When you think of your all-time favorite books, what do they have in common? For me, it’s a deep connection to the characters. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the characters and I have similar life experiences, but that the characters are grappling with emotions that I’ve felt, which makes me feel a kinship to them. And once you’ve gotten your readers to feel that kinship and empathy for your characters, they will keep turning the pages to find out what happens to the characters. Do the characters reach their goals? Do they overcome their obstacles? Getting readers to invest in your characters is paramount to not just capturing but sustaining their interest over roughly 300 pages. So how do you do that? Here are some tips to crafting memorable, connectable characters from page one:
Show, Don’t Tell
I’m sure we’ve all heard this writing adage 20 million times, but given how often I see “telling writing” in submissions, it’s a lesson worth repeating. Here’s an example of telling writing: “I felt so sad I could hardly stand it.” The problem with this kind of sentence is I have no idea what it means to be “so sad I could hardly stand it.” One person might describe feeling this way after the death of a family member, whereas another person might say this when they don’t get to check their Instagram for a few hours because their iPhone is being fixed. Sadness is relative to the person describing it. And even if the character clarifies what they’re sad about, like for instance, the death of a family member, I still don’t know what that sadness feels like, because it’s relative to the character’s relationship to that family member. And even if that’s clarified, if the character says the relative was like her best friend, I still don’t know what that feels like. If I’ve lost a person who was like my best friend, maybe I can try to project my own experience onto that character, but it won’t give me a clear picture of who this character is, which means I won’t be able to connect to her.
Now let’s consider the same idea with showing writing: “I was a balloon losing air, flabby and wrinkled from being passed through too many hands. I wanted to lie down. I wanted to cover myself with the guest room’s worn wool blanket and lose myself in its whiteness.” The first sentence uses a metaphor, as the character refers to herself directly as a “balloon losing air.” And then it goes on to describe qualities that a balloon losing air has, it’s “flabby” and “wrinkled.” Anyone who has seen such a balloon knows what it looks like. This invites the reader to imagine what it would feel like to be the balloon. And obviously it relates to what is going on in the scene: the character is at the funeral for a person who meant the world to her. People are hugging her and sharing their condolences, but this just makes her feel like she has less room to breathe. She wants to lie down. She wants to lose herself under a blanket. In other words, she wants to dissolve, to cease to exist. That’s how much this person meant to her. That’s how oppressive the atmosphere of the funeral is to her. And again, she’s given us a visceral thing that people can easily imagine, what it feels like to be completely covered by a blanket.
So showing writing means anchoring the reader in a visceral experience, whereas telling writing relies on abstract concepts that are too open to interpretation. (Showing writing also often involves literary devices, like similes and metaphors, but that’s not a requirement.) Because I know what a flabby balloon that’s been passed around too much feels like, and I know what it’s like to be covered by a blanket, I can experience her feelings and more importantly begin to care about her. And if I’m worried for her, if I want to see her make it through her grief ok, then you’ve got me turning the pages.
Infuse Your Character’s POV in EVERYTHING
What I mean is don’t just use showing writing to describe things, use showing writing that shows readers how the character views the world. I specifically chose to refer to the blanket in the above example as “worn” in order to imply that the character also feels worn. If my point was simply that the blanket was old, I could’ve used “timeworn” or “antique” or even “treasured,” but all of those would insinuate that the blanket was old in a way that made it special or valuable, which would work against the character’s grieving mood and diminish the effect I was going for. I also could’ve had my character say she wants to lose herself in the blanket’s “folds,” but I specifically chose to use “whiteness” instead to further enhance the idea of her wanting to vanish, to be consumed by something that would erase her. While “folds” wouldn’t have been a bad choice, in theory, it’s more expected and it doesn’t do much to show her mood. To be lost under the folds of a blanket implies you’re still there under the blanket, whereas to be lost in whiteness has the additional connotation of being erased, so it creates more of a mood. And if you’ve given me a mood through showing writing, I can connect to it.
You have so many choices of how to describe something, so pick words that entrench us in the character’s POV. A woman jogging down the beach at dawn can describe “a pink sky,” which doesn’t show us anything about her character. She can describe “a bubble-gum pink sky” which tells me she’s in a cheerful mood. She can describe the sky as being “the color of watered-down blood,” which gives me an ominous feeling, like she’s about to kill someone. They’re all pink. Frankly, it’s not important to me that the sky is pink in the first place unless you’re using its pinkness to show me something about the character. So no pink skies! Give me watered-down blood or nothing!
Roll Over and Show Me Your Belly
This suggestion is possibly more subjective, since I see plenty of published books without it, but for me to fully connect to a character, I need to see her vulnerability. This vulnerability can come in the form of grief, like our previous example. It can be a feeling of insecurity. It can be fear. It can be the most important thing in the world to a character, like her dog, or her dreams of becoming a prima ballerina. It can be a lot of things. Everyone has vulnerabilities, so when a character doesn’t, I feel like there’s wall around her preventing me from seeing hers. It doesn’t tell me that she has no vulnerabilities, just that she doesn’t trust me enough to share them with me. To connect to a character, I need to feel like I understand her, and I’ll never fully understand a character who hides her innermost feelings.
(This isn’t to say that if you’re writing a psychological thriller, for example, that the character needs to say from the get-go that she killed her husband. Certain genres rely on the character hiding certain things, on being an unreliable narrator, and I’m not suggesting the reader should know everything about a character if it interferes with the surprise factor. But the reader should know what makes a character tick, or else they’ll never make a full connection. You can also lead the reader to think they understand a character, and then twist the ending so they realize they never did understand her, but I digress.)
Like everything else in publishing, whether or not a reader connects to your character is subjective. Even if you do all of the above, some readers just won’t connect to your character, and that’s ok. It just means your book isn’t right for them. But all the same you should do whatever you can to make your character “connectable.” Show your character’s unique point of view and emotional state through showing writing, making the most out of every word (no pink skies!) and revealing their vulnerabilities. You just might make your own publishing connection.