You have a story.
You have an incredible, original idea, an immersive world, and creative, well thought out prose.
But no one enjoys your book. Either they never end up finishing it, or it’s just kinda “meh,” and they never end up telling their friends about it.
When you ask for feedback from alpha or beta readers, they say your book just isn’t that good. It’s boring. Doesn’t cut it. The characters are bland.
We all know these kinds of books. The kind of books that never pull us in, and we put down at the slightest distraction, never picking it up again or forgetting all about it.
The kind of books that we don’t really care about. Life is busy, and if a book doesn’t instantly seize you, then you’re apt to never finish it.
Why do we hate some books, yet love others and keep coming back again and again for more? Why are some characters instantly empathetic and lovable, while others we could care less about?
And how can we craft our own stories and characters to make readers love and adore them? How can we write in a way that readers won’t be able to put our books down, and we never fall into the pit of having a boring, unfinishable book?
Keep reading to find out how to create a book that makes readers clamor for more and more of your writing, how to turn your “meh” story into a bestselling sensation, and how to write compelling, sympathetic characters that become your readers’ new best friend.
Readers Aren’t Easily Pleased
In a world of constant entertainment at the simplest flick of the finger, writers quickly learn that people are harsh critics. Readers are hard to ensnare, harder to keep enthralled, and even harder to please in the end. Many writers hit the roadblock of readers who never end up finishing their novel, or who finish it just to finish it and then never pick it up again.
And yet, there are books like Harry Potter or Hunger Games that readers will read over and over and over again, gushing about it to their friends and crying through the movies. Maybe even dreaming about them. There are quizzes to see what characters you’re most like, and memes with Legolas or Hermione blow up your Instagram or Pinterest.
How in the world can you even create anything remotely that successful?
How can a young writer like you spread your words into all the world, impacting generations to come with your carefully thought out themes and meticulous worlds?
I’ve already said this world is hard to please and will jump at the next new thing. People are fickle and ever-changing. Why should they care about your story, your words, your voice?
Here’s why: because you matter just as much as J. K. Rowling and J. R. R. Tolkien and Suzanne Collins.
Your story matters. Your voice matters.
And this article is going to teach you exactly how to take the story you’ve poured your heart into and craft it into a masterpiece. I’m not promising you’ll be as famous as Rowling, because you’re not J. K. Rowling. You’re you, with a unique story that this world needs to hear.
I’m guessing you’re sitting on the edge of your seat, waiting for me to drop the secret. The key to compelling stories and riveting plots. The key that so many authors that everyone knows about have mastered.
Coming right up.
Spoiler Warning! The Number One Secret to Bestsellers
Get ready for the spoiler. . . the secret to bestsellers. . . the key to turning your “meh” story into a book readers can’t put down. . .
There. I said it. One word. Three syllables. Ten letters. That’s the key.
Because no matter how good your concept is. No matter how good of a plot, or world, or evil queen you have, readers aren’t going to finish unless they are deeply, heavily, and very emotionally invested in your characters.
You might be eyeing your computer or phone screen skeptically. And maybe even a little angrily.
How can I say that no one’s going to care about your book unless they love the characters?
You might have a truly epic world and magic system and this super cool plot twist you’ve been dreaming up for ages.
Let me spell this out for you one last time.
No one cares about that! They will only love those things if they love your characters.
If you need a second opinion, check out this article.
No Reader Is Going to Care About Your Plot or Prose Unless They Care About Your Characters
Now, I am NOT saying that worldbuilding and prose and plot structure and all that can fall to the wayside. No—all of those things are crucially important.
I’m saying that unless readers truly and deeply care what happens to your characters, then those things are going to fail again and again and again.
We all know those books. The books where your favorite character—the only character that you actually care about—dies halfway in. . . and you never end up finishing the book. The books where your favorite character turns bad—EPIC plot twist—but then you end up rooting for the villains for the rest of the book.
The books that you never finish because who cares? Obviously, not the author, or they would have created a character with flaws and brokenness and loves and hates that we can relate to.
I don’t want you to be that author.
The author that doesn’t even get yelled at because no one cared about their story. I want your words to inspire and encourage and remind your readers that there is hope and life is so full of love, so worth living for.
As Hans Christian Andersen said so eloquently, “Just living is not enough. One must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.”
Your story can be that little flower, shining light into the darkest of nights. But first, people have to care about your characters.
This is what Rowling and Tolkien and Collins got right.
They realized that characters are what make a story unforgettable, because when you see a character and instantly feel connected to them on an intense, emotional level, you’re going to keep coming back for more, and more, and more.
Characters are why you can’t stop talking about this new book you read.
You just have to look up all the memes possible about this new book because the characters are so cool and so inspiring and just make you want to scream and jump and dance and tell everyone about them.
For a more in-depth article on this secret, click here.
Wait, But What About VILLAINS?
With villains, many stories fall into one of three camps. A lot of stories, especially by amateur writers, have villains that are aloof and too evil, or without a cause for their evil. These villains don’t pose much of a threat to the protagonist and thus make the story boring and many readers will never finish it.
