We’ve seen it happen – you start reading a book, the characters make you go, “Wow. I have to see how their story ends,” and onward you read. Your characters make or break your story. Because if the reader can’t adopt, love, cheer on, or however you want to put it, when they meet the characters, chances are too good they won’t be able to get into the story.
That last book I read, Beyond the Bright Sea, the story, while good, was nothing mind-blowing or super unique. But the main character was everything I wanted to see in her. She made her story unique. She made her story special. She made me want to read the book. That’s the power of an author who fashions real, believable characters.
That’s not to say everyone will like your protagonist. I read (or started to read) a very popular book a while back, and I didn’t like the main characters. I couldn’t relate to them, and they did not inspire me to finish the story. On the flip side of that, a good while ago, I read The Restorer by Sharon Hinck. I found the plot to be cliche and predictable. But the characters . . . kept me reading. I loved every single character, and every single character felt real and broken and complex and full of potential. I recommend that book not because of the plot, but because of the way the characters were fashioned to carry out the plot.
For some authors, characters don’t come first during the first stages of inspiration. You might find a setting or a plot comes first, and you fill in the character details later. For me, characters have to come first. And if it is a true, valid story idea, they will come first in my imagination. The story will be built upon them.
The adventure novella first draft that I wrote started like this in my head: A teenage girl and her family are forced to flee from the city when the American power grid begins a cascade failure.
My YA portal fantasy novel first came to me like this: Two teens, totally at odds, are pulled into another world, where their differences could mean their destruction.
And because I was able to grasp the characters, the rest of the story came together fairly simply. Of course, if you’re not a character-first writer, that’s perfectly fine, so long as you can still write characters that make the reader care.
Why does the reader have to care?
No, it’s not just so they’ll finish the book – because that isn’t even a guarantee. It’s so that, when trouble comes and the characters are in an impossible situation, grave danger, or just experiencing acute pain, the reader is going to feel it, too, because they’re right there with that character.
More often than not, the character makes the story.
How do you write characters like that?
Make them real. Broken. They don’t have to be too broken, just broken enough to be completely believable. Make them imperfect. People want a hero, but not a flawless one. Take the Michael Vey Series, for instance, or even better, the Out of Time Series. Heroes, both protagonists. But they’re not perfect and they’re not invincible. In the Michael Vey Series, our hero has Tourette’s and is bullied. In the Out of Time Series, the hero is insecure and afraid, and desperately searching for purpose.
Character arcs and character development are key in fashioning memorable protagonists – and even antagonists. On that note, make your antagonist complex, a mystery – not one-sided, not necessarily pure evil. Weigh all of these options during your outlining process.
So, how do you create your characters? What makes them unique in your story? Can you think of a book you’ve read with a character that really, really stood out to you? Let’s chat in the comments!