Writing Effective Characters: Three Tests


Fiction writers know that to attract and keep readers, we must write effective characters. But what does that mean?

Writing Tip for Today: Here are three little tests that will give you an idea of how effective your characters are:

A Burning Desire

You’ve heard me discuss story stakes many times, but did you know that your readers will rate your character based upon those stakes? The person you’ve invented (or for memoir, the “I” in the story) will be far more interesting and compelling if your character has a clear goal from the outset.

In the opening of your story, this goal is hinted at or written as a deficit or empty place in the character’s life. He/she might not really know what she needs, but he must have at least a longing for a different life. Many protagonists start out wanting the wrong thing, but by the Inciting Incident (the event that changes everything and puts her on the goal path), he is determined to achieve that goal.

As the action/tension rises, the character’s vague sense of longing at the beginning morphs into a burning desire. Test your character for this quality. Can you point to the place where your character decides to go for broke at all costs? Be sure the character develops a passionate and deep desire for the goal, and be sure the goal itself is worthy of so much passion.

Can you find the moment when your character decides to go for broke?

Sympathy and Empathy

A second test examines your character’s ability to elicit both sympathy and empathy. These are not the same thing, but readers can spot these qualities—or their lack—quickly.  Test your character for how much sympathy he/she brings out and how much empathy is created.

Sympathy with or for the character brings out emotion from the reader. The protagonist may be likable, but if he/she does not evoke reader sympathy, it will be difficult for readers to sign on for the story duration. Add sympathy by giving your character qualities that readers can relate to—honesty, generosity and forgiveness are among the top qualities readers want to see.

Empathy means (when I say it anyway!) that readers can imagine themselves in the character’s position. I often get lost in novels or stories where I “become” the character, feeling what he/she feels, occupying the same emotional space.  To write this character, portray an everyman type of person by exploring themes such as love, acceptance and belonging, three universal needs everyone desires.

Explore themes of love, acceptance or belonging.

Emotion, Emotion, Emotion

The third test for your character combines the first two. A burning desire combined with a worthy goal brings out reader sympathy, which compels readers to keep reading. Endowing a character with solid qualities we all admire stirs up both sympathy and empathy. And giving your character a goal that centers on love, acceptance or belonging helps readers want to “be” the character.

All these qualities combine to bring out the biggest emotional response. As Lisa Cron states in Story Genius, “your goal isn’t to tell us how they feel, so we know it intellectually; it’s to put us in their skin as they struggle, which then evokes the same emotion in us.” Readers don’t want to know what emotion (angry, happy, etc) as much as they want to know the why of the emotion.

If you test your character for these qualities and find something lacking, take time to find out more about your character. Journal her back story. Write a letter from your protagonist to you, expressing her deepest desires. Let the character share a secret or three. Learning what we call motivation will help you pass the character effectiveness test and help your story rise to the top.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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