food, or carves wooden utensils ring particularly true. These are things I’ve actually done. But, I’ve never flown a spaceship, and there’s a good bit of that in my story as well! The key, when you’re jumping into unfamiliar territory with a character whose personality or life is quite different from your own, is research. I watched a ton of flight simulator programs, researched dogfight scenarios, and actually talked to military pilots. They could tell me if my male lead character’s behavior, language, and even his feelings in the moment felt authentic. Readers know when a writer hasn’t done their homework!
4. Challenge your character.
If everything went along smoothly for our characters, there would be no story at all, or a very boring one. When a character is under stress, or forced to make a gut decision, or has their beliefs challenged, or suffers any number of trials that we, the writer, throw their way, then they have more of an opportunity to evolve. The story’s arc and the character’s developmental arc are intrinsically linked. Every time we push the plot forward with dynamic action, we have the opportunity to reveal our character in more depth and show their growth.
5. Balance your character’s inner life with the plot action.
I write speculative fiction, which tends to be more plot-heavy than, say, literary fiction. But in any story, there’s a time to take a break from the action. These moments are often an opportunity to witness a character’s self-reflection. A character’s own inner voice, even when the story is told in the third person, is a powerful window into their soul. In one of my scenes, the male protagonist is returning from a deep-cover mission, reflecting on the things he’s had to do in the field: “He wondered if he sacrificed a piece of himself each time. Or if maybe that darker side clung to him like a layer of dirt, seeping into the cracks of his skin. He allowed the water to run over his body until it practically scaled him.”
Even with plot driven narratives, readers need to connect with the characters, and understand their motives, dreams, and fears. As writers, it’s our job to make it happen!