The stories we love begin with characters we love. Audiences seek stories that provide meaning to the emotional struggles of life. This identification begins with people living life, with all its challenges. Why do people pay money to sit in a dark room to watch people act out life? To help them understand their existence. And when this happens well, the audience member tells other people of what happened to them when they watched the story. How do we write great characters that audiences remember the next day, or perhaps the rest of their lives? When writers capture the truth of living, the challenge of what we face every day.

Great Characters have Great Problems

Give your characters something to deal with. People do not become interested in a story until they understand what’s at stake. They want to see a story about people facing the lives they face, and that life has problems every day. It has challenges. Battles. Pain. Questions. Mysteries. Disagreements. Sadness. Adventure. Unknown. Everything is not easy and when we see a character face the obstacles to living, we see ourselves. Watching a character face or not face these obstacles makes for a great character. So when you’re looking for how to write a great character, write the great problem.

Great Characters Are Not Great

Every human being who watches your story might know something awful about themselves. Something not great. Some quality they truly are ashamed of. A part of their personality they wish they could change. They wish had never happened. Many of us don’t know what’s wrong with us at all. We suspect there is something that is not great about ourselves, but we don’t even know what it is. Stories tell us who we are. They reflect the truth about people. And this is not what is perfect about us. It is what not perfect. Be sure to tell the truth about the flaws of your characters. Do you love people in your lives that are not perfect? Do you know their flaws? Be sure to know what’s wrong with the characters you write.

Great Characters have Great Relationships

The most important thing in peoples’ lives are the people in their lives. It’s all we care about. Who we love, who we hate, who we miss, who we’re going to meet. People we want to meet. Or we never want to see again. All about people. Make great choices about the people in the lives of your characters. If you write characters that are like your other characters, this will not reflect our lives. This isn’t truthful. The truth for your audiences is that they have an extreme variety of characters in their lives. And the truth is we have problems with other people. We fight and never forgive, or apologize and forget. Consider writing people into your stories that present great challenges. This is what the audience wants, as this is what they experience.

Great Characters Find Answers

Audiences want to know that life is not meaningless. People watch stories to affirm that their struggles have a purpose. That all this pain and work and despair is the cost of something great. That we share a common path that ultimately adds up to something important. Which it does. And this is reflected in our stories. Great characters fight through the conflict to resolution. Nearly all stories that are great come to a place where the protagonists have solved their problems. They have been rewarded with peace. They have found an answer and happiness. A happy ending. And the audience sees this and it reflects their lives and encourages them to persevere.  Fight your battles and you will find they are worth fighting. This is the experience for the audience, so give your protagonists a great ending. And if there is no resolution, this is fine, too, as the audience can identify. Sometimes nothing works out. But in general, the characters we love, the great ones, break through.

Great Characters Will Always Be You

All great characters are written by you. They are created from your life. From all that you have experienced and all that you imagine. If you’re stuck with writing a character, start with you. Every character comes from you. You must identify with your characters. If you don’t, how does your audience? If you don’t love them, why will your audience? If you don’t see a giant problem facing your protagonist, why will your audience care if they resolve the conflict? You must experience your story through your characters. Their hardship must be clear to you. To write great characters, the writer must face great things. About their story, about themselves. Imagine a character with faults as bad as yours, with the pain you have faced, and the people you have loved, and imagine a path to peace for them.

That’s a great story.

by Gordy Hoffman