Other stories have villains that are the only good character in the story. Books where the villains are the only characters with deep backstories and complex, unique reasons for what they’re doing. No one wants to read a book where the only character they can relate to is the bad guy.
The last camp is what every writer should strive for when crafting their villains. These villains are haunted but also so cruel you can’t not hate them. They’re heartbroken, but heartbreakers. They’re hurt and they hurt. You can feel for them, but you also hate them with all your heart.
That’s the perfect villain.
And if we know how to make a hateable, cruel, demonic villain that readers still can understand and relate with while also realizing their choices are very very wrong, then we can know how to craft protagonists that are going to be perfectly situated to conflict with those villains.
Protagonists with lovable, gentle, haunted traits that readers relate with and realize how their choices have made them different from the villain. Often, one single choice is the only difference between a hero and a villain.
And if you can take that choice and expand it into the theme and entire plot of the story, then you’ll have a powerful theme and a truly gripping plot.
But why are the villains sometimes your favorite character? They were specifically designed to be terrible, evil and disgusting. . . why do we relate to them so much?
Oftentimes, villains are a reader’s favorite character because they believe and love and feel so deeply, with spicy cruelty tinged with broken-hearted sorrow that makes readers fall head over heels in love with them.
Because they’re reminded of themselves in this bloodthirsty villain. They can see the tears in the eyes of the cackling maniac trying to take over the world, just to be seen. They recognize that same sadness and hurt in their own lives, and seeing what it does to the villain encourages them how much better they can be.
Perfect your villain—make them real and broken and reasonable—and you’ll be able to easily perfect your protagonist.
NEWSFLASH! You Can Fatten Up Your Dilapidated Protagonist
Now that we’ve established that characters are pretty much the make-it-or-break-it to your story, we need to dissect how they influence the story.
Yes, characters are important, you got that. But how? Why? Why do characters make a good plot great, or transform a well-thought-out plot twist into an epic, tear-jerking, make-you-want-to-scream plot twist?
How in the world do the words and feelings of a fake, fictional person painted with the blocky letters and crinkly paper of a book influence and inspire you?
First, we need to define the three ways in which characters weave all the confusing, overwhelming aspects of story structure together into one big bundle of tears and laughter and screaming.
Secondly, how these three things can be implemented to spice up characters and twist and pull them off the page, molding them into 3D people who will cry and laugh and scream with you.
Three Ways You Can Make Your Book Come Alive With Sympathetic Characters
1. Give Characters Meaningful Interactions
Have you ever read a novel with one character. . . total? A novel with a cast of one. Uno. A singular, lonely, person. No one else. Just one. Single. Person. In. The. Entire. Book.
Most likely not. Yes, they are out there if you search hard enough, but these kinds of books are enormously hard to write. Who would fire the protagonist into a furious rage in which they make a terrible decision that alters the fate of the entire universe, which they then consequently have to save?
Not by themselves though, no. How could they make another terrible decision to sign their soul away to the evil villain if they didn’t have someone to fall in love with. . . and a villain, for that matter?
You get my point. Characters, and people in general, are defined by the characters/people around them. They are defined by how they interact with those around them. The people around them give them a personality, a fueling hate, a thirst for revenge, a blinding love passion, and even that haunting, shadowy past.
And the interaction between characters fuels the plot and theme of the story just as much as the characters themselves.
Imagine an amazing, soul-crushing, hope-giving theme with only one character. Impossible. There have to be other characters around them to push them to their limits, hurt them, encourage them, for there to be that jaw-dropping theme that slaps readers in the face.
In addition, if your readers aren’t emotionally invested in your characters, then the theme is never even going to matter to them. So what if the love interest dies if you don’t care about that person he or she’s leaving behind?
Character interactions make up the entire story. Plot, theme, world-building, you name it, it all comes down to the interactions between the people you have created.
2. Force Characters to Make Conflicting Choices
Quickly segueing from interactions between characters, we have to jump into how their choices affect the story. Because unless the characters use those interactions to then make choices, the interactions are meaningless.
Take Jasmine and Aladdin from Disney’s Aladdin for example. The interaction between the characters is important: Aladdin falls in love and Jasmine falls in love. But if they never took that love and then went the next step and made choices because of it, then there wouldn’t even be a story.
“Once upon a time, a princess loved a poor street thief. The street thief loved the princess. But, they couldn’t get married. The end.”
Terrible, am I right?! To make that story into a wonderful book with multiple wonderful movies, you have to make those characters make choices. Do something!
Stories hinge on those choices. Imagine if Jasmine had chosen to shun Aladdin and hate him after he told her the truth? Totally different story. And if Aladdin hadn’t ever chosen to work for Jafar and help him find the lamp, then he’d never have gotten the chance to make any wishes. Totally different story.
So you can see that stories are made up of the interactions between characters, and those interactions fuel the choices they make, which then make up the plot and the theme and all those amazing plot twists and confessions of love under umbrellas in the rain.
