By: Linda Rohrbough
One of the things I heard about my work when I first started writing fiction was readers cared about my plot, but they didn’t care about the characters I’d created. So my question was, how do you create characters readers care about?
I’d done my best up until that point to create the characters I saw in my head, so I was clueless as to how to make readers care about these people who were so real to me. But the answer is actually quite simple.
Let’s take tags first. Tags is the term in fiction writing given to character traits the reader can “see.” I learned them when I had three walk-on characters all dressed the same in a prison environment, who readers told me they couldn’t tell apart. And it got confusing for my readers. So another writer said give them tags, short but specific physical characteristics that are different for each one. A big space between a character’s front teeth, big hair, rhinestone glasses, a limp, a mannerism like rubbing their eyes a lot, and so on. So I gave each of those three walk-on characters, a unique tag. And it worked.
Watch people and you’ll see all kinds of tags you can make use of in your fiction. For example, one of the cheapest tricks in the book is to give a character a cold or an allergy– especially a walk on character. The writer has this character sneezing on others, or wiping their nose, or doing something related to having a cold or an allergy, and that sticks in the reader’s mind. Any time a character comes on to the “set” with cold or allergy symptoms, the reader will assume it’s the same character.
The classic example of this from my TV youth was Columbo. The character played by Peter Falk was always in a wrinkled beige trench coat carrying a cigar he never smoked with one eye askew. And he was kind of clumsy physically and socially. But he was smart and people always underestimated him. We loved that. And we remembered him. If you recall, no one else on the show was dressed like him or behaved like him.
I am constantly looking for fresh tags I can use in my writing when I watch people around me. I started dancing as a counter to sitting around writing all the time. Dancers are a great source for tags, especially in couple’s dancing. For example, there’s the guy with the plastic black framed glasses that are too big for his face that he constantly pokes back into place with his forefinger. And he wears big black shoes that look clunky, but he’s cut and glued a chamois to the soles, so he can glide on the dance floor in those shoes. And it turns out he used to be a dance instructor, so he’s actually a pretty good dancer. And he’s almost always in a short-sleeved collared sports shirt that’s some shade of teal. See, you’re already involved with this guy. I didn’t tell you his name or how tall he is or how old but you’ve already got a picture of him in your head.
Notice I didn’t have to give a lot of details. Just a few, and the reader will fill in the blanks. In fact, that’s one of the things I don’t like about television and movies, especially if they are remaking a book. I prefer the pictures I have in my head of the characters to what the producer came up with.
Here’s an illustration of tags I like to use in my writing classes. If I tell you a woman walks in to a room and her hair is pulled back into a bun, she has on a dress that hangs to mid-calf, and she has on SAS shoes. I don’t have to tell you she hasn’t had a date in five years. And notice you don’t have to know what SAS shoes are to get the picture they look like dark-colored versions of the shoes nurses wear. You made that up in your head, too.
If I wanted to surprise the reader, I could have all the men in the room vying for her attention. I could even put a beautiful blonde cheerleader type in the corner of the room that everyone is ignoring. Now the reader will want to know why the men pay attention to the SAS shoe gal and not the cheerleader, and the reader will start to make up reasons in their head. And I’ve already got a story brewing because I created conflict with my tags.
So you need tags. And if you don’t have them, even if you’ve gone into long detailed descriptions about your character’s appearance, your reader won’t remember. In fact, I avoid long, detailed descriptions about anything. I like to paint the picture with a few well-chosen strokes that are playing double and triple duty, like I did in my SAS shoe gal example. It’s fun and elegant to create a brief description that sets up potential conflict, and plays off the reader’s assumptions and stereotypes.
Motivation is another thing that will help your reader care about your characters. I recently was in an airport that had a special table in front of a bookstore which had multiple copies of two paperback versions of The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins with different covers, and then a hard back version. But no other books on the table. So I asked the bookseller why. And when he explained one paperback was the original version written by the author, and the other was the movie version of the book, and that both paperbacks would cost the same as the original hard-cover version, I bought the two paperbacks. Since I’ve done some writing for television, I wanted to compare the original to the movie version.
