Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Writing Relatable Characters

I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I recently read one of the STORM novels, The Infinity Code. It’s a bit like Young Bond but I found the characters hard to relate to.

There’s the 14 year old MC, genius level IQ and at special school of geniuses but not as stuck up as they are. He invents things as a hobby and is adventurous and daring and speaks Russian and has no parents (dad dead, mum ran off) and is a natural leader and is a bit of a Mary Sue. (What are male Mary Sue’s called?). Oh, and he’s the top of every class except one in his school of geniuses. And his dad was in MI-6.

The 14 year old FMC is a genius who beats the MC in Chemistry class but is behind him at everything else. Despite him being SECOND top of the class, she has to regularly explain chemistry things to him as if he’s a four year old. Oh, and she fluently speaks six languages, four of which she learned from books (you can’t fluently learn languages from books) and she has a photographic memory. She liks to blow up schools, her mum is dead and her dads an alcoholic.
The other MC is a multi-millionaire who made his first million by the age of ten. The fourth 14 year old is a physics genius who outshines even his dad (who’s another physics genius).

Obviously the WTF level in these books is high.

These characters aren’t well-written, and they are hard to relate to. So I’ve been wondering, what makes a character easy to relate to, and I don’t just mean heroes.

Nobody’s perfect. We all have faults, some less than others (I, personally, only have one) and we accept that. It’s life. So why in fiction are characters so often faultless. They are never mean or spiteful or sarcastic or wake up in the morning and just can’t be bothered. They are never fat, and never worry about what their eating. So if you want your character to be relatable, giving them faults is a great place to start.

Everybody wants something and if you make your characters motivation obvious, your character will be stronger for it. We all have desires and goals, and if we know your characters goals early on then we can watch how they try to achieve those goals. With those goals in mind the reader can weigh your characters every decision and, although they may not agree with the actions your character takes, they can certainly relate to the decisions.

Add personality. Create your characters personality, complete with faults, and then think how they would react in a certain situation. Don’t think about the plot, about how you need them to react, think about how they would react.

There is actually two ways to practice this. The first is to put your character in a situation outside of your novel, for instance “What would my MC do if a plane crashed? His dog had cancer? A guy he hated proposed to his sister and she said yes?” etc. Or, think of someone you know well, like your best friend, and do the same. How would my BF react if a plane crashed…

That was best friend, not boyfriend, by the way.

And an example of how a personality can affect your novel. The story is about a cop who discovers his brother is the serial killer he has been hunting. But have you spent the last three hundred pages describing a man who i) didn’t turn up for his wife’s scan when she was expecting their kid because he put his job first, and is hungry for promotion or ii) puts his family first before his job?

One of those is going to help his brother hide, and the other will turn him in.

Personality, motivation, faults. We all have them, and if you’re characters have them, too, then we can relate to them. Think of the greatest fictional characters you know, or the most famous.
Darth Vader, who turned to evil when he believed his family died, returned to good for the sake of saving his son. Faults are obvious, emotional instability, unable to process grief, and so on. Motivation, he wants to forget, or to perhaps punish those he feels were responsible. Later, he betrays his evil master to save his son. The personality is evident throughout… a character who made that first choice couldn’t have made anyother decision the second time around.

And can you relate to him? How will you react if you lost your partner and your kids. If they were murdered, can you honestly say you wouldn’t become evil and kill their murderer? Would you even think of it as evil?

Think of a more plot based story, like James Bond. He goes on missions because its his job, but why does he work in such a dangerous world? Does he crave the glamour, money or excitement? We are never told and, although guesses can be made (he never stays with one woman long ergo he is easily bored ergo he is in the job for the excitement) it isn’t that important. The James Bond stories aren’t that deep, they are plot driven, and the excitement is the storyline, not Bond’s personality or faults (does he have any?). At the end of the day, we can’t easily relate to Bond.

Well, nine hundred words on how to make characters relatable. Hope that helps.

Oh, and my fault? I spend too much time writing and not enough blogging. Not really a fault, though, is it? Guess I’m perfect after all…


  1. Thanks. Very good read, very helpful

  2. Guy mary sue's are called gary stu's I think if that helps and thanks this helps alot :)