Every serious fiction writer tries to create rounded, fully dimensional characters who take up space when they enter a room—characters the reader will care about. Most fiction writers call on memories of friends and strangers, as well as imagination, in selecting the combination of faults and failings that best serve the plot, then assign them to a character. Sometimes the process works. Often it doesn’t.

 When your characters fail to bring a story to life, you’ve failed to bring the characters to life. Conceiving of, and breathing life into, characters is probably the hardest, loneliest task you will ever face as a writer. When you make your characters out of pieces you collect from different people in your life and memory, you’re engaging in a profoundly incarnational act. Still, unless you grant those characters loving tolerance— giving them the opportunities to discover how they move, what they want to do, and how they want to do it—they will forever walk around stiff and wooden, awaiting or obeying your instructions. 

I’m not suggesting that you let your characters write themselves. The author must create characters. But once incarnated, a character with some autonomy will be ten times more likely to engage the reader than will the character whose creator keeps a death grip on her motives, actions, and speech. The story with characters manipulated in the service of a pre-existing plot may entertain its readers, but it will never move them. 

As a reader I want to feel, not think. You can have your main character stuck in a puddle of Super Glue on a railroad track with the express bearing down, and I won’t feel a thing if I haven’t come to care about him. Smash! He’s dead—so what? Unless I, the reader, have something to lose too, the character’s fate is unimportant to me, and my engagement in the story is minimal. What can you do to make readers care about the characters in your stories? Where does this magical incarnation begin? I think it begins with love. The reader’s relationship with the characters can only grow out of the writer’s relationship with those characters.