I had time on the plane so I started with the original paperback version, and I can tell you had it not been a New York Times best-seller, I would have put it down after about five pages, then deposited the book in the nearest paper recycling bin once I got off the plane. Because the girl on the train was someone I didn’t like at all. And it was because her motivation was nothing short of selfish and despicable, when there was any. Most of the time she was like a leaf blowing in the wind with no motivation whatsoever. It’s a principle of fiction that readers don’t like victims and this gal was definitely in victim mode.
My friend, and multiple Spur award-winning western author, Dusty Richards says your character needs to be motivated toward a goal and that you cannot remind the reader too many times of what that goal is.
I don’t know if I need to mention this, but the character’s main goal is always broken down into sub-goals. For example, let’s say there’s an old-west sheriff character on horseback. He can barely see in the moonlight. But he needs to make it over the next rise before sunrise to the bad guy's camp to see if the thief he's after is in his bunk, and can be apprehended. The goal is to catch the thief, but the sub-goal is to make it over the next rise by sunup.
And, of course, there are obstacles to each goal, which is what keeps the reader engaged and the story moving. The character should have deeper motivation, usually produced by a painful past, that drives him as well. Like our cowboy sheriff hates thieves because a thief stole grandma’s fall harvest back when the character was a little tyke and grandma died that next winter.
The obstacles also need to be reasonable obstacles, not ones the character creates by their own stupidity. In the romance writing world, they have an acronym for this mistake in character development: characters who are TSTL (Too Stupid To Live). Readers are not interested in “I Love Lucy” plots where it’s all about manipulation and deception for some inane goal, like an elaborate deception to keep Ricky from finding out Lucy spent $5 more on groceries this week than the budget allows.
And The Girl On The Train so reminded me of “I Love Lucy,” only not as kind and gentle. It began with a good fifty pages of boring narrative about this woman who rides a commuter train back and forth past a row of houses every day, laced with detailed descriptions of the landscape, houses and the players, in between bouts of this woman drinking herself into a stupor at night. We finally get to something happening many chapters in, which is a murder. But even then, the main character was TSTL until nearly halfway through the book. What made it all worthwhile was the really satisfying ending, which of course, I had my doubts would actually happen in real life. But it was accomplished by a secondary character I had some respect for, who was helped by the main character, and that made it somewhat plausible.
I’m sure in a case like this, the author would argue people really behave the way she wrote them. And I agree. That does not mean, however, that I’m willing to pay money to put up with reading about it. (I did a little research and found out Paula Hawkins is British journalist, and I hear the Brits are accustomed to this take-a-while approach to getting into a story.) The only thing that kept me going was all the hoopla about the book, which I still think was rather unfounded. But I can see how the ending would strike a chord with women, who are the main readers of fiction. So I get it.
Now away from the book review and back to my subject, tags and motivation are the two things writers can utilize to make readers care. If you don’t have those two things, readers aren’t going to care. And they really want to care, so they’re disappointed when they can’t or don’t. Making the reader care is part of the job as a writer, but it’s not particularly hard work if you know what you’re doing. And I think it’s fun work – clever tags coupled with motivation that’s obvious and deeper motivation peeled back in layers. That’s the ticket.
Now, to be quite honest, we all stand on the shoulders of giants, and I’m no exception. I have several writers to thank for this information, including my romance writing friends, specifically Debbie Macomber and Jodi Thomas. Romance is very character driven, so those gals were a big help to me. And Dusty Richards, who is quite a character in his own right in his ten-gallon white hat and hands so big he has to buy special keyboards with extra wide keys to keep from “fat fingering” when he types his manuscripts.
I also want to thank the people who gave me feedback, because that consistent feedback created a tangible problem that I could then take to the “big boys.” But even with help, it took a while for me to wrap my head around this.
So if you’ve gotten the “I don’t care about these characters” feedback, then give your characters tags and motivation. If you think you already have, make changes anyway, and see if you can hit on a something that works for you. Because if you can make the reader care about your characters, that’ll keep them engaged in your story.
has been writing since 1989, and has more than 5,000 articles and seven books to her credit, along with writing for television, and seven national awards for her fiction and non-fiction. An iPhone App of Linda’s popular “Pitch Your Book” workshop is available in the Apple iTunes store. Find her on Facebook as “Linda Rohrbough – Author” or visit her website: www.LindaRohrbough.com.