Tag Archives: character emotion

Yearn and Burn

Character emotions bring fiction to life.

You can have a well-designed, logical, plausible plot and characters that look good in the abstract with useful backgrounds, skills, capabilities, and personality traits, but without injecting emotions into their reactions, they will remain as lifeless as ventriloquist dummies latched inside carry cases.

Here’s an example:

Jane looked up at him. “Bob, I’m sorry, but we can’t see each other anymore. My husband is growing suspicious. I can’t risk him finding out about us.”

Bob sighed and nodded. “I guess you’re right. I don’t like it, but I understand. I’ll never forget you though. Believe that.”

They hugged, and Bob watched her walk away.

Flat, isn’t it?

Or are you thinking that maybe this example just needs some context. Maybe if we’d read all that had happened between the couple up to this point, we’d know what Bob was feeling.

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

If a writer can flatten the breakup of a so-called passionate love affair to this extent, probably every encounter between this robo-couple will be equally ho-hum.

The only indication readers have that Bob experiences any feelings whatsoever comes through his sigh. And that sigh is too vague. It doesn’t convey whether he’s sad, relieved, miserable, exasperated, frustrated, or just clearing his throat.

Without emotional reaction to what’s happening in the story, Bob is boring. His lack of response and unfeeling acceptance trivializes what could be a strong, poignant moment.

What are the stakes for Bob? Is he devastated at losing Jane? Is she the love of his life? Is he afraid for her to return to her husband and desperate to persuade her to change her mind? Does he fear for her safety? Does he yearn to protect her? Does he burn to cherish her? Is he terrified of never seeing her again?

Or is Bob furious that she now wants to go back to her husband? Is he swept with jealousy and angry at the time and money he’s spent on her? Does he feel used and discarded?

Is Bob’s love about to morph into hatred?

From the passage above, we don’t know anything. And when the viewpoint character fails to feel, readers assume that the plot problem isn’t as important as it first appeared because the character didn’t react to it.

No character reaction = no importance.

Is that the effect you want? I hope not. Because why would you want to write about–much less design a scene around–something that’s unimportant or trivial?

Here are a few things that are awful about dealing with character emotions, at least from the writer’s perspective:

*They’re messy.

*They’re challenging to write.

*They’re exhausting.

*They’re hard to do well.

Many writers would rather dodge the whole business, but I’ve already explained the pitfalls of doing so. Your stories need characters, not automatons.

When I encounter a wannabe writer whining about the drawbacks of injecting emotions into characters, my response always boils down to a so what?

Never let yourself be dissuaded by how difficult some aspect of writing is. The degree of challenge you face is probably an indicator of how vital and necessary to your story that element will become.

Once writers grasp the necessity of including emotions, another area where they can stumble is by not writing them with sufficient intensity.

Try this:

Jane looked up at him. Tears swam in her eyes. “I’m sorry, but I can’t see you anymore. My husband is growing suspicious. I can’t risk him finding out about us.”

Bob sighed, feeling miserable, and nodded. “I guess you’re right. I don’t like it, but I understand. I’ll never forget you though. Believe that.”

Well, we’ve got emotion in our example now–from Jane the non-viewpoint character who is about to cry–and from Bob whom we’re told feels miserable. Won’t that do?

It’s better than nothing, but it’s too tepid. If the stakes are high enough for the moment to be dramatized, then make it compelling. Push those emotions past your comfort zone.

Does this mean you must create hysterical, histrionic, over-the-top characters? Does this mean you have to write the way William Shatner acts?

Uh … why not? Shatner knows how to deliver a quiet, nuanced, restrained performance, but doing so hasn’t kept him working all these years.

Okay, your characters don’t have to be hysterical and histrionic, but they need to be E-X-A-G-G-E-R-A-T-E-D. And if exaggeration puts them over the top, so let it be written; so let it be done. You can always tone down the draft later in revision if it’s too much. But in rough draft, push the emotions until you flinch. Then push them some more.

