Making Readers Care: 9 Tips on Crafting Compelling Characters

This month’s authors’ Round Robin is all about character, and the inspiration for the topic comes from author Connie Vines.

helena fairfax, freelance editor, fiction editor

Jane Eyre, James Bond, Harry Potter, Fagin, Bridget Jones and Anne of Green Gables – human beings are always interested in the story of other human beings, and we remember the characters in a story much longer than any of the plot twists. One of the most common reasons readers say they put a book down is that ‘they didn’t care for the characters’.

Making readers care

‘Make me care’ is one of the top tips of Pixar writer Andrew Stanton – but this isn’t at all as easy as it sounds! In my work as an editor I’ve often felt the characters in a manuscript aren’t coming across as well as they could. It’s not enough to tell a writer ‘the characters need to be more engaging’. I have to give very good reasons why I feel this way, and if possible give some suggestions on how to make the characters more compelling.

So here, in no particular order, are my…

9 tips on crafting compelling characters

Tip One: Make your character an underdog

There’s something in human nature that makes us care about victims, people who are having a hard time or being unfairly mistreated. There are lots of examples from fiction: Jane Eyre bullied by her cousins, Oliver Twist born an orphan, Cinderella in the kitchen, the sisters in Little Women and a Christmas with no presents, and so on.

If your character is facing a struggle from the opening, whether it be something dramatic like being attacked by aliens, or just dealing with a mean boss at work, readers will root for them from the start.

Tip Two: If your character is in charge, have them do something kind

But what if your character is the mean boss? How do you get readers behind them? In his book on screenwriting, Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder suggests having the high-status type of character perform an act of kindness in the opening – that is, literally saving a cat.

I often suggest using a secondary character to show how this character isn’t such a bad person underneath everything. Perhaps the grumpy boss visits her elderly dad every day, and he’s equally grumpy with her, and she’s patient with him. Or an example I often quote is Mr Darcy. He has all the power and status in the opening, and he knows it – but he also has a great friend in secondary character Mr Bingley, so readers will intuit he must have something likeable about him, and he’s worth sticking with.

helena fairfax, gone with the wind

Tip Three: Give your character at least one great quality

OK, it may seem like a given that your main character has some sterling qualities, but I’m thinking here of the not-so-likeable characters – people like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Scarlett is self-absorbed and spoilt, and in the opening she’s from a rich family, and no underdog. What is there to recommend her, and why do readers stay with her?

She’s not afraid to go for what she wants, and she doesn’t care what people think about her. Women at the time this book was published (and even nowadays) are raised to be people-pleasers, and Scarlett’s attitude as heroine is a refreshing change. She’s also brave and determined, and she’s inspired a life-long love in Rhett Butler…(…and when she blows it, somehow we’re still rooting for her).

Tip Four: Give your character a goal

What does your main character actually want? A character with no purpose is hard to get behind, and a purposeless character doesn’t make for a story. It doesn’t have to be a monumental goal, like saving the planet, or solving a murder. It can be something quite ordinary. In The Wizard of Oz, all Dorothy wants is to get back home. In Jane Eyre, all Jane wants is to earn a living for herself. But it’s the actions they take while pursuing their goals that drive the story. Which leads to…

Tip Five: Make your character active

You can write a story where lots of things happen – but if lots of things are happening to your main character, and they aren’t actually taking any action themselves, this makes them appear passive. It’s actually surprisingly easy to fall into this trap.

I’ve read quite a few manuscripts with a lot going on, but the main character is sitting around waiting for these events to happen. Again, you don’t have to have your character grabbing a sword and rushing out, but your hero or heroine needs to be someone who does something, rather than waiting – even if it’s only going to visit her sick sister, as Lizzie Bennett insists on doing in Pride and Prejudice, despite the muddy walk.

Tip Six: Make your character good at something

Readers like a character who is competent. Jane Eyre wouldn’t have been so relatable if she was slack and a rubbish governess. On a similar theme, your character may start off at the bottom, as an underdog, but no one likes a moaner. Rather than complaining or bemoaning their lot, the best characters strive to work their way out of their predicament.

I’ve just finished reading Nora Goes Off Script, by Annabel Monaghan, which I loved. The heroine is a single mum and makes a living writing cheesy Hallmark movies. It’s not the career of her dreams, but she needs the money, she gets on with it without moaning – and she’s really good at it.

Tip Seven: Don’t make your character perfect

Having said that, don’t make your character perfect. In the opposite to tip six, Bridget Jones is terrible at her job! But she tries her best, she doesn’t slack off and she keeps on going. Anyone who’s ever made an idiot of themselves in the workplace (which is most of us) will relate.

