Readers Must Identify with Your Characters
December 3, 2012
You may have deduced that what appeals to reviewers is fundamentally what appeals to many readers, and that which appalls reviewers is also appalling to many readers. An area in which both reviewers and critics often comment is “character development,” with the phrase “well developed characters” high praise indeed.
Novels are like luxurious bathrobes—the more absorbent the better. No matter how interesting a story, if the reader cannot identify in some way with the characters, the reader will not be absorbed, will not suspend disbelief, and—in the end—will not recommend the book to friends (reviewers like to think every reader is a friend with whom good advice should be shared).
A character need not be similar to the reader for the reader to relate. Characters who are the antithesis of the reader but familiar to the reader’s experience are relatable characters. We all may not be the face behind the convenience store counter, but most of us are familiar with one of those faces.
Adding description and depth intensify a reader’s connection to both the characters and the story. If one writes about the “greasy, acne-scarred, and unjustifiably arrogant teenager dealing lottery tickets between insolent stares” rather than the “kid behind the counter,” one introduces an individual, not a stock character who has been collecting dust in central casting.
To further develop the character, one might write about “nicotine-stained fingers” and “disagreeable odor that remains long after the clerk’s departure.” Now we not only see this kid, but we smell this kid, whom we have fleshed out in our imagination with gender, attire, height, weight, hair style and color, and other particulars. Don’t you imagine dirty fingernails? Have you assumed the clerk is a “he”? If that convenience store clerk is anything more than a minor character, dimension should be added. Despite appearances, maybe the clerk volunteers at a soup kitchen, helps old ladies across the street, or sells cigarettes by day, saves the city by night.
In The Usual Suspects, the character Verbal Kint describes Kip Diskin, a baritone in a barbershop quartet in Skokie, Illinois, as a “big fat guy, I mean, like, orca fat. He was so stressed in the morning…” Kip Diskin never makes an appearance—he exists only in Verbal’s imagination—yet the memorable (and brief) description gives him substance.
We love Indiana Jones because he is a hero; we identify with him because he hates snakes. When we meet Scarlett O’Hara, we meet a beautiful but painfully-princessy, entitled, rich girl who remains flawed but displays unpredictable (and admirable) strength of character. Both Indiana and Scarlett become real through physical descriptions and details of their temperaments. Clearly, it is the well-documented character who resides in our memories for years.
Characters who knit, play Words with Friends, clip coupons, paint, hate broccoli, eat fortune cookies for breakfast, or can’t make a decision are appealing because we either are like them or know someone like them (and, depending on various traits, we may want to be like them). It’s not necessary to devote entire chapters to character development (after all, brevity is the soul of… something), and characters can be overdeveloped, particularly when a writer feels obliged to fill in every detail whether relevant to the character’s role in the story or not.
However, a few (well chosen) words can create characters that interest readers and lead to word-of-mouth promotion. Actions, reactions, description, and dimension all contribute to building a memorable character—and memorable characters populate memorable books.