You can kill the spell of identification just as easily as you can create it—if you lose the reader’s sympathy for the character. You can lose reader sympathy by having your character commit acts of cruelty to another character with whom the readers identify more strongly or for whom they have strong sympathy. You can lose reader sympathy by having the character make dumb choices—acting at less than maximum capacity. The idiot in the horror story who responds to creepy noises by going into the attic armed only with a candle is an example. You can lose reader sympathy when a character seems too ordinary, is stereotyped, or doesn’t struggle hard enough. The reader wants to cheer a fighter, not witness a milquetoast wallowing in, say, self-pity.
Yup! Rule #1 about main characters: Whether they’re “good” or “bad”, the reader should root for him/her, and find him/her “a sympathetic character” (this isn’t the usual definition of sympathy as “feeling bad for someone”, and it doesn’t mean that the character is sympathetic but rather that the reader is sympathetic to the character—it comes from the German word sympatisch, which means likeable/appealing).
Creating Proactive vs. Reactive Characters
“Readers tend to like characters who are struggling to achieve a goal. This simple principle can be invaluable in creating sympathetic protagonists.
- Characters working toward a goal are active characters.
- Characters who aren’t working toward a goal are reactive.
Reactive characters are much weaker than active characters, and we tend not to like them. Unfortunately, many writers end up unknowingly creating reactive protagonists.” Read more »
This was just (sort of randomly) submitted to us, but it’s right on the money so go read the whole thing.
BabyNames.com: Tips for Writers to Name Characters
A while ago I did a little post about how I love BabyNames.com for helping me scheme up character names (which, as we all know, can be a kind of stressful process!!).
Today I was doing just that and I found this great little post they have with tips just for writers using their site to name characters—how kind of them! And it’s actually really helpful, there were definitely some where I was like “D00000d why didn’t I think of that!?”
So ummm check it!
Yeah Write!: Mom/Mother/Mama?… What to call parental figures in your stories (Updated)
Hi! I’m having an issue with what to call parents in third-person POV. Like, “Mom said, “his/her mom asked”, or “Barbra stated”. To me, “Mom” can be weird, especially if you’ve more than one POV going on. “His/Her mom” seems too formal, and to use the first name or “Mrs Cohen” just sounds awkward. Curious for other opinions?
This question has caused me so much pondering since you sent it in!
This is what I’ve come up with:
How Not to Write the Same Character Over & Over Again (Unless You Want To!)
Do you have any advice for someone who gets kind of hung up on one character across several pieces of writing? Thanks!
D00000d. I think a lot of people have this problem. You’re a writer, and you’re given the phenomenal cosmic power of creating an entire person. And that’s hard work! So once you do, you want to stick with him/her. Maybe it’s a main character with weaknesses you relate to personally, maybe it’s a juicy antagonist, maybe it’s the love interest based on your dream girl/guy. Maybe you’re an opinionated Yankee, so all of your characters are opinionated Yankees. The thing is, characters are your babies. So it’s definitely not surprising, or rare, that they suddenly show up in unrelated pieces. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing, either.
I could be wrong, but I’m wondering if you have this problem because you’re basing a lot of your recurring characters on yourself, or someone who you’re close to. But hey, that’s okay. I sort of have this theory about my writing career that the first book or two I write will have main characters who are a lot like me. Not only am I young and that’s all I know, but I need to get these highly-autobiographical books out of my system.
Again, I could be wrong, and you just thought of this awesome super smart British high functioning sociopath sleuth with a coke problem and after one story/novel, you just haven’t gotten enough of him yet. Either way, I think I can help you out.
There are two broad ways in which your characters can be “the same” in different works:
The Best Character Naming Resource: BabyNames.com
Naming characters is almost as difficult as I imagine naming your children is, the only differences being that you’ll write far more characters than give birth to/father children (hopefully!), and your characters can’t complain to you when they grow up and don’t like their names. But still, it’s a big deal! I have a habit of using a few names over and over in my writing (Kate, Adam, Lindsay, Mike), which is fine for now but will be problematic
if when I become a famous author.
So my favorite website for helping me pick character names is BabyNames.com. Not only do they have an incredible database of every name in the entire world (they even have a record for my name, Livia with-no-O!), but there are a ton of parameters in the search engine so that if you have something in mind, you can find a bunch of names that are close. I’m especially fond of putting in the number of syllables and the regional origin (I like my straightforward, curt characters to have one syllable names; I like my dreamier characters to have multi-syllabic Irish or Scandanavian names; etc.). You can also put in the first initial you want, the last initial, the meaning in the original language, etc. That’s also helpful if you want your names to be symbolic (like how “Sirius” is the dog constellation and the X word for canine). I often find myself thinking, “I want to name this character something like Sarah, but not that exact name” and then going over to babynames.com and putting in “two syllable popular American name beginning with S”. It’s super helpful, and I’d highly recommend bookmarking it under your list of character planning resources!
Different Characters, Different Beliefs
In order to make a scene between two characters feel interesting it needs some degree of conflict. That’s fine if one character happens to be a cop and the other a robber, but the story isn’t always going to present you with directly oppositional characters like that.
But even if the characters in a scene don’t have anything to fight over and the scene isn’t highly charged or full of high stakes, you can still give characters something to clash over.
