Some characters have more shape and weight than others, feeling so authentic we can almost believe they walked right out of the real world. Their emotions, vulnerabilities, needs, and desires ring so true, we can’t help but be pulled in by them. These characters hold us hostage while we read, and as writers, we start analyzing why we care so much so we can duplicate this magic in our own stories.
So, what’s the secret sauce that creates such a powerful connection?
When readers see something within the character that resonates, something they themselves think, feel, or believe in, it becomes common ground that binds them to the character.
But wait, you say. That makes no sense! What does my thirty-two-year-old, baby Yoda collecting schoolteacher-slash-reader have in common with the fiery, laser-zapping sky captain in my steampunk sci-fi?
Oh, not much, except maybe…
- The pain of a loss
- Making a mistake that can’t be fixed
- The agony of hurting a loved one
- How time stretches in a moment of humiliation
- Knowing a love so pure they’d sacrifice anything for it
- The dark thoughts that accompany a desire for revenge
- Failing and letting others down
- The chest-expanding rush of pride or validation
- The relief that comes with getting a second chance
- Experiencing the sting of betrayal
- Worrying the past will repeat itself
- Finding the courage to live one’s truth
…and so on.
Experiences, Good and Bad, Connect Us All
No matter who your character is, human or not, protagonist or antagonist, they will have experiences in common with readers. These may look very different, but in the hands of a strong storyteller, they will be recognizable, holding a core truth that stirs a reader’s thoughts and emotions. In some form, readers feel an echo of having lived the same moment, stood at the same crossroads, or felt the same thing, as the character.
Recognition is a powerful tool, hooking readers and keeping them engaged. By thinking about what it is to be human, and how to use that to find areas of common ground, we can create mirrors within our characters that draw readers in and trigger their empathy.
Trauma is an unfortunate side effect of life. We all carry the burden of painful experiences – you, me, and readers. People can hurt and betray, they can let us down, and we can do the same to them or ourselves.
Anything that is a big part of the human experience is something we should weave into our character building. By brainstorming a character’s emotional wounds, we make them authentic, and it gives us a powerful way to reveal their vulnerabilities to readers.
Emotional wounds come in all shapes and sizes: Betrayal. Humiliation. Rejection. Injustice. Neglect. They cut, bruise, and most importantly, change the character. Just like us, the person a character was before a traumatic event and who they become after will be different. In the aftermath they carry scars in the form of unmet needs, fears, and false beliefs. They may believe they are less worthy, less capable, or somehow at fault. A wounding event can also reshape how the character sees reality, causing them to think people can’t be trusted, that the world is callous and unfair, or believe life’s cards are stacked against them.
Watch how the Character Builder helps you uncover your character’s backstory wounds.
As readers, we may see all the ways their thinking is flawed, yet still understand why they believe what they do. Their experience informs their opinions, just as ours inform us. And even as we root for them to see the truth and be free of their pain, we recognize and relate to the experience of missing what’s right in front of you.
We’ve all experienced wounds and seen loved ones be swallowed up by fear these events create. We’ve witnessed their dysfunctional behavior and unhealthy coping mechanisms cause problems. So when a character misbehaves, lashes out, or holds back because they are afraid of being hurt again in the book we’re reading, we get it. We connect to their struggle. Their fear is our fear. We carry the burden of it together.
Imagine a line where an emotional wound is on one end and the other, a meaningful goal. One represents fear, the other hope. And as powerful as fear is, hope can best it, which is why we give characters goals to aim for.
Hope is having trust and belief that something can change. In the story, hope tips the scales in the moment when a character decides what they want is more important than what may hurt them. They hold to hope, step out onto the ledge, and move forward despite fear.
Your character’s goal can be anything: To find a lifelong partner. Succeeding where they once failed. Forgiving themselves. Pursuing justice, Protecting a loved one. The only qualifier is to make this goal meaningful so they have strong motivation to achieve it. When obstacles appear, or adversity and conflict batters them, hope that they can get what they need most keeps them on course.
And beside them as always is the reader, willing them to succeed. Neck bent, readers consume words, desperate to know the outcome because the biggest recognition of all is unfolding: a shared journey.
Character Arc: Where Readers and Characters Collide
Why are readers so fascinated by the character’s journey? After all, it’s only fiction right, a bit of entertainment, an escape.
Or…could it be something more?
Okay, that’s a trick question. A character’s journey to leave behind a hurtful or limiting past and cross into a better, more fulfilling future should remind you of something because life is a series of journeys. Like the character, we are always moving toward a better tomorrow. We yearn for internal completeness just as they do, so when we read, we recognize the steps they take, and the courage, growth, and sacrifice along the way. We root for characters to win because deep down, we are rooting for ourselves to win, too.
So, when you write, find common ground. Put those shared experiences on the page for readers to recognize! Readers should see themselves in the character’s vulnerability and uncertainty, their wounds and fears. But most of all, showcase the character’s hope and goals. These remind readers what’s worth fighting for both in fiction, and in life.
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