Tip Eight: Give your character as hard a time as possible

Stories are about a point in a character’s life when they are forced to confront something. Don’t make things easy for them. As you write your way into the novel, and once you get to know your characters, it can be tempting to let them off the hook. As writers, we get to know and love these people. I’ve read quite a few manuscripts where halfway through things appear to be going swimmingly, and I’ve felt the author was being too kind to her creations :) But giving your character a hard time will not only keep the all-important tension raised, it will help your character grow and develop. Which leads to…

Tip Nine: Give your character room to grow

What does your character learn as they are forced to confront the events you’ve created for them? It’s the character’s arc (the way they change and grow) that makes them particularly relatable, interesting and meaningful to the reader, and that can cause readers to feel the most emotion.

Of course not all characters have to grow (I’m not sure Sherlock Holmes changes, for example), but giving a character room to grow is at the heart of romance novels in particular – the genre I love to read and write. Unless the hero and heroine change by, for example, overcoming their pride or prejudice, they won’t be able to come together.


In this short post,I haven’t room to do justice to each of these nine tips on creating character. There’s so much more could be said for each one. For further reading, I recommend Get Your Story Straight, by Diane Drake, and Writing for Emotional Impact, by Karl Iglesias. Both have great sections on creating compelling characters.

And if you’d like to check out what the other authors in our Round Robin have to say on this topic, please click on one of the links below!

·         Marci Baun 

·         Skye Taylor

·         Dr Bob Rich 

·         Anne Stenhouse  

. Rhobin Courtright

·         Judith Copek

25 thoughts on “Making Readers Care: 9 Tips on Crafting Compelling Characters

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment, Rosemary, and I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. It was fin revisiting some favourite characters. Now I keep thinking of others I could have mentioned as well!


    1. Hi James, I enjoy your melodrama! :) Thanks very much for your kind comment. I haven’t been keeping up to my blog in the past few months. It’s been a difficult year. I’m glad to be back, though – and hope to get back to regular posts. Thanks again, and always lovely to hear from you!


      1. Okay…

        Well, here’s a clip from DRUSILLA’S ROSES (the unknown counterpart to DEAR MISS LANDAU), which puts Drusilla (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER) in the role of the underdog:

        “This man was evil through and through. Bald, heavyset and brutish, with the mottled cheeks of the heavy drinker, he was the product of old mining camps in the Sierra Nevadas or rough bars on the San Francisco docks. He had been mean and vicious
        in life. In death, he was totally in thrall to his demon.

        He smelled of week-old sweat and piss, and his fangs were very long. She couldn’t stop looking at them.

        Then she saw what he was going to do to her.

        Even she shrank away in horror.

        When it was over, he threw her out into the open. By pure blind chance, it was
        still night. She lay by a forest path for a while, whimpering softly, terribly hurt.

        After a while, she sensed dawn coming and blearily thought about just letting the sun claim her, but some flickering sense of self-preservation dragged her slowly to
        her feet.

        She smelled sea air. The ocean was nearby. She had always liked sticks of rock at the seaside. There would be no sticks of rock for her today, not after what had happened to her, but she would go there anyway.

        Bent over, lurching, gathering what rags of clothing and shreds of dignity she could, she made her way down to the beach.

        Her body slashed with bite wounds, she had wandered along the coast near Monterey Bay at dawn, still wondering whether she should wait for sunrise and end it all.

        So many times over the years, she had acted insanely, and so many times her family had saved her from herself, but given in to her whines and her wants.

        So many times William had cared for her, protected her and unwittingly helped her stay sunken in her psychosis, letting her remain a silly little girl who talked to her dolls to avoid facing the fact she was a vampire and a monster.

        But now there was nothing except the wind, the sea and the waves. William was lost to her, and no-one else cared whether she lived or died.

        The sky was brightening and, perhaps born out of shock or the desperate need for survival, a little sanity slowly began to trickle into Drusilla’s damaged mind.

        This time, she painstakingly realised, there was nobody there to hold her hand and bring her out of the light. If she didn’t take responsibility for herself, she would soon be a pile of dust on a deserted California beach with no-one to mourn her.”

        This was actually a very hard sequence to write (even though the worst bit is not described in detail); but Drusilla has been brought to a turning point, the odds are against her, the sun is coming up, and she has to choose whether to live or to die…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. No particular examples re. Tip Two; but re. Tip Three, my hero in MACNAB, John Sandiman, is a bit of a world-weary cynical loner. However, he raises himself up, steals the Book of Deer and finally explains why:

          “I’m going to take that book back to Finnan’s glen. To the church we went to, the church a bunch of Scots kids vandalised because they didn’t know or care about their own culture. I’m going to take that book back and tell them all who wrote it, why it was written, and what it stands for. That’s what I’ll do. I don’t care what happens afterwards.”

          He stood up slowly, no fear left in him.

          “That’s all there is to it. You can stop me if you want.”

