Tuesday, July 6, 2021

How to Create Characters Your Reader Cares About

by PeggySue Wells @PeggySueWells

You know your idea. You locked in your audience, and the take-home value you will provide in your work in progress. Your manuscript format is set. The next step is to understand the essentials found in every compelling story.
  • First, have an interesting character the audience cares about. 
  • Next, give the character the audience cares about a great need.
  • Third, place an insurmountable obstacle between the character we care about and the great need the character must achieve.
What is the difference between a character and a character we care about? Consider your favorite books and films. Most likely, that story lingers in your memory because you became emotionally invested. 

Recall a book you set aside before finishing. Or a film that you won’t waste time or money watching again. Typically, these characters were two-dimensional rather than three-dimensional. We may stay with the story to see what happens but not because the ending matters personally.

Connecting with a story is subjective. My daughter liked The Croods film, but I didn’t see the charm. I saw the first (now the fourth) Star Wars movie eleven times in the theater, while she can’t understand why. A book becomes a New York Times bestseller, and a film becomes a blockbuster when a lot of people cared about a character and what happened to that character.

Part of what makes an audience interested is the character’s great need. While needing to pass a school spelling test is not compelling, needing to traverse impossible terrain in the worst weather to bring home medicine that will save the lives of those you love is gripping. 
  • Will the character succeed? 
  • If I were in that setting, would I have the courage to try?
  • When the character is terrified, will he continue on the journey?
  • When the character has the opportunity to quit, will she? 
  • How will the character respond to life-threatening danger? 
  • What if the character fails?
In January 1925, the Alaskan city of Nome experienced a deadly outbreak of diphtheria. Thousands would die without the antitoxin serum. Twenty dog mushers banded together to bring the life-saving medicine hundreds of miles across frozen terrain from Anchorage in just 127 hours to save the people of the city. These brave people are remembered in the yearly Iditarod challenge.

Consider the main characters and the sidekicks in these highest grossing films. 

#1 Gone With the Wind 1939 (Adjusted for inflation)
#2 Avengers Endgame 2019
#3 Avatar 2009
#4 Titanic 1977
#5 Star Wars, The Force Awakens 2015
  • Why do audiences care about what happens to these characters? 
  • What characteristics are endearing?
  • In what ways does the character’s challenges seem relevant to your own experience?
  • Is the character perfect?
  • How does the obstacle between the character and the character’s great need bring out the best in the character?
  • How does the obstacle bring out the character’s worst?
  • How does the character change?
  • How is the character’s actions similar to what you would do in a similar situation?
  • How is the character’s reactions completely different from how you would respond?
  • What do you learn about yourself by observing the character?
  • How do you identify with the character’s heroic journey?
Use these questions to explore how to create your own character that your audience cares about. Initially, the audience doesn’t have to like a character. No one likes Scrooge in the opening of A Christmas Carol. Yet, as an audience we are willing to go along on the journey with the old curmudgeon. 

Though completely fictional, Scrooge is so iconic that people who have not read the book by Charles Dickens still know what is meant when someone is described as being a Scrooge.

Charles Dickens created a classic character that audiences have cared about for generations. A character the audience cares about is the first essential ingredient for your memorable story.


Tropical island votary and history buff, PeggySue Wells parasails, skydives, snorkels, scuba dives, and has taken (but not passed) pilot training. Writing from the 100-Acre wood in Indiana, Wells is the bestselling author of twenty-eight books including The Slave Across the Street, Slavery in the Land of the Free, Bonding With Your Child Through Boundaries, Homeless for the Holidays, and Chasing Sunrise. Optimistic dream-driver, PeggySue is named for the Buddy Holly song with the great drumbeat. At school author visits, she teaches students the secrets to writing, and speaks at events and conferences. Connect with her at www.PeggySueWells.com, on Facebook at PeggySue Wells, and Twitter @PeggySueWells.


  1. Peggy, this really helps me. My work-in-progress is a Bible study on the seven letters to the churches. I've developed a unique character as a parable to parallel the teaching of the text. The woman's journey unfolds as the truths of each letter are explored.

    As a nonfiction writer, developing fiction characters the reader will relate to is a real challenge. It's definitely not part of my skill set. Your questions will help me judge the believability of each character.

  2. That sounds like a challenge, Sherry. And using fiction techniques in a non-fiction enhances the project. With non-fiction, the character we care about is the reader. The reader's obstacle is the reason for the book, and the book shows the reader how to achieve their great need. Write on!