Make Them All Problem Magnets! Seven Principles For Better Fictional Characters


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Often, when you read a story, the characters can sometimes seem as though they're an afterthought - they don't seem to have any real connection to the story's plot. Or, if they are connected in some way, there's no emotional reasons for them to be involved in the events. Stories like this don't ring true and readers often feel that disconnect.

So, here's some tips on how to really enmesh your characters in your story.

Design your characters so that they want something

Desire is one of the strongest motivators there is. People who really want something will sacrifice a lot of things in order to get it. Your characters need a strong desire to drive them through your story. A good desire becomes the reader's desire as well; they want to the character to overcome the obstacles. If you write your story well, the reader might even learn a thing or two about how to overcome the obstacles in their own lives, making your story all the more relevant and memorable.

The character's goal shouldn't be easily obtainable

Robert Heinlein coined the term “there's no such thing as a free lunch” That's how it should be for your characters. Their goals should be hard for them to obtain. If they were too easy, the characters won't need to do much to win. If the goal is hard to get to, then the character is going to have to suffer through a series of personal challenges in order to see their desires fulfilled, which helps create a dramatic story.

However, the goal also needs to be achievable as well as believable. If the character is striving to achieve something that's obviously unobtainable, then your reader is likely to stop reading because they'll sense there's no point in continuing.

The problem they face should be so big your character can't avoid it

Problems should test the characters to their limits. In order to succeed, a character needs to learn new skills and new ways of looking at the world. They need to find confidence in their own abilities. So the problems they face can't be trivial; they have to break down the character's inhibitions and reforge the character into something stronger and more resilient than ever before. Don't feel tempted to go easy on your characters because you feel sorry for them. Readers want the characters to succeed, but the journey to the goal is just as important as the goal itself.

Your character has to face the problem eventually

Denial is a perfectly natural response when a problem seems too big. People often pretend the problem doesn't exist, so that they can stay within their comfort zones. Inevitably though, your characters must attack their problem head on, usually when they find themselves backed into a corner with no where else to go. They need to find themselves in enough pain that the only way out is to change what they are doing and go through the problem and commit themselves to finding a solution. Only then will they begin to make their lives better.

Let the character make some progress towards the goal

Progress towards a goal makes a great incentive for both your character and your reader. If the character is making headway against their problem, it creates a sense of hope that they will succeed. That in itself builds momentum and makes the character try all that little bit harder when the problems crop up. Letting the character make progress gives the reader hope as well that there's going to be a happy end to the story: that there's going to be a reckoning for the bad guys and a payoff for the hero.

Complicate things just when the character is making headway

Just as your character is starting to get somewhere, complicate matters again. Have something break, or have someone let them down. It's a case of two steps forward, one step back. Your reader will feel a sense of hope that the character is going to get their goal, but giving them setback builds suspense, letting your reader know that it isn't going to be a free ride. The complications are great places to introduce plot twists as well, particularly if the complications are things that people might not have been expecting. It's even better if you've found a way to foreshadow these things earlier in the story, so that the complications are believable.

Hit them hard one last time

Eventually though, the character should learn enough that they're going to achieve their goal. Along the way, they should have been transformed by their experiences, so that the character at the story's end is not the same as the character that started the journey. But before they can actually achieve their goal, they need to be tested one last time, to make sure that they have actually learned their lessons. This test needs to be the biggest one of the whole story. Many people give up right at the last hurdle, but your character needs to hang on by their fingernails and make sure that they actually give the readers the payoff they were hoping for all along.

By loading your characters up with problems throughout your story and having them react in the ways that real people do, your readers will buy into your story much more readily. By constantly keeping your characters on their toes and taking them outside their comfort zones, you'll create a constant stream of suspense to keep your reader glued right to the end of the story.

Geoff Skellams is a professional freelance author who has written for books, magazine and websites. You can find out more at


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