Let’s try one more time:

Jane looked up at him. Tears swam in her eyes. “I’m sorry, but I can’t see you anymore.”

“Wait! What? Darling, what are you saying?”

“I mean it. My husband is growing suspicious. You know I can’t risk him finding out about us.”

A sour, sick taste flooded Bob’s mouth. He curled his fists, wanting to drive down to the coffee shop and pound Eric Rankin to a pulp for what he’d put Jane through all these years. Still, for Jane’s sake, Bob tried to rein everything in. His stomach burned from the effort. It took all he had to speak normally, calmly. “I’d like for him to find out. I want him to know. Let me take you away. I can keep you safe from him. You know I can.”

Well, well. Look what’s happened to Bob. When I intensified his emotions, he came alive, and suddenly he has an ulcer, something of a violent temper, and he isn’t meekly agreeing with Jane’s decision. Instead, he’s arguing with her. He’s showing her (and readers) that he cares.

And maybe readers will start to care also.

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Bubble, Boil & Trouble

Just the other day, I told my class that more amateur fiction fails from insufficient conflict than for any other reason.

Conflict, problems, adversity, bad luck, pressure, stress, worry, anguish–these are all part of a writer’s toolkit and should be at the center of stories.

However, sometimes new writers stumble over these variants of character trouble or dodge them altogether.

Instead, let’s look ’em right in the eye:


Conflict is the linchpin of scenes. I always define it as two characters in direct, active opposition to each other. They meet in confrontation. They argue, fight, interrogate, bicker, evade, etc. Each one comes into the confrontation with a strategy and maneuvers through various tactics and persuasions in an effort to win the encounter.

So as long as you’re writing scenes, fill them with conflict.

If your characters won’t confront each other, you have a problem, and the scenes will crumble.

Problems that can’t be ignored or evaded give your characters something to do. Problems in the story’s opening situation, in the story’s subplots, in the characters’ backgrounds are all useful devices for filling mushy places in your plotline where the story action might otherwise flag.

Adversity (aka random bad luck) carries a warning label because it’s so often misused whenever inexperienced writers try to substitute it for conflict.

Let me state this clearly:  conflict and adversity are not the same thing. Adversity is conflict’s weaker cousin and it can’t do the job that conflict is responsible for.

Even so, occasional adversity doesn’t hurt. Like problems, adversity in small doses injected strategically brings another level of trouble to a story. If you’re writing plenty of conflict and your scenes are strong, adding an occasional dollop of bad luck will help raise the story stakes and keep your plot less predictable.

However, adversity alone just doesn’t carry a story well. Random bad luck is the volcano spewing molten lava on the spot where the hero just happens to be standing. Had the sidekick been there instead, the lava would have melted him. The lava doesn’t care. It has no intelligence, let alone a reason for doing what it’s doing.

Yet if lava spewing danger to a resort Hawaiian community is a catalyst that kickstarts a story and gets the protagonist moving in an effort to warn the community residents or evacuate them, then the volcanic eruption works very well as a backdrop of added danger. But on its own, it is not an actual antagonist.

Pressure ups the stakes. Pressure comes from deadlines, bad luck, and threats. Just when your protagonist has more than enough to cope with, add more pressure. Maybe Granny decides to have a coronary just as the protagonist is trying to load everyone on her neighborhood block into a van for evacuation ahead of the lava flow. The ambulance is cut off from rendering assistance. Minor characters are panicking. And now the protagonist has to find a way to save Granny.

Stress is a by-product of trouble and pressure. And while I want to experience as little stress in myself as possible, I certainly want my protagonist to suffer through a lot of it. Because stress indicates my protagonist is being tested, which is what fiction is really about.

Worry in a hero when things are going from bad to worse creates a corresponding concern in readers. And that helps keep pages turning.

Anguish stems from scene conflict that’s more challenging than the protagonist expected, ending in setback or disaster. Think about times in your life when you’ve wanted something so very, very much and it did not happen. Look at the faces of Olympic athletes who’ve trained for years for the split-second ending of a race when they reached out with all they had and fell short.

