How to have your readers root for your main character
“Simply put, a story is a character arc – a personality making a progression from an emotional or psychological Point A to an emotional or psychological Point B. Story is all about internal growth, not external events. It’s a character’s struggle to shed old behaviors or beliefs that have held him back from becoming his “true self” – the person he was always ‘meant to be’.” – Libbie Hawker
I’m flawed, you’re flawed, we’re all flawed. It makes us human. It also makes us interesting because it creates something to fight for. Something we need to overcome to come out at the other side, grown and changed.
The story of our life is full of growth and change. We go from point A to B, to C, perhaps back to B, only to arrive at D.
To create believable and interesting characters, they must have at least one major flaw. A flaw sets a hook for your story. Something your reader can root for. Tie in these flaws to the plot of your story and you have created a strong base for your story.
Even if you have a great story idea and a compelling plot, if your characters are uninteresting, your story falls flat. Fail on other things but not your characters.
I’ve written an article about what creates a great character before, but this time I want to dive into one particular aspect of character creation: flaws.
Your starting point must be a major flaw for your main character
In her book ‘Take Off Your Pants’, author Libbie Hawker helps you to effectively outline your novel. Her book helped me a great deal to outline my novel and not only get a good grip at my story but also on my characters.
Before you start writing your story before you’ve even fully plotted your story, think about what flaw your main character needs to overcome. What is point A? What is the desired point B? Start with a character that needs some improvement.
“Make your character flawed in a serious, big, scary, potentially life-wrecking way.” – Libbie Hawker
Don’t be gentle. The difference between point A and point B is your story. Make it meaty. Have your reader yell at your character for not growing and realizing their potential.
Think about all the inner difficulties we face. Think about what you deal with in life or your friends and family and “borrow” from that. Read a book about mental health or psychological issues, worries, and anxieties. Immerse yourself in other stories to learn what’s going on in people’s minds. There are countless of psychological dysfunctions to choose from.
Here are some examples of flaws you can use:
A meek, weak person with zero confidence
Hero’s journey, accepting a calling (reluctantly)
Growing up from a kid into an adult
Any of the sins
“The character’s flaw will narrow down your story choices considerably. Once you decide on a flaw, the external events you choose – the plot – must provide a logical framework for your character’s arc.” – Libbie Hawker
Once you’ve settled on at least one major flaw for your lead, tie in events that he or she must endure being tested and trialed. That’s your plot. The sequence of events and the relationships your main character has will help create these events. Know the journey your main character is going on.
Have your character being tested throughout the story
“We all love an attempt to change for the better, even if that attempt ultimately fails (and it is perfectly okay to make your character fail at the end of his arc – and fail spectacularly!” – Libbie Hawker
Through trial and error, we grow. When you tend to get angry at even the slightest difficult situation, you don’t wake up the next day and magically arrive at point B free of your anger issues. You might get so angry that you punch your best friend. You might realize what you’ve done afterward and truly examine your behavior. We all need incentives to change and so do your characters.
Once you’ve introduced the major flaw early in the story, have your character reflect on it every one in a while during the story. Have your character tested and confronted with their flaw.
“Whatever flaw you choose, it must be serious – it has to prevent your character from living life to its fullest, or from achieving full actualization of self – or it can even cause your character to hurt other people. As long as the flaw is causing measurable harm to your character’s life or to the lives of those around her, it’s fair game.” – Libbie Hawker
Ending and growth
As said, readers root for characters to overcome their flaws. It makes them likable, but it’s imperative that you make them overcome some of their flaws. Or at least have them have a go at it. No one is perfect. Plus it may remind your reader of themselves. It may inspire them to grow just like your character. After all, stories grant us a way to see life through a different lens and learn something about ourselves and our place in the world.
When you’ve put your character through trials and reach the ending of your story, you must show your reader what point B looks like. In the end, you must kill off the person he or she was before. Usually, your character has grown. They have managed to deal with their anger issues or the young innocent and shy girl at the start of your story has grown into a strong and independent woman.
Sometimes, characters made even more of a mess of their lives and don’t reach point B. They reach point C instead, not having overcome their flaw and adding another one to their list. That’s life too. It’s all up to you, as long as you make it an interesting read for your reader.