Creating Engaging Characters That Turn Readers into Fans

| Posted in Walks with Lindsay, Writing |


FromtheBlueMountainsinMissouaI have ideas for a number of blog posts I need to sit down and write, but I’ve been busy writing the fiction (look for the next Flash Gold novella soon and Deathmaker, a follow-up to Balanced on the Blade’s Edge even sooner). I do, however, have another walking podcast recorded, so for those who like to listen, I talked about what attracts people to a series and about developing appealing characters in this one.

I don’t usually presume to give writing tips, since there are already a lot of people out there who teach that stuff and do a better job than I could, but characters are my favorite parts of the reading (and writing) experience, so it’s hard not to want to talk about them.


I’ve shared what I think makes a good character (and what turns me off on other characters). Do you have any pet peeves of your own? Or things that make you fall in love with a character? Let us know in the comments!

(Oh, and because someone asked for pictures of the areas where I’m walking/hiking, I’ve included a photo today.)

Update: William Stadler was nice enough to type up a transcript of the episode. So for those who don’t have time to listen, here you go!

Transcript for “Creating Engaging Characters That Turn Readers into Fans”

Hey guys. This is Lindsay Buroker again. Today I am walking and talking to you from, I think it’s like the Blue Mtn. trail system. It’s a little bit outside of Missoula. So I’m kinda’ in the middle of my road trip to Seattle for the summer where I’m gonna’ visit friends and family, and of course…always be writing and working. And the great thing is that writing from home is that you can do it anywhere, wherever your home is.

After the last episode that I posted, I had a few people ask, “You know, if I do all these things to work on establishing a fan base, will I start selling more books?” You know, maybe you can find lots of examples of people that they do have a series out, and maybe they’ve got several books out and they’re still not selling very well. Is all you have to do is to keep writing? Is that all you have to do is keep writing and publishing and you’ll naturally get to that point and you’ll make a reliable income?

Or is it that some people get lucky and some people don’t?

I would say that there’s definitely a lot of luck involved in becoming a huge best seller – kind of a break out novel. Sometimes you see that happening, and you’re not really sure why it happened. You may read the book, and you’re thinking, “It was a good book, maybe, but was it better than fifty other books in the same genre?”

I think in that situation there’s some luck – of course there’s talent and working hard. What’s that phrase: “The harder I work, the luckier I get”?

But I do think that if you’re trying to build up a fan base – trying to reach that 1,000 true fans (maybe you’ve heard of that) that it’s more a matter of figuring out what people like and keeping on doing that.

As I was saying last time, having a series can really help. But of course you have to have something about your series, something about your writing that appeals to people and makes them wanna’ come back for more. And that’s not a gimme’, you know. That’s learning the craft of storytelling and practicing getting better.

I don’t usually try to teach on the topic of how to write. Because I don’t think I’ve studied it enough. I’ve kinda’ internalized [it]. I’ve learned a lot from doing – critiquing and being critiqued. But I haven’t taken a lot of classes or read a lot of books. I don’t know, I always think it’s a little presumptuous sometimes to presume to teach other people unless they come to you, and they’re really impressed by your writing, and they wanna’ learn to do it the way you do it.

Anyway. Today I’m gonna’ try to talk about something I’ve been told I do well. And that’s creating characters that people really enjoy.

I think there’s kinda’ two ways to get people into a series. And one is if you’re this really awesome plotter, you’re really good at creating suspense – really sucking people in.

You know, I think a lot of people saw the series Lost. And I don’t know if any of you did, but I know I didn’t remember any of the characters. I just remembered that I couldn’t care less if any of them even died. But I ended up watching a lot of the episodes, because there are all these questions that you want the answers to. You’ve got all these mysterious things going on. So, that sort of thing sucks you in.

Another series that I ended up watching all four or five seasons of was the new Battlestar Galatica. I guess it’s not that new at this point. And again, with that series, it wasn’t the characters. They were fine…some of them you hated. You were supposed to hate [them]. Some of them you kinda’ liked. But there weren’t any of them where you were like, “Ahh, that’s my favorite character. I’m totally watching this series because of that character.”