3. Provide Characters with Authentic Beliefs
And finally, there’s one last way in which characters tie into the very essence of your story. Their beliefs, their worldview, their souls.
This is who the characters are at their very core—the culmination of interactions and choices and the people around them that have led them to believe what they believe with deep fervor, whether it be right or wrong.
These beliefs make characters biased towards interactions and will strongly influence their choices. Jasmine believed in freedom and strength, allowing her heart to run away with the rebellious Aladdin. If she had believed rather in rules and regulations, she wouldn’t have let her heart fall in love with Aladdin because he would have been the very essence of everything she didn’t believe in.
These three things—interactions, choices, and beliefs—all mix to make your characters who they are, and also create the story. You can’t have one without the other. Your plot is tied to the theme it conveys, your theme is woven into the plot, and your characters make up both of those.
So you can see how essentially important characters are, not only to ensnare your readers in the story but also to make the story, well, the story.
And if you take those three points and allow them to formulate your characters, then they’ll be anything but boring.
Going back to the Aladdin example, we can see that Jasmine is a unique, much loved Disney Princess because of her interactions, the choices they led her to take. and the beliefs that pulled everything together.
If she hadn’t met Aladdin (interaction) there wouldn’t be a story at all. If she hadn’t chosen to go against her father and her entire culture and love him (choice), the story would be a dismal tragedy. And finally, if her beliefs didn’t drive her decisions every step of the way, or if she had believed in something else entirely (beliefs), the story and its theme would fall flat because there wouldn’t be one.
But in the end, all of that only matters if we care about Jasmine and Aladdin. We love them because we can see ourselves in them. We see our rebellious side in Jasmine’s frightened defiance to her father and Jafar, and we root for her because she reminds us of ourselves, or someone we love, and so of course we want her to win.
And we hate Jafar because he’s suppressing Jasmine and Aladdin—he’s trying to control us—so we scream and cheer for Jasmine and Aladdin to win because that would be like us winning. And that gives us the courage to keep fighting, keep speaking out.
When they win, they give us the hope that maybe we’ll someday win against the chronic illness keeping us down. Someday maybe we’ll win against the school bullies trying to control us.
Those simple, somewhat cheesy Disney characters we care about because they give us hope. Just like any other character we love in literature or movies.
And that is what we are striving for. Compelling, empathetic, relatable characters that remind our readers of themselves, or who they want to be. Characters that inspire and bring tears and make readers laugh.
For a more in-depth article about how to detect and fix a flat main character, check out this.
When we take their interactions, choices, and beliefs and tie them into the story, we can craft a book that readers won’t be able to put down.
That’s how Rowling and Tolkien did it. They gave their characters
- Unwaveringly strong beliefs to create conflict
- Explosive, life-altering interactions between unique, dynamic characters
- And scarce good options—the lesser of two evils—so that all their choices took them deeper and deeper into the pit of no return, no light, and seemingly no victory in sight.
And in doing all of this, they made real, alive people jump off the pages with problems and heartaches and tears and laughs and broken loves. All they did was look at the world around them and make characters that reflected the brokenness they saw in a way that would shine hope into tomorrow.
And that’s all you have to do. Make your characters interact and choose and believe with all their hearts. Because that’s what the rest of us do.
Make your characters human.
Break them. Heal them. Drown them.
And most of all, fill their lives with love. Because what is life without love? And what is a human with no life?
With Great Characters Come Great Books, Stories, and Success
If you get one thing out of this article, I want you to remember that people are either going to remember your characters and the book they’re in. . . or nothing at all. So put in the work to make your characters real.
You’ve got to make them real. Give them desires and hates and dreams and loves and hurts.
Our words are meant to shine. To give hope. And we can’t do that unless they use characters that readers can relate to.
You might be a little overwhelmed right now. I’ve covered a lot of stuff.
But don’t get frustrated. Don’t slam your laptop closed thinking, how am I ever going to do all this? I’m not good enough to do this! I don’t know how to make my characters relatable! What does that even mean??
Don’t tell yourself those lies. You may not be perfect at it right away and you might not even know what “making a character” relatable even means.
Obviously, you’re not going to get this right first try. You’re going to fail, and fall, and sometimes maybe nearly drown. People aren’t perfect, but we are strong.
And we can keep getting back up and trying again, over and over, until finally, we succeed. “Birds don’t just fly, they fall down and get up,” Shakira sang. And as writers, we’re not just going to jump off the ledge and soar. We’re going to fall, and fall again.
But we can get back up. And use our words—the bleeding of our hearts onto the page—and bring a smile through the tears.
Because there is always hope. And love. And the beauty of the fictional people we have created helps real people to see the color in their lives again.
So let’s keep writing. Keep getting up and pouring our very tears into the black ink of our words. And let’s try hard to create characters that touch souls, bring life, and give the world that little bit of flower.
We have created a wonderful Character Questionnaire to help you bring your characters to life and spice up your story. All you have to do is answer the questions and you’ll feel yourself diving deeper and deeper into your character’s thoughts and the beliefs behind their choices, and so so much more.
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