That’s your protagonist, reaching through conflict and opposition so bad he isn’t sure he can survive it, and feeling intense anguish as the story goal looks to be dropping away, lost forever.


Conflict, problems, and trouble have to start strong and grow harsher and more formidable as the story progresses. This kind of story pressure will then force your protagonist into taking risks and growing. It will push your protagonist’s emotions into a churning turmoil of conflicting feelings.

If your viewpoint character isn’t “on the boil” inside, then chances are you haven’t pitted him or her against enough opposition.

Raise the stakes and stop protecting your protagonist.


What’s bubbling beneath the surface? What do you know that your readers don’t? Is your protagonist torn within, at conflict with himself as he struggles to find a way out of his current difficulties?

External plot conflict should exacerbate whatever flaws your hero possesses. Not just little things like failing to pick up her clothes, but areas where your protagonist lacks something necessary to win, to survive the story situation.

The external conflict should force your protagonist to grow. And a character grows whenever he’s pushed from the cocoon of physical, emotional, or psychological safety where he’s taken refuge.

Trouble with consequences that can’t be ignored is the first step toward shoving your protagonist beyond the safety zone. Being pitted against an antagonist that shows no mercy will compel your protagonist to strive to do things never tried before despite that inner flaw or fear. The story’s plot is all about making your protagonist face her fear or overcome her inner weakness despite all the internal doubt and uncertainty holding her back.

Without trouble, boil, and bubble–protagonists are flat and lifeless on the page. They never quite come to life. They fail to be compelling.

Reach past your personal comfort zone and stop protecting your hero. Amp up the challenge, and kick emotions to life.

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Fire and Passion

You come across a book by two authors you’ve never read before. You read the first one, and it’s like finding treasure. The characters spring to life on every page. The action is exciting. The suspense is hair-raising. You can’t bear the anticipation of reaching the story climax and yet you can’t stop turning pages. And when you reach the ending, you’re both exhilarated and sad that it’s over. You click online to see if this book is part of a series because you want more.

Then you read the second book you purchased. Your reaction is meh. It’s not bad, but it’s not good either. You find yourself trying to like the characters, but they’re merely okay. You can’t love them. You’re struggling to care about whether they’ll succeed. The story moves competently through its paces, and when you finish you’re mostly relieved that it’s over. Definitely you won’t seek any more of this author’s work.

Besides allowing for a reader’s personal taste, what’s the difference? Two authors with equal numbers of publications. Two authors with equal amounts of professional experience. Why is one writing copy that’s alive and one writing copy that’s flat?

Are their ideas that unequal?

Probably not. Very likely the difference lies not in the story premise but in their approach to their material. Writer One put her heart into her book. She wrote it because she had a passion for the story and her characters. She lived and breathed the emotions. Writer Two wrote because she had a contractual deadline to meet. She outlined a story in a competent way. She designed characters because they either fit a publisher’s guidelines or because she’s found certain characteristics sell better than others. She put her her characters into challenging situations, and then chose appropriate words to convey their emotional reactions.

One writer wrote with her heart. The other writer wrote with her mind.

Now in certain genres, such as hard science fiction or puzzle mysteries, the mind is what’s most needed. These books are focused on the story problem to be solved. They are not relying on intense character internalization and growth.

But for most genres, the heart is vital. Emotion in characters brings them alive. The writer must care about the character and the issue first. If the writer cares, then the character involved will care. If the character cares, then the reader will care. Investing emotion into a situation means stronger motivation, stronger attempts, stronger conflict, stronger confrontations, stronger reactions, and stronger determination to prevail from the story people.

Sure, writers have to think about their plots and work through the development of outlines, but once that foundation is laid, writers must then write the story from inside the protagonist’s viewpoint. That is what’s made to appear to drive the story forward.

But if a writer attempts to write fiction from the outside, the character will always seem flat and the authorial hand will sometimes be too evident in moving a puppet character here and there.