It was more a matter of the plot. You know, they were on this quest. You wanna’ see what’s gonna’ happen at the end. Are they gonna’ survive?

So that is one type of series that you can do that can draw people in and keep them coming back for book after book.

You can do cliffhangers at the end, or not. Some readers hate those, but from a marketing point of view, they seem to be pretty effective for people.

Now with all that said about that kind of writing, that’s not really my strength or what I do. I mean, I do, of course, try to make my plots interesting. And I have done a few cliffhangers – mostly because that was sort of a good stopping point where. I had written 120,000 words or something, and decided to break a book in two.

But I don’t necessarily try to string people along like that. And, um, if it’s a compelling plot, great. I always hope for that, but I definitely’ve been told it’s my characters people like, and that’s why they keep reading. And that’s a perfectly legitimate way to have a good series and have a following. Of course you can do both, but I thought I would kinda’ focus on characters today – talk about some of the reasons people seem to get into characters [and] some of the reasons they might be turned off by them.

And, you know, if something helps, great. I don’t always remember to do all these things right myself. I like to think about the marketing stuff. But, I don’t usually think about it too much while I’m writing, you know. I just sorta’ write what I wanna’ write, then try to make the marketing side of things work. Every time I try to write for a specific market, it ends up turning into something else.

But today…characters.

Because what you’ll find is if you’ve got some really cool characters, you’ll have people following along, and it doesn’t even necessarily matter so much what the next book is about. People wanna’ spend time with these characters.

I remember some of the series I’ve read [that are ]not in genres I usually enjoy. (I usually read fantasy or non-fiction, sometimes historical). The reason I’ve gotten sucked into them – usually because my mom or somebody recommends them – is because of the characters.

One example actually as a kid is I read all of the Cat Who mysteries by Lillian Jackson Braun, I think it was. I know she’s passed away now, but she wrote a lot those books, and had a really successful series with the main character and his cats. And she did a good job with these characters, making these quirky, interesting characters, and there was always a mystery, so you wanted to keep reading them because you cared about the characters.

Another example is – I actually do not care about thrillers and horror at all – but…I’ve read most of the Lincoln Child books that have Agent Pendergast in them. So that’s another one my mom got me into. And he’s really quirky – he’s a badass character, of course – but he’s got all these weird quirks that kind of draw you in…you know?

And then for tv people – since I did a science fiction series – as plot example, I got really into Stargate, the first one. Stargate. What was it called? SG-1 and I’ve got, I think, eight seasons on DVD, which is unheard of for me. I hardly ever watch that much tv or buy anything.

And that was an example where a lotta’ times I didn’t care for the plots or the scopes. I think I liked the first few seasons where they were more archeology focused. I hated all the bad guys in that series. All of’em. There was like three sets of bad guys, and I couldn’t care less for any of those episodes.

But I kept watching them because of the characters. I really liked Colonel O’neal and Samantha Carter. She was a great example of a strong female character that wasn’t so badass that she was grating. At least, I felt so.

And of course there was always kind of the subtle, “Maybe these two will have a romance, but, you know, they can’t cuz’ they work together – they’re on the same team, dah, dah, dah.”

I think for female readers, especially sometimes, that’ll be something that draws us in – having a romance. With a series, it’s kinda’ cool if you can have something like that not be resolved for a long time.

I actually did that in my own Emperor’s Edge series. I wasn’t really planning, you know, “How can I make this a great series that people will get into?” But because the main character, the heroine, was kind of a good moral person, and the other protagonist, my assassin character, was a less good moral person, they weren’t, um, an obvious match from the beginning.

But by the end of the series, you know, as things went along, it only took seven books for them to develop a romance. And I know that was one thing that was really drawing people along with that series. So, something to think about there.

Let’s just talk about characters in general – some of the things that can make really good compelling characters that make people wanna’ read along. And like I was saying, “Once you get that, the plot matters less.”

