I’ve always said that it doesn’t matter how beautiful your prose is, how tight your plot is, or how detailed your setting is, if you can’t get a reader to care about your story. And for me as a reader, the most important thing a writer can do to make me care is to make me relate to–or empathize with–the characters, particularly with the protagonist and the other primary characters.
I’ve read plenty of books where, upon finishing, thought, “Well, it wasn’t a bad book at all. I just didn’t care what happened.”
And that is totally about the characters. My favorite example is Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. It’s a very well-written series with an extremely interesting world and a plot that usually kept me turning the page, even during the millions of pages of flashbacks. But when all is said and done, The Dark Tower books are among my least favorite King books. Because no matter how interesting that world was, there was never a moment that I cared what was happening to Roldand Deschain and his friends.
No matter what King threw at the characters, I never felt their fear, their joys, their sorrow. For whatever reason, I was never able to empathize with the characters in that series.
So while it’s important to make sure you create interesting characters–characters who aren’t cliché, and have goals, feelings, and flaws–it’s equally important that you create your characters with certain traits to make sure they are relatable and believable to a reader.
Don’t make the character too good (or too evil)
Admit it. Luke Skywalker is a pretty boring protagonist in the first two Star Wars movies. Whether whining about never getting off the farm in the Episode IV or making out with his sister in Empire Strikes Back, there’s really not a lot of depth there. He’s really just some good guy who happened to be the offspring of Darth Vader. It’s not until Return of the Jedi that he starts to show a little more development and act a little less good guy. In his first appearance in that movie, he pretty much goes into Jabba the Hutt’s palace and says, “Do what I want or die.”:
Nevertheless, I’m taking Captain Solo and his friends. You can either profit by this or be destroyed. It’s your choice, but I warn you not to underestimate my power.
That’s pretty badass. And then, of course, the whole conflict in second half of the movie is whether or not Vader and the Emperor can turn Luke bad.
And then on the other side (of the force, haha) is Darth Vader. Sure he’s a great villain in the first two movies, but he’s a lot more interesting–and sympathetic–at the end of Return of the Jedi, when we find out that he’s not all evil as he sacrifices himself to not only save Luke, but also the galaxy, indirectly destroying the empire he helped build. The final minutes of his life added so much more depth to Vader than any other scenes in the entire series.
Don’t make the character invincible
While on the topic of characters from the seventies and eighties, now would be a good time to bring up Rocky Balboa. But first let’s talk about Hulk Hogan, because I don’t make nearly enough references to professional wrestling on this blog.
A big problem comes when the protagonist is too strong and too unbeatable. When you know he can’t be beat, why invest your time in him?
As a kid in the 80s, I was never a fan Hulk Hogan. Maybe part of the reason was that I understood pro-wrestling was just a show (I despise the term “fake”, by the way), but it just irritated me to no end that he was so invincible. In every one of his matches, the villain of the month would hit their big move–the move that no one else has been able to walk away from–but then 1…2…HOGAN KICKS OUT. He then becomes as invincible as Super Mario after eating a Power Star, throws a couple of punches, kicks, body slam, big boot to the face, and then the final leg drop for the three count.
It was always so predictable, but I think in hindsight the reason it bothered me was not just the fact that it was predictable, but also the fact that I couldn’t relate to the Hulkster at all. And, really, can you blame me? He was an unstoppable 6′ 8”, 310 pound monster who couldn’t be beat. I was a 70 pound fifth grader could usually finished races in the bottom three.
In contrast, take a look at Rocky Balboa. Here’s a guy most people could relate to and totally empathize with. He’s so far from invincible that he lost the fight in the first movie. And then when the sequel came around, he was only able to win through sheer dedication and training. Rocky and Rocky II are the ultimate epic underdog movies, and Stallone did such a good job getting audiences across the world to empathize with Rocky that he became one of the most iconic movie characters of all time.
Don’t make the character a Mary Sue
A more subtle way turn away a reader is by writing a Mary Sue character. There’s no specific way to tell if you’re writing a bad character when you’re writing a Mary Sue, and in a lot of cases, you may think you’ve got a great character (after all, we all like ourselves, right?).
But this could be a huge turn-off to a reader. They want to relate to a character in fiction, not a person, and certainly not you, the author. A great example of this comes in The Tommyknockers by Stephen King. The character James Gardener is a writer who spends most of his time either drunk, hung over, or drunk and hung over. The character is also not effected by the supernatural things going on in the town, and pretty much steps into the superhero role to save the planet.
He’s also the most blatant Mary Sue characters I’ve ever seen. But I mean no offense to the novel; I still enjoyed it greatly.
So if there is any takeaway here, just remember this: Your story is only as good as the characters you create. And the more you are able to create characters a reader will care about, they more they will care about your story.
What other things do you see that could turn a reader away from a character? Leave a comment and let us know!