By Kerstin Wolf
Pacing, plot, and voice all play a massive role in creating an unforgettable novel. Just as important as all of that though are the characters. If anything, I would argue that strong, relatable characters are the single most important part of a novel. Without interesting characters that readers can relate to, the book is forgettable. Think of your favorite book. While you may love the book for a number of reasons, I would bet that you really liked at least one of the characters. Heck, I plan on naming one of my future kids after a character in my favorite book of all time! Characters are important, and one of the things I’ve noticed a lot as of late while reading manuscripts is that the characters aren’t able to hold their own. The whole story suffers if the characters aren’t strong enough. For that reason, this blog post has come to be! In this article, I hope to address some of the key aspects to a great character.
Relatable characters are massively important in fiction. What I mean by relatable is that the readers can feel some kind of connection between themselves and the character. It’s vital that there is connection because without it, readers may not care about the character and what happens to them. The goal is to have readers feel as if they are living in this world that you have created and that what is happening to the protagonist or the other characters feels like it’s actually happening to them or their friends. This connection with the readers can be as small as a human connection. If readers can’t relate to the character’s occupation or situation, then they at least need to be able to relate to the character’s emotions or thoughts. A character doesn’t have to be exactly like the readers to be relatable. For example, let’s say that there is a character that is a wizard and a mad scientist. Just because most readers are not likely to be mad scientists or wizards doesn’t mean that they can’t relate to this character. Perhaps the character doesn’t have many friends. This character is then relatable to anyone who has ever felt lonely.
Another thing that I have learned over the years is that dialogue and character reactions play a massive role in relatability. Nothing causes me to lose interest in a character faster than one that talks and acts like a robot (unless the character is in fact supposed to be a robot). Stiff dialogue is a surefire way to distance readers from the characters. Similarly, if a character’s family was just murdered and yet the character doesn’t even blink an eye, readers won’t be able to connect. When crafting characters, keep an extra close eye on these things. If your beta readers are struggling to feel concerned when the protagonist is surrounded by flesh-eating zombies, it may be because the character just isn’t relatable enough.
Every character needs to have a motivation of some sort. Every real person has a goal or dream that they wish to one day achieve. Similarly, if a person punches someone in the face, there probably was a reason for it. Just like real people, realistic characters need to have motivations that drive them as well. A real person wouldn’t rob a bank for no reason, so a character shouldn’t do that either. If you notice that your story is dragging even though there are back-to-back action scenes, it may be due to your characters not having a motivation to drive them forward and in turn move to plot forward.
Characters needs to be likable. Now, I don’t mean that every character needs to be a kind person who is always looking out for the underdogs and volunteers every chance they get. I don’t mean that at all. A character can be a raging alcoholic whose life is in shambles and still be likable. That actually describes Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities to a T! Sydney’s life is in utter disarray and he’s honestly a jerk most of the time, but he is the most likable and human character in the entire book. Why? Because he is flawed and broken, but he still cares about some things (although there are very few); and in the end, you have to respect the decision he makes. There just has to be something there, whether it be respect or understanding or something different all together, that keep readers wanting to read more about the character.
Even villains can be likable. We all have our favorite villain from a book or movie. Why do you like that specific villain so much? It’s probably not because they have a glittering conscience and a heart of gold. It may be because they are devious and manipulative or brutal and insane or cruel and calculating. None of these are admirable traits, but they all make up the perfect villains that we love to hate.
So remember these three points the next time you’re crafting characters. Characters have the power to affect what emotions the readers feel, how quickly the book seems to go by, how readers perceive the world you created, and if the book will be one that the reader remembers. If you never forget reliability, motivation, and likability, then your characters will be jumping off the page in no time!