Why your characters should challenge your readers

I’ll admit, this is a bold statement (and not something I made up just to get you to read my blog!) It’s also a message that you should keep in mind whatever genre or style of fiction you write. Why?

Because if you create characters that are too perfect, you risk putting readers off.

Creating believable characters means incorporating light and shade

No one wants to read about a female heroine or male lead who is squeaky clean. To be frank, after the first few chapters, constant affirmations of a character’s wonderful traits becomes not only boring, but annoying. Readers read to be entertained and to be taken on a journey – this usually means the character isn’t the same person he or she was at the beginning of your book.

Even if you are writing romance, there can be benefits of easing back on the perfection factor. You’d like your reader to fall in love with your characters and key to this is making them attainable. We’d all like to believe that it’s our arms the male lead is falling into…or else doesn’t that make us all just a bunch of weirdos with a voyeur fetish? Ahem.

When writing, keep it human and unique

She's enjoying your book, really. © Lanak | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images
She’s enjoying your book, really. © Lanak | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

Again, whether you are writing fantasy, action, or supernatural – bring it all back to a human level. Every single one of us has a set of qualities that makes us unique. Put some thought (or a lot of thought!) into why your characters are unique. Sure, your male lead might be drop dead gorgeous, but it’s the idiosyncrasies that will stay with your readers long after they’ve put down your book.

The way your character gets grumpy when he hasn’t had enough sleep (or coffee), or right now, one of my characters is too perfect, that it actually becomes a failing for her (trust me on that one).

It’s easy to get caught up on highlighting the positives, but don’t forget to remind us of the negatives from time to time too. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, it will actually make your character more likeable in the long run!

I’m writing evil characters, what then?

Occasionally some of us are writing about people that are downright, pure evil. Take a step back and view the story in its entirety. If these challenging characteristics or the actions of your characters are necessary for the overall story, then don’t be afraid. Evil characters can also maintain a degree of humanity, especially if you go to the effort to help us understand how your character came to be that way. If that’s not the case, balance it with light and shade elsewhere in your story. Not every character needs to be likeable – but they do need to have a purpose or they will become too challenging. I actually discovered during Radiant that I enjoyed working with my evil characters just as much as my good characters!

Help! My characters are too challenging

How about if your character isn’t evil and they are doing something that your readers are going to find difficult to stomach? This one can be trickier. If you’ve decided that it’s central to the story or your characters journey, then be true to yourself and leave it in. Here it’s important to ensure you put the foundations in place so that your readers can at least understand why your character is taking the action they do, even if your readers may not agree with it.

Don’t just take my word for it. Take a look at some great examples from the real world:

Nora Roberts, The Search

Yes, I love this book, it’s one of my all time favourites. One of the reasons I like it so much is for the lead male character, Simon. He’s terribly grumpy, very sarcastic and can’t stand it when a woman is reduced to tears and tends to push back rather than go soft. Yet…he’s likeable, sexy and a fantastic male lead and stays with you long after you’ve finished the book.

Jennifer Weiner, The Next Best Thing

I’ve just finished reading this title, the first I’ve read from this very successful chick-lit author. She challenges the reader in a number of ways: the lead characters appearances are far from perfect. Ruth carries the scars on her face from a childhood accident, which colours the way everyone both views and treats her; Dave, the male romantic lead is in a wheelchair – not your typical perfect lead characters! And then, things between the two of them don’t immediately pan out because of the way Ruth reacts – it’s actually quite infuriating for the reader, but we can understand why she does what she does because of her past.

Marian Keyes

No particular title to call out here, although Sushi For Beginners is a good place to start. Her characters are a mixture of likeable and frustrating and, oh wait, human! They do stupid things, they hurt one another and difficult themes like depression, relationship failures and infidelity are touched on. And they’re a good read.

Angst, Victoria Sawyer

I’m throwing this one in as a call out to support other indie authors and also because it’s a great example of a challenging read. This recently published début  takes us on the journey of Victoria, who has suffered anxiety and panic attacks since her childhood. We travel with her during her freshman year of college as she grapples (at times, very poorly) with her burden by turning to drugs, alcohol and sex. This is a challenging read by anyone’s standards but the key to its success? We find ourselves rooting for Victoria even when she does things we don’t like. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it’s honest and raw – and a great example of just how far you can challenge your readers when you are brave enough to do so!

Do you find it hard to create characters that challenge the reader? And do you have some other good examples of challenging characters or reads? I’d be interested to hear them!

3 Replies to “Why your characters should challenge your readers”

  1. Hi Bel, excellent post! I actually read a book once that I picked up by chance at a thrift shop, it’s Brass by Helen Walsh. A very challenging read for more than one reason. First off, it’s written by a Brittish woman and the slang was not something I was familiar with, but eventually I did get used to it. Secondly it’s about drugs and sex largely and it’s very challenging to like Millie as a character as she does loathsome things. However, you realize that she is troubled, broken, living a difficult life and this redeems her. And that book is not for everyone either, it’s a hard read. But I enjoy stuff like that, so even though it was hard, it was eye opening to step into someone’s reality for a little while.

    Also thanks for the shout out. Angst is a tough one, I agree. Although I often forget this because it’s similar to my own life and thoughts and experience. I forget there are “normal” people out there who might be shocked. ha. 🙂

  2. One of the hardest things I’ve found is to force my characters to make bad decisions. A book in which the main character always does the right thing would be incredibly boring, but it’s so hard to write your beloveds doing stupid, mean-spirited, ugly things.

    When books try too hard to convince me of the awesomeness of the main character, it turns me off. I guess I’m just contrary that way, but if the author tells me how great/pretty/smart/wonderful a character is–either through narration or by using the other characters as mouthpieces–the less I like the character.

  3. Thanks ladies. I agree, Erin, I get turned off when books constantly remind me of how awesome their main character is. It actually gets very tiring and how are we supposed to believe their journey if they aren’t slightly human like the rest of us? It is hard to write characters that do mean spirited or stupid things, I agree. Although I can usually handle stupid, because we’re all stupid at times – mean spirited is harder. Maybe that’s why I created demons in my book as it kind of went with the territory 😉

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