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Description: Love it. Use it.

Without description, fiction becomes cold and abstract, and readers find it difficult to visualize the setting, characters, or character reactions. Nor can they bond with character emotions if those emotions aren’t described. Such problems create a sense of detachment, which makes it easy for readers to lose interest and drift away from the story.

On the other hand, description slows down story pace. Too much description can sink a story or cause readers to skip passages. If readers skip, they’re likely to miss important information. If they miss that, a few pages later they don’t understand where the story’s going. Once they stop understanding, they lose interest. Unfairly, they may declare that your characters are “stupid” or your story just doesn’t make sense.

Therefore, when dealing with description writers need to focus on three factors: utility, vividness, and position.

Before incorporating a passage of description into your story, ask yourself what purpose is it going to serve. Is it creating a sense of place, showcasing your world building, introducing a new character, or conveying character emotions?

Sense of place:
How easy it would be if writers could just tell readers that the story is taking place in London at 4 p.m. and leave readers to supply the rest.

Screenwriters have an advantage over prose writers in this area because of the camera. Movie or television audiences can see a vista or a house or a neighborhood or a menacing robot looming from the shadows of a poorly lit alley. It’s there on the screen. No need for the writer to expend words and energy depicting it.

However, prose writers must work much harder in conveying sense of place. We don’t want to ramble on and on, because readers will grow tired and skip our lovingly crafted paragraphs. Therefore, we need to put the image across quickly, economically, and effectively.

One of the best ways to do so is through the physical senses of your viewpoint character. Don’t just rely on the visual. Does the setting have a putrid stench? Is the air extremely cold? Are factory pistons pounding away at a deafening sound level? Does the drugged coffee have a bitter taste?

Dominant impression:
Don’t throw all the sensory impressions at your readers at the same time. For any given setting, determine the most prominent detail you want to convey and focus on that. It should be a logical one in terms of what’s happening in the plot. For example, perhaps you’re writing about a home invasion where the homeowner–your protagonist–pulls a handgun from his nightstand drawer and exchanges gunfire with the individuals who have broken into his house.

In this situation, what would be the dominant impression to describe during the gunfire? That’s right: sound.

Afterward, when the situation is over, what might the dominant impression be? Probably the smell of cordite.

By utilizing a dominant physical sense, you can describe on the fly–briefly and effectively–without employing a long, rambling passage that will slow down the story’s movement.

Painting a word picture requires strong, specific nouns and active verbs. Avoid the flabby qualifiers of adjectives and adverbs.

The big red dog walked slowly along the sidewalk.

How large is big? Does red mean the dog is a burnished color or does the dog have red paint spilled on his coat? Is he moving slowly because he’s fat, or is he limping, or is he frightened, or is he weak, or is he lost and unsure, or is he lazy?

Do you see how vague description conveys very little? No wonder readers grow impatient with it.

A mixed-breed dog roughly the same size as a bull calf and sporting crimson splotches of glistening paint on its head and shoulders roamed along the sidewalk.

Hmm. Is this vivid or confusing? In an effort to be unusual, the writer has jammed too much information together. The images clash and crowd each other. It’s not effective.

An Irish setter–red coat gleaming like a new-minted penny–ambled along the sidewalk.

Here, the writer has used the dominant impression of color to convey the dog’s appearance. The verb “ambled” indicates movement that’s content and unhurried.

However, if the writer really wants to describe a dog that’s been in the paint, let’s try that one again.

The stray dog–its head and shoulders glistening with splotches of red paint–fled down the sidewalk, spattering drops in its wake.

Don’t you expect that animal to pause under some nice old lady’s clothesline and give itself a good shake?

Now, are some of you jumping up and down, eager to remind me that I didn’t mention the dog’s size?

If the size is more important than the spilled paint, then focus on that with dominant impression. Otherwise, let that detail wait.

Where you insert description matters to your story’s dramatic (or comedic) effectiveness.

