The Emotionally Engaging Character: The Key to Telling a Compelling Story

A compelling story is one which grabs the reader and doesn’t let go.  It makes it difficult for the reader to put down so they can do something else, and when the reader does put it down, the reader is often thinking about the story and anxious to get back to it.  These are books that readers remember long after they read the book.  The reason for this is because they connected with the characters in the book on an emotional level.  The character’s journey became their journey.

Telling a story is one thing.  The basic structure involves normal life, a desire for something, a conflict that prevents the character from getting it, a climax, and a resolution.  The bare bones of every story isn’t exciting.  What makes the story exciting is the character who embarks on this journey from where they were in the beginning to where they’ll be at the end.

If the character is emotionally engaging, the reader will experience everything the character does.  If the character is anxious, the reader will get anxious.  If the character is laughing, the reader should at least be smiling.  The reader is going to forget they’re reading the book and become so engulfed in the story that they become the character.  When this happens, the story is compelling.

So how does someone create an emotionally engaging character?

1.  Let the character guide the story.

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, the character can lead you as you write your story.  This is where you let the character tell you where to go instead of telling the character what he is going to do.  If you feel like the story is going in a different way than what you expected, let it.  This is a cue the character is letting you know the character wants something else.

2.  If the story stalls, chances are likely the story is going in a direction that isn’t right for the character.

I used to think when my writing stalled, I needed to press through it because I was bored of the story or simply tired.  After several times of pushing through and realizing about 10-15,000 words later I had messed up the story, I’ve learned the reason the story stalled was because I was forcing it to go in a way the character didn’t want.

Sometimes you have to take a break from the story and work on something else.  When you stall, that’s the best way I’ve found to deal with it.  Forcing it seems to only make things worse.  But when I work on something else, it frees my subconscious mind to work through whatever issue was making my story go in the wrong direction.  Then, one day when I’m not expecting it, the answer will come to me.  This is when the character is back in the driver’s seat, and I’ve gotten back on board again.

3.  Focus only on the characters whose point of view you’re giving.

I don’t recommend doing more than a couple characters’ points of view.  Pick the main ones and only do those, unless you’re only sticking in one point of view through the entire book.  Trying to cram in too many points of view will dilute the power of your story.  I typically do two points of view, though I have done up to four.  I do three or four sparingly, though.  For your reader to best connect with a character, they need to spend most of their time in that character’s point of view.  So pick the main one or two you need and make the story revolve around them.  If you do another point of view, do is sparingly and only when you need it to be the most effective.

4.  Be open to a wide range of emotions.

In order for your character to be emotionally engaging, you have to feel emotions–and feel them deeply.  Don’t be afraid of them.  A writer needs to be intimately connected to their feelings if they are going to create characters the reader can get engaged in.   The best characters are the ones that make the readers feel.  You can’t create those kind of characters if you don’t engage with your own feelings.

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A compelling story is one that will be remembered because of how it made the reader feel.  And along this line of thought, I want to close with this quote by Maya Angelou: “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”  So when you write, make your reader feel something they’ll remember long after they finish the book.

19 Comments

  1. Great points, all of them resonated with me in some way. Especially the one about the story stalling. Boy, do I know that one pretty well!

    1. It took me a couple years to realize what was behind my writing blocks. I always thought I had to push through them and force the story. Now I know better. I don’t think we’ll ever stop learning, no matter how long we’re doing this. 🙂

  2. Your stories are definitely character driven. When readers connect with a character, they want to keep reading.

    1. Thanks! I won’t write a book unless I’m excited about the story and am connected to the characters. This is why I haven’t written some stories where I have a secondary character who is interesting but not compelling to write about. It’s also why I do a variety of genres. Not every character can be boxed into a particular genre, no matter how much I want him/her to be.

  3. Excellent points, Ruth Ann.

  4. giantblister says:

    Thank you Ruth Ann, this is what I needed today, especially #3 & 4!

    1. I’m glad I could help. 🙂

  5. ronfritsch says:

    As a reader or viewer of fiction, I always want to care about what happens to the MC or MCs. The more deeply I care, the more I like the story. I don’t want the MC or MCs to be perfect. I want them to be flawed like every other human, but I want to fall in love with them, and I want them to reach their goals. As a writer, I think your four points on creating an emotionally engaging character are excellent, Ruth. Your first point might seem odd, but my MCs always let me know what they’re going to do or say next. Thanks for another excellent post.

    1. LOL My husband thinks I’m crazy when I say I need to do what the characters tell me to do. This is something that’s hard to explain to someone who isn’t a writer.

      I agree. Characters with flaws are a lot more relatable and easier to connect with than those who are perfect. I always feel like I’m on the outside of the story watching everything that is happening with the characters when they’re perfect. But when they are human enough to have flaws, I have a much easier time making their journey my own.

  6. You can tell when an author is distant from their characters. I am reading a well-written story with wonderful historical details, but I feel like I am watching the characters as an observer. Your characters always make you care about what happens. God bless.

    1. I don’t care how well written a book is. If the characters don’t reach out and grab the reader on an emotional level, the story is not the best it can be.

  7. M T McGuire says:

    Great points but number two especially, for me, so, so, true. If I get stuck it’s always a wrong turn earlier on.

    Cheers

    MTM

    1. Amen on number 2. It took me years to figure out the worst thing I could do was keep on writing. I only dug myself deeper into the hole I started when I took the wrong turn. 🙂

      1. M T McGuire says:

        Tell me! I learned by going about 70,000 words too far in! But I’m a bit slow on the uptake.

        1. Ouch! That’s painful. 😦 People have no idea how hard it is to go back rewrite a story. I wince at 5,000 words. I can’t imagine 70,000. *shivers*

          1. M T McGuire says:

            mwah ha hargh! Yeh, it was quite grim. A whole extra novel of unusable stuff! Trouble was, once I got to books 3 and 4 of the series I’ve just finished, I had to write a lot of stuff to see if it would work. Some did, 70k didn’t!

            Cheers

            MTM

  8. Nice article, depth is so important in our characters. And nice quote at the end 🙂

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