Create Characters Your Readers Will Fall in Love With
July 29, 2021
It only takes one thing to make your characters more relatable: motivation.
We all can undoubtedly think of characters from our favorite works of fiction that stick with us. Some stories are propelled forward by amazingly realistic characters that kind of feel like our best friend as we read about their lives, and then there are those stories where the characters fall flat. What makes the difference?
It’s actually a relatively simple element of character development that often gets overlooked: motivation.
I know that this is something that hasn’t been covered much in any of the countless writing classes I’ve attended or the books on writing that I’ve read, but it’s so important to develop strong characters.
So how can you use motivation to write characters your readers will fall in love with?
Have a backstory for each character
This is so important for you to know as you write your story. Characters don’t all need to have intense or tragic backstories, but everyone has a backstory. As humans, we all come from somewhere and wound up where we are due to a series of, fortunate or unfortunate, events. So what is your character’s story? Maybe take some time to write down a few paragraphs about your characters’ lives. Keep their individual stories filed away in a separate document on your hard drive that you can reference and add to as you move along in the writing process.
Don’t tell readers all of each character’s backstory — that’s for you to know
This might seem counterintuitive to the first point, but a character’s backstory fuels their action and is an important part of how they view the world. Readers don’t need to know every bit of what happened in the past to understand that, but your characters do. Think of them as people — you probably don’t know every bit of what has happened in each of your friend’s lives, but you know some of them well enough to know how they will react to bad news or what their opinion will be on a certain subject. You want your readers to see your characters like they would their friends!
Pretend you are your character’s therapist
We all have some baggage we carry with us in life. I always come back to the episode of How I Met Your Mother that deals with the idea of relationship baggage that the characters carry from one fling to the next. The main character, Ted, is convinced the new girl he is seeing has too much baggage to take on, but throughout the episode, he learns that everyone has baggage — including him. View your characters this way. Identify their baggage. They might be like Ted and don’t realize that they have baggage, but pretend you are their therapist. You know what that baggage is and you can write your characters better by recognizing the weight of the baggage they carry. While they might not know it, that baggage affects everything they do. It is what’s behind their motivation throughout your story — and what should fuel the way you write your characters!
Give bad characters background and baggage, too
I think way too many writers forget that antagonists are characters, too, and that they need to be fully developed like the protagonist. Most people don’t do bad things intentionally, or if they do, it’s not for the reasons it might seem like from the outside. Humans are complex, including the bad ones, and characters need to be that way, too. One of my favorite examples of this is Regina from the TV show Once Upon a Time. Regina started as a pretty bad character who was up to no good, but as the show went on I was rooting for her one episode and so mad at her I almost couldn’t watch the second. Part of this was due to her backstory being developed further — once that happened she became more real and relatable (yes, even when she made mistakes or acted terribly!) So do this for your characters, too.
Once you’ve established background, baggage, and motivation, don’t stray from it throughout your story
This is a big thing to remember as you write. Characters can grow and change, just like humans, but often their motivation still stays the same. One of the characters that I am writing right now has motivations that stem from when her mother left when she was a young girl. While the character herself is growing and changing due to the experiences happening to her in the story I am writing, much of her motivation will always stem from that fact in her background. It’s part of who she is and had a deep impact on her, including her ability to relate to others and how she sees the world. That sticks with her throughout the story and even pops up in unexpected places where even she doesn’t realize it.
Character motivation is easy, once you get the hang of it. It’s innate in human nature, so once you realize it’s what’s holding back your characters from becoming more relatable, you’ll be an unstoppable writer.