          He paused.

          “Or you can make a decision for yourself.”

          She looked at him, and he saw something in her eyes. A fire in shadow perhaps, or a flame. They faced each other for a long moment, then she deliberately turned her attention to her empty coffee cup, not watching as John Macnab took the satchel holding the Book of Deer and walked away into the crowds.

          She sat there for a long time, watching people passing by. After a while, she noticed her reflection in the glass and saw that she was smiling. Then, shaking her head in bemusement, she made her way home.”

          Liked by 1 person

            1. Great examples, James. I love the last line of the Drusilla example. And (with my editor’s voice on) you show the events unfolding, rather than telling the reader what happens. It’s a fine distinction, but the former brings the scene to life. Feel free to add a couple more!


              1. OK. Interestingly, I have to say that re Drusilla, I showed the unfolding events instinctively. I think that was because I had this uncanny connection to the character (as Juliet Landau herself attested). I didn’t know I was making a fine distinction. I just did it, while Dru (it seemed) looked attentively over my shoulder, lovingly batting her eyelids at me. It seems to have been that rare connection a writer gets with their creation, where the character apparently comes to life and demands their story be written. This was seemingly the case with Robert E. Howard and Conan the Barbarian.

                And that, it also seems, was what happened to me and Dru.

                Honestly, some student of literature should have done a paper on this YEARS ago…

                Liked by 1 person

                1. Tip Four:

                  This is a pretty simple one for me:

                  “Lost in thought, he went on looking west.

                  In pristine silence, for there was no wind, he saw a CalMac ferry going on its way to the Isle of Harris. It seemed to leave no wake on the ice-blue waters. For a moment he felt he was looking at a ghost ship taking an ancient tribe to their destiny, like the curragh (a leather-hulled longboat) which had carried Columba and his disciples to Iona. On the way across, probably on Colonsay, Columba had climbed a hill and looked back at Ireland for the last time. Then he’d founded the Abbey of Iona and later, the settlement at Deer.

                  According to legend, Columba had been exiled for copying a book without permission. He had been tried for this, the decision had gone against him and, piqued, he’d started the battle of Cul Dreimne.

                  Sandiman smiled. They had certainly taken breaches of copyright seriously back then! But books had been sacred …

                  His mind stopped dead. Something that nice, clueless ned had said in the library.

                  “Better they send the Stone or we’ll steal it again.”

                  Steal it again…

                  Quite suddenly, it all came together.

                  Of course.

                  Not the Stone of Destiny.

                  The Book.

                  Once as holy to Christians as the Qur’an still was to Muslims.

                  A Cathach. Taken by clans into battle.

                  There were still battles to be fought, still a need for clansmen to carry the Cathach.

                  Clansmen like John Macnab.

                  John Macnab, who would steal the Book of Deer.”

                  This excerpt was actually based on real events and observations. I was on top of the Quiraing (northern tip of the isle of Skye) on New Year’s Day 1996 (I think), saw that ferry and got that inspiration. So you can imagine John Sandiman suddenly having that eureka moment and, indeed, seriously working out EXACTLY what his goal will be…

                  Liked by 1 person

                  1. Tip Six…

                    Moving away from my own works (and ginormous ego…), I am an admirer of Roger Zelazny’s little-known DAMNATION ALLEY (1969) where a former Hell’s Angel crosses a nuclear-devastated America with the cure for a plague.

                    He’s not a nice guy, but as the traffic commissioner says to him:

                    “You are not a human being, except from a biological standpoint. You have a big dead spot somewhere inside you where other people have something that lets them live together in society and be neighbors. The only virtue that you possess – if you want to call it that – is that your reflexes may be a little faster, your muscles a little stronger, your eye a bit more wary than the rest of us, so that you can sit behind a wheel and drive through anything that has a way through it.”

                    I thought Zelazny laid it down with beautiful clarity: this guy’s a real piece of work, but he can drive better than anyone in the world. The one man who can, just maybe, run the Alley and save the remnants of humanity…

                    Liked by 1 person

                    1. Tip Seven…

                      It’s back to DAMNATION ALLEY, and never was there a less perfect character than Hell Tanner! This quote comes directly before the one above.

                      “Shut up! You don’t care about them, and you know it! I just want to tell you that I think you are the lowest, most reprehensible human being I have ever encountered. You have killed men and raped women. You once gouged out a man’s eyes, just for fun. You’ve been indicted twice for pushing dope, and three times as a pimp. You’re a drunk and a degenerate, and I don’t think you’ve had a bath since the day you were born. You and your hoodlums terrorized decent people when they were trying to pull their lives together after the war. You stole from them and assaulted them, and you extorted money and the necessities of life with the threat of physical violence. I wish you had died in the Big Raid that night, like all the rest of them.”

