When a reader tells me how one of my stories triggers certain emotions or memories and has them on the edge of their seats, I beam with pride. I always ask what it is that speaks to them. Often they admit they can identify the protagonist. It has relatable character traits, even if it is a bad guy.
Relatable characters are the key to powerful stories. They let your reader identify with the situation and engage them. When a character’s humanity shines through, readers will emphasize faster, pushing them to read on. Characters become relatable when they are diverse, have flaws, struggle, and have recognizable traits.
I don’t just like those compliments because it strokes my ego. I like them because the story plays around in their head for a while. They can’t put it down or let it go. It leaves something behind, and that’s my aim as a writer. Relatable characters play an important role in that. So here’s are six things I focus on.
01. Look at real people for inspiration
I don’t consciously focus on making my characters relatable to the reader, but they are often inspired by a mix of people that I know in real life. I cherry-pick things from their personality and apply them to my character.
What a character thinks and feels has to be in line with their motives and actions. If they are vengeful and cruel, I will not have them work at a charity unless there is an underlying motive. A lying character doesn’t just come clean unless he experienced strong character growth or has another reason for doing so. It all has to align.
But just because it aligns, doesn’t mean you cannot play with the reader. If you know the traits and motives of your character, you can layer them with a mask. Have them appear a certain way before slowly peeling the layers off, revealing their true personality. That’s how a charming and intelligent man can turn out to be a vicious cannibal playing mind games.
02. Take your time to show their true identity
You can’t describe a character’s traits in just one moment. You show their personality over the whole duration of the story. Take your time to build the suspension and to make their traits shine through. It takes a person an average of three months to show their true selves.
Most people don’t show their whole identity at all, let alone in the first few moments you meet them. That’s why so many potential relationships crash and burn before they have started. So why would you want your reader to know all your character’s traits in the first few pages of a book? A slow burn is far more natural and far more fun to write.
An extra note: most people don’t even know who they are, so they are on an everlasting journey. That’s gold!
03. Show the traits from the inside out
When I write, I love to get close to my protagonist. Even though I often write in the third person, it feels like you are experiencing the story through their eyes. That’s because I use their inner world as my playground. Feelings, inner-monologues, thoughts, I display them all. By doing that, the reader gets an insight into somebody’s personality.
What I like about it is that you can make a bad guy seem good. You see, nobody would ever choose to be a villain. We all want to be heroes. We all do what we think is right. So when you dive into the head of a stalker, you can show how he acts from the need to ‘protect his victim’. Their actions reflect their inner world. Play with that
04. Show the traits from the outside in
You can dive into the inner world of a character but their exterior world matters too. I don’t care much for describing hair color or the shape of somebody’s eyes unless it adds to the story, but you can tell a lot from how a person speaks, holds themselves, and the clothes they wear. Look at the following two examples:
Joan entered the building even before the doors fully slid open. The clicking of her heels against the marble filled the hall. She glued her eyes onto the man at the elevator, not letting it go. She noticed how he gazed her up and down. Taking in the waistline of her blouse and the way her hips curved in the pantaloon. Her thin lips curled up slightly, but her eyes remain stone cold. He’d regret making her come over.
Joan entered the building carefully, her eyes glued to the ground. She heard the shuffle of her sneakers and couldn’t prevent them from squeaking as they touched the marble. She squinted her eyes at the high-pitched sound. When she lifted her head, she saw him standing at the elevators. Looking her up and down, disdain dripping from his face. She should have worn a clean sweater, and maybe some better-fitting jeans. She lowered her head just a bit. Why did she come?
05. Choose your details carefully
I am sure you are familiar with the most common writing tip there is: show, don’t tell. That goes for everything, including character traits. Yet sometimes you like to add a little detail, to make the story pop even more. When you do, be very critical. What does that detail add to the story? What does it convey to the reader, and is that necessary?
Sometimes we like to paint the picture so vivid, that we overload the reader’s senses. Provide plenty of details so that the setting comes to life. But also give the reader room to fill in things for themselves.
When I just wrote about Joan’s sweater, what color did you have in mind? A stained grey, happy yellow? Maybe a home knitted sweater with fluff balls on it? Whatever your vision is, it differs from mine. And that’s okay. Your frame of reference is unique. That’s why it’s good to leave some things open to the imagination. It helps people with identifying. Isn’t that just powerful?
06. Consider the fitting traits
There are many different character traits you can consider. It’s easy to make your protagonist come off as angry, happy, or naïve. But in reality, most people are more complex. You aren’t just one person, but you have several traits.
You can be naïve but fearless, ambitious but lazy, loyal but cruel. You can be even more than that. Giving a character layers to their personality. So here are some traits that you could consider on both ends of the spectrum.
- Persistence – Hesitance
- Faithful – Mistrusting
- Greedy – Generous
- Cruel – Compassionate
- Ambitious – Lazy
- Fearless – Frightful
- Vengeful – Forgiving
- Persuasive – Meek
- Humble – Cocky
- Loving – Spiteful
- Optimistic – Pessimistic
- Self-disciplined – Unruly
- Thorough – Superficial
- Honest – Lying
- Flexible – Rigid
- Desperate – Composed
- Impatient – Calm
- Self-control – Hot-headed
- Loyal – Treacherous
Nothing is black and white. There is a whole lot of gray. So your character can swing back on forth on the scale of traits. Are they honest or lying, loving or spiteful? It can go in both directions.
That’s what makes relatable character traits so valuable for your stories. Your characters become tangible and well-written. To me, that is the secret to a good story.
Now go on and make some new friends!