How to Encourage Readers to Invest in Your Story By Crafting Relatable Characters
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We want readers to connect with our characters, to step inside their shoes and invest in their journeys.
But creating that easy connection between reader and character isn’t always a clear-cut process. Do our characters need to be, in some way, relatable for readers to connect with their stories? In my opinion, yes, but perhaps not in the way you might think.
Today, writer, let’s cut through the chaos and get straight to the point. If you want to encourage readers to invest in your characters' journeys, here are two key tips you don't want to miss!
Do characters truly need to be relatable?
Whether your character is a noble-hearted everyman, a thieving anti-hero, or a mustache-twirling villain who's somehow managed to snag the spotlight, if you want readers to invest in their journeys, your characters need to be relatable. Yes, even the most morally-bankrupt of characters requires a shred of humanity if you want readers to buy into their stories.
And that is exactly what makes a character relatable: their humanity.
Forging the reader-character connection is all about encouraging readers to empathize with your characters in some way. For readers to extend empathy, they must recognize the humanity in your characters' experiences or circumstances. In doing so, they'll come to understand your character's actions — even if they aren't always to be admired — and to care about their fates.
With that established, one question remains: How can we craft characters with whom readers can empathize?
Two Tips for Crafting Relatable Characters
There will always be readers who won't like your stories, who find your characters bland or insufferable and so choose not to lose themselves in the pages of your book. This is okay. In fact, it's something all writers should keep in mind as they work to intentionally create connection between their readers and characters.
Above all else, writers should focus on connecting with their ideal readers. Sometimes, that reader is themselves — or some version of themselves. Other times, that reader is their child, their best friend, their mother, their coworker, or that stranger they met on the street last week.
Whatever the case, focusing on crafting characters whom your ideal reader is likely to find relatable is key to casting the hook that will keep those same readers — the ones who are most likely to champion your book — invested in your story. For more information on defining your ideal reader, here's a link to our breakdown.
Now, with your story's ideal reader in mind, here are my top two tips for crafting relatable characters whose stories your readers will jump at the chance to adore:
Tip #1: Establish a Relatable theme.
Theme, you ask? What does theme have to do with crafting characters or creating connections with readers? In truth, quite a bit!
Themes are merely topics that stories explore. As it happens, your character's journey likely centers around a specific theme (or two!), whether or not you've consciously built that theme into your story. Need a few examples?
Common themes include grief, identity, adventure, power, love, and loss — among others. Subsequently, each of these themes represents the foundation of a near-universal human experience: a coming-of-age story, a first love, the loss of a loved one, the struggle to find agency or self-worth, and so on.
Simply put, themes are human. Relatable. And by choosing to consciously build your characters' stories around themes your ideal readers have likely experienced for themselves, you increase the chances that those same readers will come to empathize with your characters and invest in their journeys.
Humanizing the Dark Side:
When it comes to anti-heroes and antagonists, or even heroic protagonists who've taken momentary dark turns, themes can be especially humanizing. Often, it is a character's particular struggle with a rather human experience — grief, hurt, fear, jealousy — that drives them to negative action.
By exploring this theme, the root source of your characters' harmful behavior, you can encourage readers to understand and empathize with their choices, no matter how dark the actions or their consequences.
Tip #2: Give them an emotional struggle.
Fear and desire are — even more-so than the many themes upon which you can hang your story — universal human experiences. They also happen to be the two ingredients necessary for some serious internal struggle, the most universal human experience of all.
Fortunately, the specific fears and desires you give your characters don't have to be universal in order for readers to care. Oftentimes, the simple remembrance of their own internal struggles is enough to invest readers in a character's journey.
For more information on how to craft fears and desires that breed relatable internal conflict, don't miss this breakdown of the Lie your character believes.
A Surefire Way to Kill Your Emotional Connection:
What would a struggle between fear and desire be without a few flaws thrown in the mix? Humans are deeply imperfect creatures, and so crafting characters that lack any substantial personality or behavioral flaws is a sure way to kill readers' belief in their humanity.
An unbelievable character will always ruin a story faster than an unlikable one. So no matter how greatly you fear readers won't adore your characters, resist the urge to give them only inconsequential flaws such as clumsiness or awkward behavior.
In place of such near-perfection, develop consequential flaws for your characters that add depth and realism to their internal struggles. In all likelihood, readers will identify with your characters' shortcomings and find themselves all the more invested in their transformative journeys.
As you can see, crafting relatable characters doesn't necessitate giving them specific personality traits, experiences, or backstories that speak only to a few select readers.
Generally speaking, readers enter stories wanting to be engaged. Thus, it often doesn't take much for readers to find themselves invested in the pages of a book. All they need is a real human character struggling with real human experiences — experiences that closely mirror their own bouts with fear, desire, and conflict-breeding flaws.
Will every reader who picks up your book find your characters relatable and their journeys worth investing in? Not likely. But by identifying your ideal reader and working to tell a story designed just for them, I have no doubt that you'll hook readers in with a story that will stay with them long after they reach the end.