Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Ten Steps to an Emotionally Engaging Character

Literary agents pass on submissions for all sorts of reasons. For me, it usually comes down to the writing, more specifically, the characters themselves and how well I am able to connect with them. Having that emotional engagement with the characters makes me care what happens to them and keeps me turning pages.

The most common reason why I cannot connect with a protagonist is because the character does not seem “real” enough for me to relate to him or her. In other words, the character must have a certain degree of complexity, and a deeper or more layered way of thinking and acting to comes off as authentic and unique. Otherwise, the character will appear shallow and one-dimensional. He or she will seem more like a stock character pulled out of a TV show or movie, or worse, a caricature of a person.

The key to creating a more complex and convincing protagonist is to understand your character on an intimate level. Below is a 10-step writing exercise designed to help you dive deeper into the inner workings of your character’s personality:

Step 1: Create a tagline for the character. This is similar to what you would see in a personal profile of someone on social media. Just like a social media profile, it should be relatively short, reveal a main aspect of the character and her interests or what she desires most or aspires to become. 

Step 2: Write up a personal history of the character. Start with the basics and leave room to add more as more about the character comes to you. A good place to begin is with the character’s family history, including cultural and social roots. Then expand further. Are there any family issues or secrets? What about significant or pivotal childhood events? Think of what events or relationships might’ve influenced or shaped the character’s decisions in the story – perhaps an alcoholic or abusive parent, or a sibling that drowned or was murdered.

Step 3: Identify in general terms, your character’s type. Think in categories, archetypes, and even in stereotypes. Commercial fiction will often require a character to fill a role that fits a category – like the nosy mother-in-law or the funny, buddy sidekick or the recovering alcoholic detective. Once you have a generalized aspect of your character, make him or her more interesting and unique by adding traits and behaviors that might emphasize, stretch, bend or go against type.

Step 4: Describe the character’s morality make-up. Is the character principled or is he untrustworthy?  Is she thoughtful and logical about her decisions or impulsive and irrational? Is he empathetic and kind or indifferent and cruel to others? Is he honest to fault? Or perhaps ruthless and ambitious? Or maybe ethical and heroic?

Step 5: List what your character’s dreams and aspirations are.  Include not just career or life goals. Also include personal goals. For example, you might have a character who wants to stop a terrorist plot but he also wants to some day make amends with his estranged brother.

Step 6: Describe difficulties in the character’s life. What inner demons are making him or her struggle to get though the day, or deal with others? These difficulties might manifest themselves in the character’s life by making him drink too much or make her unable to commit to a relationship or contribute to his depression.  

Step 7: List the strengths and weaknesses of the character. What skills does she utilize the best or what traits help her the most?  What are the weaknesses or deficiencies in skills or behavior that come out most often or at the worst moments?

Step 8:Write about an incident, relationship or anything from the character’s upbringing that either directly or indirectly creates a behavioral or personality issue for him or her now, such as a debilitating shyness as a result of being shamed or dismissed as a child, or an underlying anger because of being abandoned by a father.

Step 9: Identify the cultural or environmental elements that might influence your character.  What ethnic or cultural traditions does he practice? What kind of sports does she play or watch? What television shows are on his DVR? Does she prefer to be in nature or the city? Is he conservative or liberal? Does she go to ballets and symphonies or rock concerts and baseball games? 

Step 10:After you have completed the nine steps, take stock of what you’ve written down. You should now have a better, more nuanced vision of your character. Continue to add to what you have written about your character, as you work on your story. Your notes will help you make decisions in what your character will do or think when situations arise in the story, identify the character’s personal stakes and bring out your character’s arc.

By the end of this exercise, you will know your character on a more meaningful level.  He will have a broader range of actions and reactions, because you will have a better understanding of his beliefs and morality, and his personality flaws and strengths. Your character will have a compelling inner life with tangible fears and real aspirations. He’ll have interesting quirks and eccentricities. Most of all, you’ll have a more emotionally engaging story that will keep readers invested in seeing your character’s journey to the end.


  1. This is really good stuff, Lisa. I'm in the early stages with a project where I could totally use this - but then I think it might help in revisions for another one, too. Thanks!

  2. I have a character profile template (thanks, Merissa!) that I fill out for my characters that covers all this stuff. I can't write a character I don't know!

  3. I usually do free-flow interviews to get to know my characters. Most of these types of questions will come up, but you've encouraged me to dig even deeper and keep pushing—they like to clam up sometimes and need some prompting and prodding. ;)

    In gratitude,
    Marissa xo

  4. Love this!! I'm going to go back to my latest brain-baby and check if my character has all these! Thanks Lisa.

  5. I'm so glad to hear that my post was helpful. Thank you all for your kind comments.