Friday, August 9, 2013

Character Essentials: "Hooking the Reader through Character Building, Part Two" with S. Alex Martin

S. Alex Martin is an author of young adult soft science-fiction, a blogger of writing tips and tricks, and a rising college senior in Pittsburgh. He's written and self-published three hard sci-fi books since 2004, and is finishing the fourth draft of "Embassy," the novel he hopes will become his debut in traditional publishing. You can follow him on his website, Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook.

Hello everyone! This is my first post as a YAWA admin and my first post in the series Brian and I are co-hosting: Hooking the Reader through Character Building.

You'll find that one of the hardest parts in the writing process is character development. The story only happens if the characters matter and fit into their unique roles. If you can toss around the characters and still have the same story, stop. Because you have a BIG problem.

Characters should feel like people. The real, living and breathing people who make life interesting (because clearly there are other kinds). Today I'm going to show you how to develop characters without whom the story can't go on.


And I mean EVERY character. If someone comes into the story and doesn't leave for a while, they need something to do. Don't just put them in because it's convenient, or because you think you need to hype up the pace. Those are just bad excuses that leave similarly-bad tastes in your readers' mouths.

Your main character needs a goal. State that as early in the story as possible. What journey are we--the reader--about to embark on? Will this journey take us to places we've never dreamed of? Will we meet people who amaze or scare us? Or are we gonna trudge around in our boots, stuck in the mud half the time, listening to an old beggar who just annoys us?

Hopefully we get the former, 'cause I don't have the time--or the money, for that matter--to hang out with some old guy in a robe. Unless he's Obi-Wan Kenobi. Then we'll see.

Also think of your minor characters. Yes, they'll have roles. But don't make them cookie-cutter images of every cliche out there. Make them unique individuals who have lives, live those lives, and are AFFECTED by those lives. Sure, the best friend seems happy around the main character, but at his house he gets into heated argues with his parents, which leads to his rebellious behavior and ultimate arrest. Something like that.

If you can create a complicated character whose life doesn't revolve around the main character, you're doing you book--and your credibility--justice.


*sigh* No, I don't mean a love triangle. Throw it in there if you want--don't let me stop you--but please, please try to have something other than a whiny girl who can't decide between two guys. There's a reason why people are tired of seeing love triangles. Oftentimes those conflicts are the whole plot of the story and leave little room for anything realistic (in the story's world, that is) to happen.

Anyway, developing character relationships. When readers meet a new character, the first thing they ask is: "Why are you important?" Make characters matter. Don't throw them in there for a convenient conversation. That just cheats the reader of their time and dignity.

Characters should influence the main character. Guide them, teach them, make them angry, make them giddy, make them rethink a value. Something. Even if it's just being a friend when the main character is lonely. Develop relationships like you would in real life. Build emotional resonance--whether positive or negative--and stay consistent and realistic.


A reader wants to see the characters react to their world and change. You probably wouldn't read a story about a guy who just, you know, *shrug of the shoulders*, was just there. They want to read about characters that CHANGE. The girl who loses her best friend in an accident she caused and has to learn to live with those thoughts. The guy who finds an abandoned dog and ends up creating a shelter. In many science-fiction worlds, the story will be about someone who discovers they are part of a larger plot and must learn how to fight off the baddies.

However the story goes, let events and other characters shape your main character. Let other characters react and change, too. Characters should almost always be different at the end of the story than they were in the beginning. The only exception I've ever seen is Flowers for Algernon. Even in that story, Charlie changes during his surgery, but succumbs to the mental relapse that returns him to his original state.

You are not the same person you were a year ago. I sure am not. I've had my own experiences that changed me. If your characters change throughout the story, your readers will bond in a good way.


When your characters interact, how well do they get along? Are they nervous? Angry? Shy? Giddy with laughter? At each others' throats? Kissing?

Readers follow the main character, and as I stated above, the first thing we ask when we meet other characters is, "Why are you important?" The second question readers will ask is, "Do I like you or do I hate you?" This shouldn't be too hard of a question to answer. Conveying it, however, is a totally different story.

