Making Your Readers Care About Your Characters

-Every Character Needs a Fatal Flaw Like

Who would steal the pennies from a dead man’s eyes?

The movie A Christmas Carol begins with Ebenezer Scrooge, (fabulous name!), removing the pennies from the eyes of his dead business partner, Marley.

“A penny is a penny,” he says, by way of justification.

Right off, we know what kind of person we are dealing with, as well as the story problem: miserliness.

The book A Christmas Carol was first published December 19, 1843. Author Charles Dickens knew every character intimately, even the walk-on parts. He took himself through the life stories of each and every one of them, ahead of writing about them. It is their idiosyncrasies that bring them vividly to life for us.

It was adversity in his own life that taught Dickens about people from all walks of life. Charles’ father became a bankrupt, when Charles was in his early teens. He was yanked out of private school, where he was learning literature, into a pauper’s apprenticeship. In those surprising circumstances, Charles would rub shoulders with many of the colorful street characters he introduces us to in his novels.

Their actions always speak louder than their words or physical descriptions. The reformed Scrooge, for instance, having spent a night with ghosts who demonstrate to him the real meaning of life, immediately throws open his window, hails a small boy in the street and gives him a generous sum to purchase a massive turkey for Bob Cratchit, his underpaid and struggling employee, and his family.

The self-imposed frugality that has kept Scrooge lonely for years is shown to have been overcome to the peel of Christmas church bells.

This miserliness, which is his fatal flaw, has led him to call anything outside his mercenary purpose, “Humbug.”

Every character needs a fatal flaw like this. The story will produce barriers to resolving it.

Dickens’ own experience of hard times would turn out to be his trump card. Your task is to find yours. God has made you different from every other person on the planet. Your life experiences are unique. Your memories are unique.

Anne Lamott, in her book on writing, Bird by Bird, maintains that all plot is character-driven. Her characters create themselves, emerging from the depths of her memories to interact with one another. Some of them are composites of people she has known. She is just the typist.

The invented life of your best characters will, like those of Dickens, balance plausibility and quirkiness.

Think of the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist. He is full of life and fun. Yet, he is also a crook, a thief and a pickpocket. Had we lived in Victorian London, we might have been scared of him.  Yet we love him because he loves life and because he’s kind to poor Oliver Twist, the hero Dickens has made us care about, who is in a tight spot.

Readers are unlikely to give up on any book whose characters they care about.

On any given day, our very own Artful Dodger may show up, as we can sit in a cafe or on a park bench, whether as a for-real person or only in our mind’s eye. This is our cue to be observant. What does his facial expression say about him? How does he move his hands? Is his laugh a chuckle, squeak, shriek or guffaw?

When we pluck up the courage to say, “nice weather” or “terrible weather”, how does he react? Is his reply nasal and snarky or does a warm smile light up his face? If he stonewalls us, does his silence reveal arrogance? Or extreme shyness?

As we speculate upon what his life story might be, and find his fatal flaw —we find we can, like Dickens, hold up a magnifying glass to his individuality.

  • Very good points Bobbie! I know it is important to care about the characters. Any strong emotional connection to a charter will keep them reading. It is the same with Movies or TV. If I have no connection with a charter, either love them or dislike, I will not continue writing.

  • Eric Pulsifer

    I find the better I know my characters, the more real they are and the more engaging they are, the more likely the story is going to write itself. They just kind of take over.

    Nothing wrong with that.