Within the story all characters must engage the audience, which is to spark and maintain the audience’s interest and attention. A good character needs to do two things: advance the plot, and reveal interesting details about themselves.
What makes a character interesting?
1. Make the audience think; raise a question or provoke a moral reaction. Any time someone is unusually kind or mean, audiences learn something about the character.
Why did Jean refuse to lend a friend money, but then give several dollars to a poor person?
Mark is taking a test and sees another person cheating. Should Mark out the cheater or let it go? What if Mark gets the chance to cheat as well?
Situations like these reveal a little bit about the character, and also raise questions, mostly why.
2. Make the character unusual in some way(s). Everyone has unique skills, odd interests, behavioral quirks or ticks.
Someone offers Alice an orange, and she quickly turns away, sneering as if it’s trash.
Audiences will begin to wonder why.
Sherlock Holmes first words to John Watson included “You’ve been to Afghanistan,” prompting Watson, and the audience, to wonder how he knew.
3. Create humor. A joke always has a victim, someone who acts or does something silly. Give the audience permission to laugh at the victim; show the victim misbehaving, earning the joke, or laughing along with the audience.
4. Give the character virtues, so that audiences will admire them. Show the character’s shortcomings, and demonstrate how the character works to overcome or compensate for their flaws. A peaceful person is admirable, but if audiences later learn that this “peaceful character” was previously tempted to commit violence, it deepens the accomplishment, and enriches the complexity of the character.
5. A character should be a balance of unique and common characteristics, just as a friend is a balance of similarities and differences. Consider some of the most basic characteristics of the character. Most students going to school share certain generalities, just as most employees share some. Generalities exist and they help audiences see themselves in the character, one of the strongest forms of engagement. Like a friend, a character should be a blend of familiar and unique characteristics.
Make Readers Care
Add reasons for the audience to sympathize with the character.
1. Give the character hardships, obstacles or misfortunes that are outside the character’s control.
2. Show the character is vulnerable, that the challenges of their life do take a toll.
3. Put the character in jeopardy; create an immediate sense of danger.
4. Grant the character underdog status, at a distinct disadvantage during a conflict.
Handling hardship shows a character’s strength, while vulnerability deepens that strength and makes audiences empathize with the character’s pain. Jeopardy creates a thrill of excitement as the conflict escalates, and an underdog status makes a victory all the more impressive, letting audiences hope that they might overcome the odds and achieve great things as well.
7 thoughts on “Engaging Characters 103-01”
This is a nice little checklist of ways to build character interest. You could keep this as a running blog and add more and more just to keep this awesome resource growing. This is an under discussed topic that could use more conversation.
Thank you. It is my intent to add to the Writing posts as I develop my understanding. At the moment I’m thinking of expanding upon the 102-7, Villains, specifically the monsters section, though depending on length it may turn into a separate post.
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When I read what you listed under “Make Readers Care”, I realized how much of a sadistic writer I am since I did all of that to my main character in the prologue alone.
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