For example, we can go out and say, "Jill hated Bobby and wanted to slap him."

Alright. Cool. Jill doesn't like Bobby. So? Slap him in the face, I don't care.

Here is something important, and I will not repeat this: MAKE THE READER CARE. I cannot stress that enough. If your reader doesn't care about the characters or the action, you're going to have a hard time as a writer. Instead, take the sentence above and consider saying this:

"Jill remembered all the times Bobby had pulled her hair and spilled her milk on the lunch table. And how she caught him cheating on his girlfriend with Amy. It all boiled up inside her, but she couldn't do anything except glare at him. If only she could smack some sense into that boy's head..."

Do you feel it now? We have reasons to dislike Bobby and reasons to admire Jill. It's a much more powerful paragraph with all sorts of depth and emotion packed inside. The point is to provide emotional attachment to the characters. Do that, and your readers will thank you for giving them a fulfilling experience!


Well that's my first take on this subject I'll have another post coming in two weeks! Brian's gonna take the reins next Friday.

What are your thoughts? Comments or questions? Post below and we'll shoot you an answer!


  1. S. Alex,

    Firstly, great post and all very good points.

    Secondly, I'm afraid I'm going to have to disagree partly with your third point.

    You state that writers should "let events and other characters shape your main character. Let other characters react and change too. Characters should always be different at the end of the story than they were in the beginning."

    While I agree that the whole reason we read is to see the transformation of the main character, I don't see the need to show how minor characters change. Depending on their function, most minor characters should be written flatly so as not to overwhelm the reader. Because of that, no one expects any change from them and wouldn't be disappointed if it didn't exist in the story.

    For example, suppose my main character hails a taxi and I record his conversation with the driver so that my MC will know about the traffic incident earlier on. Once he leaves the taxi, we don't see the driver again.

    In this case, it's completely unnecessary to show any kind of change with the taxi driver, since he's such a minor character that it won't matter. I use him as a vehicle of information and an effective way to get from point A to point B. Any change in him shown would just slow down the story.

    Sorry for the length of the comment.

    1. Ah, okay good point. When I say minor characters, I mean the characters your MC is constantly in contact with and who play a significant role in the story. In the case of the taxi driver (or any character with no "large" role), you're right: no change is needed. The characters who need to change are the characters the story has the most influence on.

    2. Doesn't that depend quite a bit on your definition of "significant"? Using the taxi driver example, suppose the traffic incident--that my MC wouldn't have known about if he didn't talk to the taxi driver--turns out to be critical to the climax. Hasn't the taxi driver played a "large" role here? It's still unnecessary for him to change, but cutting him out would injure the story.

      Also, while I agree that the "characters who need to change are the characters the story has the most influence on," doesn't that pretty much mean that only one character needs to change? Correct me if I'm wrong, but typically stories focus on the character who changes the most, who becomes the MC. Other characters do change, but not as significantly as the MC.

    3. Yeah, usually the minor characters will not change as much as the MC. And they shouldn't, because it really is the story of the MC. In the case of the taxi driver, he is just a tool to provide information, which the MC could have found out in a different way.

      There are several types of characters, but I would see a taxi driver giving the MC information crucial to the climax as a "Tool" character. In my eyes, a "Minor" character is a character who we see pop up here and there for extended periods of time and has some extended influence on the events and MC. Therefore, the taxi driver does not have to change /because/ he is used for only one reason, whereas Minor characters would change somewhat since they are directly involved in the plot of the story.

    4. All right, I understand now. I like your distinction between "tool" and "minor" characters. Thanks for clearing that up.

      I hope I didn't come across as intentionally confrontational.

    5. Yup! Anytime! Thanks for pointing it out so we could make the distinction :)

  2. Thank you so much for this post! Now I'm going to make a blog post and take each of my most important characters and talk about what their goals are, why they're important, and for what reasons the reader should like or dislike them. Thank you so much!!!!

    1. Your welcome! Glad I could help, and good luck on your blog!