How to Get in Your Characters’ Heads
I always read about people allowing their characters to lead the story- as if the writer is more of a reporter, telling the story as it happens. But I can never seem to get out of my own head and into that of the characters. Any suggestions?? Thank you!
Well, I think that’s just a method for some writers. If you don’t operate that way, I wouldn’t worry that it makes you a bad writer or that you’re doing it wrong or anything. It’s like how some actors get into character months before shooting, whereas others can be laughing and joking on set and then the second the camera rolls they can start hysterically crying. I actually wrote a short piece one time about how acting is similar to writing, if you want to read that here. Could be helpful.
I think a lot about my characters before I start writing, and continue to in between actually working on the pieces. I try to think about them as real people. Keeps me occupied on my daily train rides and 11-block walks.
But even more helpful than thinking about my characters is writing about them, because it really forces me to ask myself questions about them that I wouldn’t have before. We have a great character sketch form/post that can get you started. When I was preparing for NaNo I wrote about 2000 words about each of my major characters, with headings like “Personality”, “Appearance”, “Quirks”, “Life History”, and “Relationship to Main Character”. I don’t necessarily think that helped me “get into my characters’ heads”, but it was definitely helpful to have that base when I started writing about them so that I wasn’t distracted by asking myself questions about their childhood or have to make up their personalities as I went along. When faced with a certain situation, I just knew what they would do.
As far as you versus your characters leading the story, I’d also say that varies from writer to writer. I like to plan the background and the end of the story, then let the characters carry me from point A to point B. Other writers meticulously plan out every scene before they even start writing. Some just have an idea and go. We have yet another post about planning versus not here. So again, if letting a character lead isn’t your MO, don’t stress.
Hope this helps!
If anyone has anything to add for tortoiseshelldreams or thinks I gave bogus advice, send an ask!
WriteWorld: Writing PTSD (and other mental disorders) Accurately
Anonymous asked: “What would be the best way to write a character who develops PTSD? She was abducted for a couple of weeks, and I thought it’d make the story more realistic. She’s a pretty strong character, but I’m also stuck with how her colleagues, especially one who’s particularly close to…
WriteWorld is getting so much cooler than us.
Also this post was NECESSARY. I have a mental disorder (yeah, act all surprised) and I probably couldn’t even write about them properly probably.
I'm unsure how to write the relationship between my two characters (one is a very independent/take care of herself/control freak kind of person and she grows to trust him enough to relinquish control in some cases) without it sounding like "oh there's a big strong man in her life she better do as she's told!" and with out him being this big manly bamf stereotype hero who always gets the girl. Do you have any tips or tricks?
The overarching advice I’d give in regards to writing about human behavior is to think about what works in each specific case. There are no tricks, tips, or tropes that should be relied on. You have to think about who your characters are as people and what they’d believably do. If you want them to do something semi out of character, you have to give them plausible motivation.
It’s hard without specifics but I’ll take a stab at your particular case. I would think about your characters like this: What sort of instances would your girl character be willing to relinquish control? My guess would be in cases where she was previously being over-controlling, and he makes her see as much. Not that literature has to be perfectly analogous to real life, but I’m actually in a similar sounding relationship right now, and the things that I find myself letting go with The Square are more trivial stuff—I let him win little arguments, have the last word, make our plans, etc. But I don’t let my guard down on things that I really care about/am opinionated about.
Also, don’t characterize him as a big strong man. Make the things about him that make her want to let down her guard trustworthy and believable, and a part of who he is—don’t make him seem overtly domineering with her. Just give her and him conflicts of interest/ disagreements where she has to let her guard down.
Anyway, that sounds really vague and nebulous, but maybe it helps. If someone wants to give better advice than this, send it in.
i tend to create characters with in depth backgrounds, but when i try to write thier stories out i get stuck. you know anything that could help with that? also right now i have a good character (lets call her a lightsider), but she has an extremely dark past. how can i make her come over as a lightsider, while still allowing people to see how the past has effected her?
I’m actually having a hard time with the “how do you create a well-meaning, likable character with a somewhat dark past?” problem right now in my NaNo. Of all things, it makes me think of Serena on Gossip Girl, haha. We’re always supposed to believe that she had this rebellious drug addict phase, but it’s poorly done, so I don’t believe it at all. I try to intersperse the nice things my character does with some “bad” stuff, minor stuff like stealing and smoking, but I dunno if it’s enough.
- me: love this character
- character: dies
- me: this character is flawless
- character: dies
- me: aww you're the best character ever
- character: dies
- me: ...
- me: i hate this character.....
- character: do you really hate me? :(
- me: n-
- character: dies
Fuck Yeah Character Development!: Gee, I don't know how to research writing Characters of Color tastefully:
The American Male at Age 10 | Susan Orleans
I’m almost a zillion % sure that I was given this piece to read in a creative writing class when we were talking about characterization. Maybe that’s why I write things that sound like this piece when I’m planning out characters, though I write about 2000 words, whereas this is 5k. It’s an especially good model for showing how a secondary character (Colin) might relate to your first person narrator.
Anyway, read this piece through, it’s a classic. Then maybe try writing something similar about one of your characters.