A lot of writers wonder how to write a character. I’ve been giving the following note a lot in my consulting work, and it’s a fascinating idea. Ideally, you are creating a protagonist who the reader relates to and wants to (bad publishing joke alert…) be on the same page with. But are you secretly undermining the all-important reader-protagonist relationship with your writing, or are you doing a great job with a believable character?
It’s Your Word Against the Reader’s
As your reader, well, reads, they are creating impressions of your characters, your plot, your world, your writing style, etc. Ideally, they are discovering these impressions by reading your action-packed plot that is slim on telling.
So where is the potential problem? If the reader’s impression of anything in your story clashes with what you (or your protagonist) is insisting. This is the issue of believable character.
For example, imagine that you’re creating a protagonist that has nothing nice to say about their math tutor. They’re a show-off. And super rude. And nothing but trouble.
Except the young tutor on the page is … nice. She shows off a little bit, maybe, but she’s actually quite helpful and pleasant. So what’s the problem?
This situation actually drives a wedge between your protagonist and your reader’s impression of events. And in this conflict, your reader is going to side with…themselves. Now you’re left with an undermined protagonist, because the reader will always want to trust their own impression.
How to Write a Character With Credibility
Unless you’re working with a notoriously unreliable narrator and that’s a storytelling choice you’ve made, make sure your protagonist is someone the reader can align with. If the protagonist hates the math tutor, the math tutor should be hateable. Maybe not in a way that makes them a caricature (rather than a well-rounded character), but in a way that the reader can get on board with the protagonist’s opinion.
If the reader’s opinion and your protagonist’s diverge, make sure it’s for a good reason. The more clashes there are, the less relatable your main character will seem, and the less inclined the reader will be to trust them.
As a writer, your number one job when considering how to write a character is to make the reader care, and you have a lot more power over the reader’s emotions when you’re funneling it through a character who they like and relate to.
Think about the effect you’re creating.
If you wonder how your characters are coming across, and whether your characterizations are consistent with the reader’s impression, hire me for editorial services.
3 Replies to “How to Write a Character”
When this happens, I attribute it to an over-reliance on “telling” over “showing.” The author is showing me one thing, but telling me to think something else. It’s like when a coworker spends all day goofing off and then complains about how tired she is from working non-stop, or when a boyfriend blows you off and then gushes about how much he loves you. Actions speak louder than words.
This is a really good point, and a great connection back to showing vs. telling. Thanks, T.K.!