filed under How To Write A Book.

Have you ever read a book that you liked, but you just didn’t love? You’re not sure why, and then it strikes you: you don’t care enough about what happens to the main character. If they fell off a tall building you’d be mildly upset but you wouldn’t need a box of tissues; once you’ve closed the covers, you forget about the book and its characters entirely. Writing characters in a novel and making sure readers care about them is hard.

I don’t expect everyone to love my books, but to just not care? That would be the worse thing of all, because what I want when people read my books is for them to feel.

On people not liking my main characters

I know for a fact that not everyone has feelings about my book. I can thank Goodreads for this knowledge, because it tells me in all its raw and sometimes badly spelled honesty exactly what people think. And so I know that not everyone loved Gaelle, the main character in my first book, What is Left Over, After.

When I first read some of these reviews, I was shocked. Why didn’t people like her? I loved her. She was my character, my creation. What had I done with her that caused people not to like her, or to feel ambivalent towards her?

How to get your readers to care about your main characters

On lucky me working with LIZ BYRSKI

And then I kind of forgot about it because I moved on to writing another book. And in this other book, My New York book, I have been incredibly lucky. Because I have been allowed to write it as a PhD at university. And just a couple of months ago, my supervisors changed and I now have LIZ BYRSKI supervising me! (And yes, she deserves capital letters!)

Could my life be any better? Probably not. I realise what an incredible blessing it is to learn from an author who has published so many books, which have reached hundreds of thousands of readers.

Liz and I were having a conversation about my book recently and we were talking about the main character, who I love, of course; I made her. But as we talked, a little light bulb went off in my head and I realised that it was my own fault that some people didn’t like Gaelle in If I Should Lose You. It’s because I sometimes hold too much back.

On wanting to trust my readers, but perhaps not giving them enough

Let me explain. I underwrite. My first drafts are around 50,000 words and editors are always telling me to flesh out the story and the characters. I have a natural aversion to spoon-feeding my readers; I trust that they are smart enough to work out what is going on without me having to tell them.

But sometimes this makes me leave things out entirely, things that are really important to making people care about my characters. The stuff I’m referring to is the full and deep explication of my character’s thoughts and feelings and emotions; sure, readers want to be shown a lot of this stuff, rather than told, but readers also want to feel. And how can they feel if the feelings are hinted at, suggested, but never quite there?

For me, this means bringing my characters fears more fully to life. I believe that fear is at the heart of all good drama: what we are afraid of doing, or of not doing, what we are afraid of feeling, what we are afraid or learning, what we are afraid of losing, what we are afraid of loving.

I’m so glad I’ve made this discovery now. Because I was in danger of sending another book out into the world which some readers would have enjoyed, but which other readers may not have cared enough about because I hadn’t given them enough to care about.

So I’ve returned to do another edit and this edit is FUN! I feel as if I know what I’m doing. And the image on the left is my thinking process in every scene; it’s making my book so much better. And longer! At last count, it was 109,000 words! For someone whose previous books have been around the 65,000 word mark, this seems excessive. But it’s always easier to trim, once I have everything in there that I think it needs.

How to create an emotional connection to characters when writing a book.

On not knowing everything

So, you see, even after publishing two books, I don’t know everything. I’m still learning and working things out and making mistakes and trying again. And that’s all part of the fun of it.

How about you? Have you read a book where you just couldn’t muster up enough emotion to care about the characters? What makes you care about characters you read about?

And if you’re a writer, do you over-write or under-write? Do you pour all the emotions in, or do you hold it back, like I’ve done? Please leave a comment below and let me know.

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13 Responses to “On Writing Characters in a Novel and Making Sure Readers Care About Them”

  1. Cassie

    I was once told by an author that I don’t trust my readers enough to understand what I am trying to say. I over explain! :/

    • Natasha Lester

      It’s so hard to learn to trust the reader. I know I, like many other authors, feel so strongly that we really want the reader to understand what’s going on in the story that we tend to over explain, just as you’ve said. The trick is being able to step back and see that when you’re editing, so that you can gradually pull some of that explanation out and let the reader do the thinking. Good luck with it!

  2. Robin Witt

    I cut a lot of telling between the first and second draft. Now Beta readers have noticed (and I have to admit) that my MC is a bit of a robot. 🙁 So back to editing, to add some of her emotions back into the story…

    • Natasha Lester

      It’s so hard to get the balance right between too much emotion and not enough, isn’t it? Lots of rewriting and good readers definitely help so good luck with it!

  3. Mandy Wallace

    Love the steps to creating emotion in the story you provided here. Keeping the protagonist’s fear in mind is good direction and a strong driving force when the words don’t flow or feel quite right. Thanks, Natasha!

  4. Brailey Vine

    I am a writer who underwrites. I have the exact same problem as you. I love my characters, but the things I love about them are things only I know because I don’t transfer them to the page for fear of overwriting. This post has helped me though; thank you!

  5. Rissa Brahm

    I know this article is nearly a year old, but MAN, does it hit the spot for me. I am a writer who over writes AND under writes; striking the balance is my obstacle. Releasing my first of a five book series in a few weeks, I know that I will get better as I go, as I learn, as I gain more wisdom from sharing-authors like you. SOOO I will use your awesome fear formula as I revise books 3 and 4 (book 2 is also done/formatted… I just have to let them out into the world as is) and then write book 5 and those will be way better with your concise advice no doubt. And by the way, as a reader, I was personally hooked by your _What is Left Over, After_. Gaelle and I connected, so if you are delving deeper from here on out, wow, going to get your next work now.

  6. Jackie

    I overwrite, love fueling my characters to action and showing emotion has felt natural and I have enjoyed it. I’ve been working hard on showing. It’s a challenge. I’m reading everything I can to learn and I found your post helpful. I’m at 115k and am rewriting. Thank you!



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