The cinnamon roll. A smol bean. We invent all kinds of affectionate nicknames for the cuddly teddy-bear characters we adore. But what about characters who have a few prickles? Or are downright cold? As writers, we strive to create characters readers will root for. Otherwise our books won’t stay open for long. But not every story requires a happy-go-lucky Olaf. Sometimes a story needs an emotionally detached Elsa. But how do we endear aloof characters to readers? If we tinker with four areas, we can warm these characters up just enough that readers won’t get frostbitten.
Human beings are hard to figure out. We rarely express our full thoughts or feelings, and when we do, misunderstandings still arise. How we process and react to situations is unique and impacted by everything from mood to history to personality. As we’re crafting characters who are intended to embody specific worldviews or lessons, we need to keep human complexity in mind. The strongest, most memorable characters expose their layers during pivotal moments rather than all at once.
When crafting a story, writers spend as much time agonizing over the characters who populate it as they do the events that happen. Without relatable, realistic, and distinguishable characters, readers will feel disconnected, no matter how interesting the setting or plot is.
A plot may stimulate readers’ minds, but even the most unforeseen twists won’t linger in their memory unless the events are deeply rooted in the characters’ lives. Strong character development engages readers’ emotions, giving them someone to invest in and identify with. It’s a crucial component of fiction, but the execution looks starkly different in a plot-driven story than in a character-driven one. By comparing the two styles, writers can learn how to capitalize on the one that best serves their work-in-progress.
When you think about fast-paced stories, what comes to mind? Cliffhangers that keep you awake late at night, turning pages so quickly that you get paper cuts? Or anemic character arcs and half-hearted themes. Sometimes films and books sacrifice character development for the sake of fight scenes and car chases. But if a character’s experiences don’t change him at all, what’s the point?
Strong women, as they’re portrayed in a lot of fiction and films, have a problem. They act like men (albeit hot men with curvy bodies and perfect hair, teeth, and nails). This bothers me, and it should bother you too, because we’re being fed a lie. Male and female perspectives each possess great worth, and both genders are vital aspects of the human experience. Neglecting one or the other in a story guts the truth’s potency.
As long as a villain has a reason for his wicked behavior, he’ll seem real. Right? Or will he? Shoppers grow hungry but don’t steal. Bank tellers get angry but don’t beat up customers. Hardships tempt people to commit crimes daily, but they control themselves.
I’ve noticed a vacuum developing in fiction. Popular novels, particularly fantasy and young adult, tend to exclude child characters. And if children do play a role, they’re caricatures of how small people actually behave.
When we’re in the thick of writing, we’re pressured to perfectly structure our plots, ace our pacing, and polish our prose. Amid that chaos, character arcs can easily get lost. We want readers to be touched by hope when the hero perseveres, joy when he discards his selfish goals, or determination when he confronts the villain. But despite the effort we’ve poured in, we worry that readers won’t be able to follow the protagonist’s arc.
For better or for worse, villains are fascinating. The best ones challenge the protagonist’s worldview and ethics, pushing him closer to pivotal decisions than the smoke and mirrors of plot.