Pause Points:
Remember that description is perceived by readers as slowing down the story action, even if momentarily. Therefore, savvy writers place small passages of description in natural pause points.

For example, a new character enters the room where other–already established–characters are talking. Everyone stops and turns to stare at the newcomer.

This is a natural pause point in the story action. Insert a paragraph of description, thus introducing the new character to readers.

Or, to return to my example of the home invasion. After the shooting is over, there’s a natural pause point as the protagonist emerges cautiously from cover, switches on the bedroom light, and stares at the shambles. The wreck of the room needs to be described to readers. Certainly the character’s emotions need description here.

Suspense Points:
However, you don’t always want to put a slow passage at a slow spot in the story’s flow.

Sometimes writers deliberately slow down their stories in order to build anticipation for a coming event or to heighten dread toward a threat that’s about to drop.

Let’s say that your protagonist has been coerced into fighting a duel at dawn. He’s not feeling confident. You want readers to worry, to anticipate the danger and action about to explode across the page once the fight starts. But you don’t want to hurry the anticipation because readers enjoy it. Well-built and well-placed anticipation draws out and intensifies story suspense, thus providing readers with more entertainment value.

Sitting in the gondola, listening to the soft chuckle of water beneath the oar, Noel cradled the rapier beneath his cloak and gazed at the narrow buildings rising up from the gray mist of dawn. The cold air stank of fish. Overhead, veins of pink and turquoise faintly marbled the sky, which was lightening from gray to pearl. The clouds were soft. Across the indigo sea, the sun climbed slowly. Its mantle of gold and coral blazed with magnificent radiance. Before it, the sea changed color, becoming turquoise curling with lacy foam. A fleet of galleys floated in silhouette upon the harbor, their sails furled, their masts at rest.

Slow? You bet! That paragraph, taken from my science fiction novel TERMINATION, is static. There’s no action other than from whoever is rowing the boat toward the assignation. Had the passage been placed in one of the story’s pause points, it would be dull reading indeed. Instead, it’s spinning out anticipation of the duel that’s about to take place. The description of a Venetian sunrise has been positioned deliberately to heighten suspense.

The greater the impending danger, the slower you can be in letting your characters approach it.

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Unmake the Remakes!

During the hectic rush and bustle of the recent holidays, my writer’s mind locked in on a puzzler: why can I watch the 1947 version of the Christmas film, MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, endlessly but cannot bear, endure, or tolerate the 1994 remake?

For a week or more, the AMC channel played endless repeats of the two films. I’ve loved the original all my life, but this Christmas I probably saw it at least six times. No matter what I was doing, if it was playing, I usually plopped on the comfy chair and watched.


Obviously it feeds my emotions and creative heart somehow, but how?

And why does the modern version irritate me so?

I admit I’m a huge fan of the old studio-system method of making movies. Sure, there were problems. Any system will have them. But the writing was usually top-notch!

Pushing aside the obvious elements of casting and actors’ abilities or lack thereof, I considered a few preliminary areas of story analysis: history, source, similarities, differences.

History: The 1947 version was distributed in English and Dutch. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. (Other Best Picture nominees that year included GENTLEMEN’S AGREEMENT, which won; THE BISHOP’S WIFE; and David Lean’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Terrific films all!)

MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET brought home Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (awarded to the marvelous Edmund Gwenn; he beat out the also-marvelous Charles Bickford in THE FARMER’S DAUGHTER); Best Writing, Original Story (Valentine Davies); and Best Writing, Screenplay (George Seaton). The film also won two Golden Globes.

The 1994 version garnered one Saturn Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor (Richard Attenborough), but did not win.

Source: When I found a hardbound copy of MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET for sale in an antiques shop, I ignored my rule against acquiring used books and snapped it up. Okay, Mr. Davies, I thought, let’s see what YOU wrote and how closely do the two films follow your version?