Of course you still want a good plot, but a person’s not gonna’ read the blurb and think, “Uhh, is this for me? I don’t know. I’m not really interested in, uh, oh…submarines, again, really?” But they’re gonna say, “Oh, it’s another book with those characters. Of course I’m gonna’ read it. I wanna’ see what happens next with their relationship.”

It doesn’t just have to be a romantic relationship, of course. You know, if you have a group of characters, or something, even one main compelling character who’s trying to do something with his life, people get involved with these characters and want to see what happens next, and you know, follow along with them.

So what are some of the types of elements for these types of characters?

Well, first off, let me say: anything I say today, maybe it’s a rule and rules can be broken. And we can all think of examples where people have had rules with unsympathetic main characters, or something like that, and the series is still really popular. But that’s usually an exception, other than a rule. If you want people to love your characters, these are things that tend to work, [that] tend to get people to enjoy them.

First thing I would say is, of course, watch out for the Mary Sue character, which is – you’ve probably heard this before – sometimes an author’s fantasy character – all the things he/she wishes she was: so she’s beautiful, athletic, everybody loves her, she’s got the best hair. And this kind of character can grate on people’s nerves, because she has no problems. She’s too perfect. It’s hard to love. Most people aren’t like that. [If they are], they’re kind of annoying; ya’ hate’em. You might like’em, but…ya’ kinda’ hate’em. So, those kind of characters can be a turn-off for readers.

That said, I do think that most people want a character that has some degree of competency in their field or in something that’s gonna’ apply to the plot. We wanna’ walk in a person’s shoes. We want it to be appealing. Because maybe they get to say all the things we wished we always had the guts to say to our boss, or whatever.

To keep these characters from being the Mary Sue type – or, is it Marty Stu? I can’t remember what the male version is, but it goes either way there. You give them some flaws, right? Flawed characters. It makes them feel more human, more relatable, just more appealing. And because they have all these flaws, you tend not to hate them for things that they’re good at because they’ve got all these issues going on.

It’s up to you to figure out what flaws would work best for your characters. You know, a lotta’ times they say, “Oh he’s got a horrible temper, or he’s got a history with a drinking problem or a drug problem.”

Uhm, Those are fine. They’ve kinda’ been done a lot.

The one thing I would say with your flaws is be careful not to make them too despicable that people’re going to just be turned off by that. I think a lot of people can relate to the, “He had a drinking problem. But now he’s trying to move on past that.” And maybe it’s always a difficult thing for him or her to deal with.

But, you know, we like to see somebody that’s fallen really low kinda’ pull themselves out and get on with their lives. Don’t say he had a drinking problem and then never have that come up in the plot. I’m laughing because one of my characters had that. I think it came up once or twice. They were too busy killing monsters and stuff. But um, that was a minor character, so yeah…there’s my excuse.

Whatever flaws you can think of, try not to make them be flaws that are gonna’ be turn-offs, like a really abrasive personality. I think you have more leeway with what you’re gonna’ do if it’s like a minor character, or not one of your point of view characters.

I will tend to make more normalish characters for the point of view characters, because I think people can relate to them. And then kind of the more quirky or more abrasive personalities – the sarcastic ones – might be, you know, a main character in the story, but not one of the point of view characters. So it kind of matters less if the reader is really in love with them.

You never know; sometimes those people, the more curmudgeony types, can become appealing characters. It’ll surprise you. If that happens, then do the next book from his point of view, or something like that.

I think you get bonus points from the readers if the flaw is something that really makes the reader sympathetic to that character. I think one example – I’m gonna’ keep using tv, because I think you get a lot of people that have watched a lot of stuff on tv. Maybe book examples might be less well-known.

So, um, if you saw the show Monk – that was the detective with all these OCD habits that was on for several years – it was funny because he had all these quirks, right. He had to go count the sidewalk cracks and touch the poles, obsessively clean his house every day. But his wife was murdered, and he was trying very hard to become normal enough to that he could get his job back on the police force.

His quirks, his characterization, his flaws, they were funny, and yet at the same time, they were a little sad and you kinda’ felt for him. So I thought that was just a good example of a character that [was] definitely a flawed character. There were so many things that he had trouble doing because of all these OCD issues. And these flaws made him endearing so that the watcher really connected with him.

