It goes without saying– no matter what medium you’re working in, you want your audience to connect with your characters.
It can be hard to make sure the readers care about your main character. You want them to see your character’s tragic past, to sympathize with their pain, and start rooting for them.
So all you have to do is show the hero getting their butt kicked, right?
Unfortunately, readers have a low tolerance for any character that comes across as a wimp. Even the secondary characters must have enough of a backbone to hold the reader’s interest. Make your characters too wimpy and it will make it much harder for your story to be published.
But what if your main character is supposed to be a wimp?
Here are some ways you can give your characters backbone, without changing who they are on the inside.
Make Them Stand Up For Themselves
Let’s say your character’s name is Timmy. Timmy lives in an abusive home, goes to a school full of abusive teachers, and gets hunted down and punched by the abusive bully. Every. Single. Day.
At first, we feel sorry for Timmy, but then it becomes obvious that the author is trying to buy our sympathy, and we stop caring, because it’s a bit too over the top. So what’s one thing Timmy could do that would win our interest and make us root for him again?
The most obvious (and most overlooked) solution is simple: make Timmy fight back.
How he chooses to fight back must be connected to the rest of his character. We can’t have the wimp suddenly become a trained fighter without warning.
In Timmy’s example, maybe he fights back by holding in his emotions, so they won’t see him cry. Maybe he fights back in a subtle way, like stealing chalk at school to irritate the teachers. Before the bully demands his lunch money, we see Timmy slip half his money into his shoe.
The small details will keep your character believable.
However, if the character will become a fighter by the end of the book, try having him use his fists now. A great example of this is found in the film, “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Steve Rogers is physically a wimp, but he is so full of “fight me” that he’s willing to punch bullies twice his size.
By the end of the film, Steve Rogers is a full-fledged soldier, so it makes sense that he was a fighter from the beginning.
Think about what your character is like by the end of the story. Do they win an emotional battle, or a physical one? Use your answer to determine how your character fights back.
Save The Tears
When a character is crying on page one, the reader hasn’t had time to connect with them. Even if the scene is super sad, the reader doesn’t feel the emotional connection. It’s only been a few pages!
If Timmy cries when he’s in his abusive home, cries when the teacher punishes him, and cries when the bully attacks him, that’s too much crying, and we’ll begin to wonder if Timmy’s a bit over dramatic. After all, isn’t this his normal life? Does he cry this much every day?
Save the tears for the most dramatic moments, in the second half of your story. By that time, the reader will actually care.
No tears in the first half.
Even if the characters lose everything, no tears. None. Find other ways for the characters to express their emotions. Or cut to a new scene right before the tears flow.
Trust me on this one. No tears until the second half of the story, and then, use them sparingly.
Play With Dynamics
[Avengers: Infinity War (mild) spoilers ahead]
Going back to the Steve Rogers analogy, nobody would call Captain America a wimp after watching all of the movies. He learns how to fight. And he fights hard.
However, he started as a wimp who wanted to be strong.
On the other hand, his friend Bucky is not a wimp. In the first Captain America movie, Bucky looks out for Steve, and in Winter Soldier, their roles switch. Now, Steve protects Bucky.
I’m not saying that Bucky is a wimp in any way, shape, or form. He’s one of my favorite characters. However, it’s very clear in Avengers: Infinity War that Bucky does not want to fight. He has the strength, but he doesn’t want to be a soldier again. This is the complete opposite of Steve Rogers’ character in The First Avenger.
Play with the dynamics. Does your character want to fight, and simply lack the strength to do so? Or do they avoid conflict even though they could easily win?
Let’s say your character is in a situation where, for whatever reason, they absolutely cannot fight back outwardly. Perhaps they’re in a highly abusive home, or they are held at gunpoint. Whatever the situation, there’s no way they can start throwing punches.
First of all, remember: no tears! Your character should not choke up or get too emotional just yet. Keep their minds clear.
Now have them fight back, mentally.
This is dependent on your character and their situation. However, most of the time, it will look something like:
~They get insulted, they think of a smart reply.
~They get slapped, they think about getting revenge.
~They get torn down, they build themselves back up. (His mom screams, “You’re a wimp!” Then Timmy thinks of a time he was strong, and reminds himself, “I’m not a wimp.”)
Of course, this will vary from character to character. Some characters shouldn’t use a lot of sass, because that’s not who they are. Other characters are like “Welcome to Sass-ville.” It all depends on the individual situation. A good brainstorming session should help you generate some ideas.
In Captain America: Winter Soldier, Bucky gives us a great example of mentally fighting back. After he is ordered to kill Steve, he refuses to tell Hydra his mission report, asking instead, “That man on the bridge… who was he?” He knows he should remember who Steve is.
Instead of telling Bucky the truth, the bad guys decide to wipe Bucky’s memory.
Then, later in the movie, we see that Bucky is learning about Steve at a museum, trying to trigger his old memories. It’s subtle, but this tells us that Bucky fought back. In spite of having his memory wiped, Bucky remembered Steve.
And of course, in addition to fighting back mentally, consider what your character does to vent their anger. (No tears.) Do they punch their pillow at night? Do they have an old book that they rip up when they get mad? Do they write in a diary and map out their detailed assassination plots?
Anger is a great way to give characters a backbone, and it’s often forgotten by writers. A character who is full of hidden rage is immediately more interesting.
Even if you’re working with a character who is inherently meek and quiet, it’s important for them to display their inner strength. This will save your story from crossing over to melodramatic.
Also, fangirls love feeling sorry for characters who fight back against their tragic circumstances. *cough cough* J
ames Buchanan Barnes
How do your characters show their inner strength? What other ways do your characters fight back? Once you can answer these questions, you’re well on your way to creating great characters.