To my surprise, I discovered that this novella was published by Harcourt Brace the same year as the movie’s release and was actually written as a movie tie-in. It simply follows the script, with few deviations, mostly in narrative summary instead of actually dramatizing full scenes. The dialogue is almost identical to the screenplay’s.

The book, then, offers me no answers. Phooey!

Similarities: On the surface, the two films are … not much alike. Both deal with a similar premise: an old man thinks he’s Santa Claus; a little girl doesn’t believe; a couple who love the little girl learn to love each other; Santa is put on trial; Christmas is saved.

Differences: The 1947 version is 96 minutes. The 1994 version is 114 minutes.

Despite its shorter length, the older version manages to keep a crisp pace that doesn’t sacrifice characterization either in the major roles or the brief walk-ons. From the child Susan who may appear to be completely devoid of imagination but harbors a secret dream of a house with a backyard to play in … to the harried mother whose feet hurt as she searches for a fire engine toy … to the neurotic and malevolent Mr. Sawyer … to the judge whose grandchildren won’t speak to him because he’s put Santa on trial … to the post office employees–characters are vivid, touching, or funny.

Think about the doctor who vouches for Kris’s sanity when the Macy’s store is about to fire him. The doctor appears briefly in a couple of scenes, the one I’ve just mentioned and later when he’s almost speechless over receiving the X-Ray machine he needs so desperately. We see this man who cares deeply about his patients. He’s well-spoken and obviously competent, yet he’s chosen to work in the geriatrics field–an area that the more ambitious doctors often ignore. I would want this man to be my physician. Why? Because the writers took a short span of time to make me like him.

The modern version tosses the key character Alfred away. Gone is the gentle teenager befriended by Kris at work. Alfred’s little part is pivotal to illustrating Mr. Sawyer’s petty malevolence. Saving Alfred is Kris’s motivation for confronting Sawyer and striking him, thus giving Sawyer the opening he needs to have Kris tricked and committed to the asylum.

Instead, the modern version cooks up an evil store owner right out of comic-book casting. A couple of mindless henchmen (one’s female, so are they henchpeople?) trail Kris around and eventually grab him. It’s a ludicrous plotline that’s silly, cheap, and absolutely devoid of what gives fiction its heart and soul.

People matter. At the root of successful storytelling is the awareness that people must be important. People drive the story, whether through their attempts to accomplish something or through their anguish or belief in what Mr. Gayley calls the “intangibles.”

The 1947 version has a central theme about the joy and hope of the Christmas spirit. It deals with people who have been hurt in the past and are afraid to have faith in miracles or … each other. It’s a story about how kindness and joy can carry people through whatever problems they encounter.

My favorite part of this story is the scene with the little Dutch orphan. This film was made two short years past the horrors and devastation of WWII. The child has lost her parents in that war. Holland was occupied by the German forces, and the people nearly starved before the Nazis were driven out. This girl has been adopted by American parents, and while she’s clearly adored and well-cared for now, her loss of family, home, language, and country are to be seen in her little face. All she’s got is her belief in Santa mitigated by the fear that he won’t be able to communicate with her. And when Santa speaks Dutch to her–a notoriously difficult language–she lights up in a way that always touches my heart.

I realize the 1994 version was trying to “update” the film for modern audiences, but in choosing a hearing-impaired child instead, the writers forgot to include the underlying emotion and backstory that’s so evident in the Dutch girl.

In short, the remake hits what its writers perceived as the audience buttons, but they failed to create story from the heart. And story from the heart is what creates an emotional button that audiences respond to.

When Kris Kringle and the Dutch child sing together, I believe.


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Please Like Me: the Sympathetic Character

Another way to keep readers glued to your prose is through establishing an emotional bond between that audience and the story’s protagonist.

If you can create a character that readers like and care about, that connection will carry you a long way.

So how do you design such a character? How do you reach readers? Through emotion, attitude, action, and goal. Let’s deal with those one at a time.


