Making Your Characters’ Problems Personal to the Reader
A Session with Cara Sue Achterberg
At their core, people are the same. I hear you now, saying, no, no, no, but, really, what do we all want?
Love, security, happiness.
Whittle down all the motives and desires in the world, and I believe they come down to those three. We want to love and be loved. We want to be safe, fed, clothed, etc. And we want to be happy. The order of importance might vary from person to person, but there it is.
How do you make a reader care about a character who lives a much different, perhaps more privileged life than the reader does?
First, you have to garner your reader’s sympathy. The character can’t be perfect. In fact, she must be far from perfect. Show the reader the mistakes the character has made, the tragedies she has lived through, the quirky personal habits and obsessions. Help your reader step into the character’s shoes by giving details and flaws. In my novel, Girls’ Weekend, the three main characters are all women who live in upper middle class America. Who cares about their problems? I built sympathy for these women, by dropping hints of their flaws and tragedies from the very beginning.
Girls Weekend opens with Dani’s life. All parents feel overwhelmed and question themselves at times. A reader can easily see herself in Dani’s shoes:
She didn’t feel like a grown up, especially after the fight she’d had yesterday with Jordan. At twelve, Jordan knew precisely where the hairy edge lay that would make her nuts. She would push right up to that brink and then she’d watch Dani self-destruct in frustration. After Dani had yelled all the things she’d sworn she would never say to her own kids, Jordan would shrug, roll her eyes, and exhale loudly, as if her mother were the child. Her stomach knotted up thinking of their argument yesterday. It had spiraled from a small dispute about Jordan forgetting to unload the dishwasher before school, to a screaming match about respect and kindness and treating adults the way they should be treated. Joe had laughed when she’d told him about it last night. Some days she felt completely inadequate as a parent, but it infuriated her when Joe made light of her daily battles. They were supposed to be partners in this war.
Meg’s tragedy instantly gathers sympathy. What parent hasn’t feared losing a child?
Meg and Peter had taken the kids to a May Day party at the club where Peter played golf. No one even saw Logan eat the cashew from the bowl of mixed nuts at the bar. He’d climbed up on one of the stools and was spinning the stool to amuse himself. When he toppled from the stool, it looked like he’d just gotten dizzy and lost his balance. But then he hadn’t moved. It was like watching a horror movie in slow motion. Logan turned blue. The bartender hopped over the bar and started CPR, to no avail. It wasn’t his heart that stopped, it was his airway that had closed. By the time the paramedics arrived, it was too late.
Charlotte faces a marriage she perceives as at least stale, if not over. As all of us fumble through the relationship maze, we’ve come to these twists and turns ourselves:
“Why all these questions about the men not chosen? Aren’t you glad you married Brett?”
Charlotte ran her finger around the rim of her glass. “Not lately.”
“Really? I thought you two were happy.”
“We are. I mean, I guess Brett is, but I wouldn’t know since we never talk.”
“How is that possible? Especially now with Will away?”
Charlotte shrugged. “I don’t know. I always feel like I’m the only one doing the talking. He’s usually willing to go along with my plans, but he never initiates anything—not dates, not conversations, lately, not even sex.”
Second, set your characters on one of the universal quests – for love, security, or happiness. And don’t make it an easy road. Throw up a few roadblocks along the way to make it interesting. And while you’re at it, let your characters make mistakes.
In Girls’ Weekend, Charlotte, like the rest of us, is looking for love. She is frustrated with the rut her own marriage has landed in. It seems like all the passion has dried up and her husband doesn’t see her. She is certain what she really needs is a fun, risky, exciting love and sets her sights on a local bar singer. Now, what woman hasn’t fantasized about the guy with the guitar on stage? Okay, then how about the cute, friendly UPS guy or the handsome neighbor who always has time for his kids? Charlotte is indulging a universal quest – the charming prince or in this case the middle-aged rugged Irish folk singer who frequents the bars in the ocean town.
She felt like she was tasting life again for the first time. She was daring and exciting. Gone was the dull routine of her predictable life.
What had happened to them? When did everything change? It probably happened gradually, like the wrinkles on her forehead and the gray in Brett’s hair. Had it been inevitable? And like her wrinkles, was it irreversible?
Now, make your character fail. Yes, you read that right. Make them question what they thought they wanted. It can’t be easy. Here’s Dani speaking late in the story:
“What am I doing? I feel like such an idiot. This is crazy, right? Staying here was insane. Why did you let me do this to all of us? What was so horrible about our lives that we had to run away?”
A successful quest is boring. Maybe in the end what your character was looking for was something completely different than what she set out to find. In Girls’ Weekend, none of the women find what they were looking for. What they actually find is a new perspective.
Dani was quiet for a moment and then asked, “Was it a mistake? Us staying here?”
Charlotte took a sip of her coffee, then smiled at her friend.
“There are no mistakes, only lessons to be learned,” she said.
The bottom line is that readers will feel sympathy for even a convicted felon if he seems real – if he shares the reader’s problems, fears, desires. Make your characters honest and the reader will believe you. Once more, she’ll cheer your character on.
Think of an unlikeable person – a child molester, a neighborhood bully, a cheating husband. Now, write a diary entry for this character. Make the reader see that he/she is a human being like any of us.
Write a quick description for three characters – a mother, a car repairman, and a drug dealer. Now interview each one. Ask them three questions:
What are you most afraid of?
What do you want more than anything else in the world?
What was your biggest mistake?
About the Author…
Cara Sue Achterberg was the runner-up in our first AuthorsFirst novel contest. She writes poignant, incisive novels about women experiencing big changes in their lives and does so with a rare combination of warmth, humor, and compassion. http://carawrites.com