At the same time, a lot of us have some of these flaws to maybe a lesser extent, so we can really identify with something like that. Or even if we can’t, like I said, you’re sympathetic; you feel for him – the way they wrote the character.

So that’s just something to think about. Flawed characters. Not doing Mary Sues.

Okay. Next thing. And I think I saw this a lot back when I was, um, critiquing a lot of people’s work, back when I was doing the workshop thing a lot. And that is when you have a main character, or a protagonist, who doesn’t really “protag.”

They’re kinda’ being pushed around by the plot. They’re not trying to take action themselves and make things happen. And this happens a lot to people who make the plot first and then put the characters in.

People that come up with characters first and then write a plot that evolves from the characters, this is less of an issue. Both are valid ways of writing and plotting. It’s just something to be aware of if you’re more of a plot first then characters type of writer.

What ends up happening is that you’re not as engaged with these types of characters. Things are happening to them. They’re just reacting. They’re not, like, actively trying to make their lives better, or fix a problem. Um, one story I wrote where…you know, I don’t usually have this problem because…well, it happens. Whenever I come up with a plot first, that’s when it’s gonna’ happen usually.

One other story I wrote was my character was kidnapped, and for most of he book, she’s, like, stuck working for the enemy to decode these ruins. And so it’s really hard for her to take action, cuz’ she’s a prisoner for the whole thing, [because] a really capable army has her.

But you just have to look for ways for them to try to influence someone, try to be thinking about escaping, trying to take action. (I’m saying that a lot.) Don’t just let them go with the flow. It’s hard for people to be sympathetic when someone’s a prisoner, then all they do is lay there and wait, and nothing happens unless the plot says it happens.

And these characters just tend to be less interesting. They’re less likely draw us in. We’re not rooting for them as much. Even seeing someone try and fail, maybe even more so, that makes us wanna’ root for them, makes care what happens to them.

Another thing that’ll commonly maybe annoy people is when you do the telling instead of showing kinda’ thing. Of course as a writer, you’ve heard, “Show don’t tell.” And with characterization, that’s a really big place where that comes into play. Especially if you read romances, the heroine is always described as being smart. She’s like a scientist, or she’s like an attorney, or whatever. And we’re told, “She’s smart, she’s smart.” And then throughout the whole book, she does nothing smart.

And I like to make smart characters, and I like to read about smart characters. But, you know, you don’t say their smart, right? You show them solving problems and getting out of sticky situations, outthinking other characters in the book.

So just…anytime you’re gonna’ say, “Oh, he or she’s smart character,” or you know, “He’s a really great fighter; he’s a navy seal, or a uber knight in your fantasy world,” again, you know, just think of ways you can show that through their actions. If you do say it, just make sure you back it up at some point with the actions. With characters, always show, rather than telling.

And if you don’t tell, if you just let [the readers] decide whether they’re smart, [the] reader can decide whether a character is smart based on their actions in the book, you don’t set up that, “Prove it,” kinda’ mentality. It’s up for the reader to decide. Maybe the reader’s really smart himself or herself and doesn’t think your character’s all that. So, you haven’t set up any expectations that failed to be met.

I think the last thing I’ll mention here is just, um, personality. People say, or sometimes you’ll see a review, “Flat characters” or “All the characters are interchangeable. You couldn’t tell who was talking without the dialogue tags.”

Or, you know, the other…let me reverse the comment, “I could tell exactly which character was talking without the dialogue tags.” And that means that you’ve really made a really distinct personality for each one.

“Okay,” you say. “That’s sounds great, but how do I do that?” Let’s say you’re going to have five or six characters in your adventuring group, how do you make them all different from each other and distinctive?

And um, you know, sometimes [with] different types of personalities, of course, is when conflict arises, and that’s also something that makes the reading more compelling. I guess it’s something kinda’ common in fantasy – which I’ve read a lot of – where you’ve kinda’ got this adventuring party, and it’s a little weird when everyone gets along really well, and the only conflict is external conflict.