The best way to touch a reader’s feelings is to evoke them through the character’s emotions. You can write something like this:

Bob stood by the grave, staring at the headstone. A cold drizzle was falling on his shoulders, soaking through his suit. He shivered a little, but didn’t bother opening the tightly furled umbrella in his left hand. In his other, he held a small, wilting bouquet of white roses. He’d tried to be here for the funeral. It had been impossible to get leave from work. Now, three weeks too late, he’d come. He frowned at the stone, then tossed the bouquet on top of the mound and walked away.

Or this:

Bob stood by the grave, staring at the headstone with a strong sense of unreality. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Children didn’t die before their parents. A cold drizzle was falling on his shoulders, soaking through his suit and making him shiver. He didn’t intend to cry, but a tear slid down his cheek anyway. It felt hot against his chilled skin. Although he held a tightly furled umbrella in his left hand, he didn’t open it. His father had taught him that grown men never cried, that it was a sign of weakness, a mark of shame. But today, the rain could hide his tears, and no one would know how sorry he was for what had happened. He tightened his grip on the small bouquet of wilting roses before tossing it onto the mound. He should have been here for the funeral. He’d been too cowardly to insist that his boss grant him leave for the service. Now, he was more ashamed of that than anything else. Abruptly, he turned and walked away, trying not to run.

In these two examples, we basically have identical action. However, our perception of the character is different in each one because of the emotions that are present or absent.

Consider your reaction to Bob as you read each example. Did you like Bob in either presentation? Did you care about him more in one than the other? Why? What did you respond to positively and what did you dislike?

How readers react to your characters is never happenstance. Writers should control and manage that response.


There’s the old adage about the optimist seeing the glass as half-full and the pessimist seeing it half-empty. Identical glass; two very different reactions to it.

So, does your character have a positive, upbeat attitude? Is your character soured on life and deeply cynical? Is your character living in denial? Is your character the individual who shoves in a panic to get aboard a Titanic lifeboat? Or is your character someone who stands back and lets women and children on first?

Some attitudes we like or respect. We gravitate to individuals who show courage, leadership, loyalty, honesty, and self-reliance. We tend to shy away from people who are lazy, whiners, passive, and self-centered.

What I find appealing may repel you. Figure out what works for you personally. Chances are it will work for your characters as well. Just keep in mind that a slacker attitude in a character doesn’t usually lend itself to an active, goal-oriented protagonist who will carry a plot to the end.


In real life, many people are willing to keep things as they are. They’re perhaps afraid to change, afraid to take a risk. So they avoid confrontation, seldom stand up for themselves, and let others take advantage of them.

In fiction, the most heroic or appealing characters tend to be ones who don’t stand around and absorb whatever life dishes out. They take action. They do something, right or wrong. They try to solve the story problem.

Granted, it usually takes a catalyst in the plot to open the story and force the character to take action. That’s why so many stories begin with what we call “a moment of change.” Change is perceived as threatening because it upsets the status quo.

In fiction, protagonists do speak up. They take chances. They dare to try.

It’s what makes such characters larger than life.


What a fictional individual wants reveals something about his or her personality or true nature.

Think about the elevator scene in the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan film, You’ve Got Mail. The elevator operator announces that he loves his girlfriend and decides he should marry her. Tom’s girlfriend announces that she’s going to get LASIK surgery, and Tom realizes that she’s shallow and self-centered, that he doesn’t love her, and that he isn’t going to stay with her. It’s a terrific contrast between one character’s love and tenderness, of his willingness to open his heart to strangers and display vulnerability, and another character’s vain disregard for anyone but herself.

A character’s goal, whether short-term or the story objective, helps define that person. Some goals we can applaud. We’re willing to cheer that character on. We hope he succeeds. We want him to win. Such goals, whatever they may be, help create that empathetic bond between reader and character.

Other goals are signals to readers that this character is up to no good, is cruel or selfish or criminal. We don’t want this individual to succeed. We can’t be sympathetic at all.

All these methods are ways by which you can shape your audience’s like or dislike for the characters you create.

Take charge.

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