                      To put it mildly, Zelazny makes it terrifyingly clear what a b*****d Tanner is, but somehow still (in my view) makes him sort of sympathetic. I’ll explain when I do Tip Nine.

                      Liked by 1 person

                2. I loved reading through your examples, James, and the Zelazny is the perfect example of an unsympathetic character (to say the least!) that readers would get behind. I haven’t heard of this book – or the author – before. I’ll definitely check it out.
                  And it’s interesting that you feel you told the Dru story instinctively. I think it really does help if you’ve read widely and watched a lot of films/theatre/TV. I think many writers have an instinctive feel for how a story works simply because they’ve been immersing themselves in stories for years.


                  1. DAMNATION ALLEY was turned into a not-very-good film (don’t bother), but you should be able to get a cheap copy of the book via Amazon or Abe Books.

                    There certainly was a lot of instinct involved in writing Drusilla, and the fact I was able to do it so accurately was a bit odd… The four novellas virtually wrote themselves, and it was almost as if Dru was leaning over my shoulder dictating it to me while giving me a back massage. It probably came out of a near-nervous breakdown, a similar personality to Juliet Landau’s and indeed lots of experience reading Drusilla fan-fiction. I do really wish an English lit. student with an interest in psychology would study it…

                    Liked by 1 person

  1. Hey, Helena. On vacation and just getting around to your post. I knew it would be good and it really is excellent. Your points are spot on and your examples make the point clear. I’ll share. Super good stuff. :)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Helena, forgot to add that someone reading excerpts on the fourth book I wrote told me the hero in VERMONT ESCAPE just wasn’t likeable. They told me the Save the Cat story. I literally added several scenes showing him rescuing his mother’s little dog. What a difference. It was after that and a bunch more editing, I sold to MIU. And now I’m in a different email on my vacation computer and I can share. Technology. LOL

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s really interesting about your character rescuing the mum’s dog, Marsha. I love it!
      I hope you’re having a lovely vacation. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment, and for sharing. I appreciate it!


  3. Looks like I’ll have to do Tip Eight here, and it’s back to my old paramour Drusilla who has to face off against the First Slayer in the heart of Africa in a fight to the death to gain redemption.

    To put it mildly, she has a hard time…

    “The slayer blinked, Drusilla sent the first volley of punches into her face like an expert fencer, and the war to end all wars began.

    Vampire and slayer, ever-circling round the muddy ring, seemed to blend into each other as slashing punches and kicks shot between them at impossible speed. They moved with the grace of dancers yet battered each other like drunken longshoremen with knuckle-dusters in their hands. A mist seemed to gather around them, and that mist turned red as small veins spurted open with the impacts of hand and foot. Flesh squelched and tore as it absorbed impacts of thousands of pounds of force per square inch of skin, both demons howling in glee as the violence ramped up to levels where pain became pleasure.

    Their different fighting styles became more apparent as Drusilla and the slayer settled into explosive, cataclysmic rhythms of combat, the advantage eddying back and forth as they contested the small circle of earth on which they stood. The slayer came forward like a compact little bull, clubbing at the dancing vampire like a predator trying to lay open the exposed flanks of a gazelle, but this gazelle would not be caught, and her golden eyes flashed contemptuously at her sluggish opponent as she danced between the slashing arcs of those deadly fists like a butterfly with bricks in its hands.

    Those hands whipped through the gaps in the slayer’s guard like sharpshooters’ bullets, the vampire hammering at the fireplug standing before her with a rhythm like the samba, feeling flesh split and bones chip beneath her fingers, seeing the spatter of the slayer’s blood and sweat land on her own skin.

    Drusilla would anchor her feet for a nanosecond at a time to do so, and be on the move before the slayer’s ripostes could catch her. But she knew, deep down in her gut, that every time she threw a combination of punches, she would slow down just
    a little and, sooner or later, the slayer would catch the mad and bouncing goat
    taunting her…”

    it is said Joss Whedon liked killing off characters at random. I liked knocking seven bells out of them in order to find out what they were really made of, and I really did so that time…


    1. Tip Nine: Hell Tanner gets room to grow…

      This is one of my favourite quotes:

      “Nobody had ever asked him to do anything important before, and he hoped that nobody ever would again. Now, though, he was taken by the feeling that he could do it. He wanted to do it. Damnation Alley lay all about him, burning, fuming, shaking, and if he could not run it, then half the world would die…”

      So, while the reader has been told very clearly that Hell Tanner’s a degenerate, they nevertheless relate to the fact he is learning and growing some sort of conscience.

      While it’s certainly not romance writing (dear God, that’s an understatement!), I think I’d recommend DAMNATION ALLEY to you. It made a lasting impression on me, and I’d say it’s damn good writing. It might give you a few ideas.

      Okay, I think that’s enough from me.


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