Going back to tv shows, one of the shows I liked was Firefly, even though it was only on for, whatever, eleven episodes, cuz’ you had all these characters, you know, that they kinda’ were like a family, but at the same time, you know, you had the mercenary Jane who was always trying to, like, get money and turn in Simon the doctor and his sister. So he was always scheming against them. They didn’t get along. Captain could be abrasive. You had characters with a romance interest, all this stuff going on in this crew. So you had internal conflicts that made it interesting, as well as whatever the problem of the week was that they had to solve.

So, how to make these personalities? You know, you’re probably going to find that your main character or protagonist – especially early on as a writer – that there’s a lot of you in that character. And that’s natural.

But for the other characters, think of friends you know…or people you hate. Think about what about them is different, what stands out in your mind. Well, first thing, I would say, make sure each character has their own goals, their own driving interests, motivations.

It gets a little murky when everybody has the same goal. That’s when, you know, nobody’s disagreeing; everybody’s always happy-happy when they’re working together. Usually in life, everybody’s out for themselves though, right?

So maybe we’ve got one character, you know, maybe he wants to make money. Another one, tryin’ to win a woman. Another wants to be recognized as a hero by everybody; whatever it is.

They’re all gonna’ kinda’ have different life goals, and that’s a starting point for giving them each a different personality. And beyond that, you can think if they quirks, mannerisms that maybe you can just make something up, or maybe you’ve seen with somebody else.

I think I stole one for a very minor character once from a relative that I knew that at least five times a day, or if you had dinner with her, at least five times, she’d say, “You know what your problem is.” So I used that with a character.

Um, one quirk, like I was talking about that show Monk, he had all these quirks that made him a really distinctive character, very memorable. You know, you don’t have to use OCD. There’s lots of little ways, people can have quirks.

One thing I did with the steampunk novel I released about a month ago – I talked about [it] in the first episode – you know, I had a pilot, and he’s kind of a Marty Stu.

He’s always getting in trouble, so he’s not quite perfect. But one of the things I thought would be fun, because I just seemed to remember [that] lots of pilots…um…I don’t know any pilots, I’m kidding. But lots of athletes, I guess – which I do know – are a little superstitious. So I thought, you know, this is a guy who’s risking his life every day, so maybe he’ll be a little superstitious too.

So, I gave him this lucky dragon figurine that he rubs whenever he needs some luck. And it became kinda’ fun to poke a fun at that, sort of a little slight flaw for the character. So yeah he’s a little superstitious. That became like a memorable thing for him.

And it was good for some, uh…sexual innuendo jokes, if you like sort of thing. “Rubbing Dragons.” Yeah.

So, you’d be surprised how a little quirk that you give to a character can actually become a very memorable thing for the reader and something that they enjoy about that character.

Aright, I’ve been rambling for almost twenty-five now. So, I’m gonna’ go ahead and end this. Hope you found it useful. Maybe something sparked an idea.

Like I said, I should remember to listen to these things myself, cuz’ a lot of times when I’m in writing mode, I’m…I’m not thinking about, you know, marketing or the high end – high end plans. A lot of these things you just hope come out naturally. You just try to internalize them so that you remember them.

But I hope, yeah, I hope something helps, and…have a great week. And…happy writing! Bye-bye.

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Comments (10)

Do you have transcripts available by chance?

Yeah, I would also be interested in transcripts. I rather read than listen 😉

Sorry guys, unless someone volunteers to do it for me (for the glory, of course!), then that’s not in the cards. It’s not inexpensive to have transcripts made, and I’m not making any money off recording my ramblings. 😉

I agree! A transcript would be awesome. 😉

Good stuff again, Lindsay. I enjoy your insights and rambles.

Thanks for listening, Robert!

I love your podcasts! I enjoy being able to do two things at once–like keep on top of my craft projects while getting an education on writing and marketing.

And THANK YOU for the photograph. That setting is beautiful.

Thanks for listening, Danielle!

Great talk, Lindsay. I’m a big character fan myself, so this was fun to listen to!

Thank you, Elizabeth. 🙂

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