Let Characters Charm Your Readers

One trick to making your characters pop off the page is to charm the reader. This doesn't mean your male hero speaks like a stereotypical Romeo. Or your heroine acts like a helpless dame looking for her prince in shining armor.

Charming the reader is more down to earth, more home-grown than this. Most of us love complicated heroes/heroines who've had a dark past, or at least been through a little pain in life. Untroubled people on the page are boring (in real life, they are just lucky! and only slightly boring). But adding pain points to your character won't necessarily charm readers either. Pity is not charming, frankly.

So, what charms you about the average Joe? For one, I love to know what makes people smile automatically and thus break through their walls. Puppies are perfect examples.

As most of you know, I have a chocolate Lab puppy named Tucker, and he's a force to be reckoned with. Whenever we approach men, especially the groups of business suits or construction workers, their air of machismo drops. Guys drop to their knees, coo over how cute the puppy is, then look uncomfortably at one another and stand up straight again. Fascinating!

Recently, I brought up this issue with the 5-man crew of State Patrolmen sitting outside my local Starbucks. I explained that watching men react to Tucker was an exercise in psychology. They laughed and agreed that they had all fallen into their 10-yr-old selves the minute Tucker headed for them with his wiggling butt routine.

Now these guys were big, with their bullet proof vests on, sitting tall and telling stories about arresting tough guys. That they could laugh at themselves, IN FRONT OF EACH OTHER, was very charming.

The point is this: when and where people break out of their straight faces, drop their veneers, and act human is usually when we find them more vulnerable and thus interesting. That's a trick you can pull on the page to make your character not only charming, but more real.

How a character responds to a puppy--or a baby or elderly person--may feel cliché to you. So change it up. How about an ugly, ratty dog, or the bratty bully, or the cranky old maid down the street. If the character can still smile/laugh in these encounters, you can bet your readers will too.
The Editor Devil


  1. Responses to puppies or babies can really define a character. Look at Eve Dallas, tough detective, scared spitless to hold a baby and not at all trusting of cows or horses. We don't have to be told she's complex.

  2. I'm reading a book right now (A Scottish Love by Karen Rainey) where the heroine (Shona) truly charmed me when she dropped her veneer. As a countess, she's expected to act with docorum at all times. However, the situation she's found herself in -- having to sell her ancient family castle to some spoiled Americans -- is bringing out the 12-year-old in her. The bratty daughter of the man who wants to buy it is after the man Shona loves. In a fit of jealousy, she comes out of one the secret passages, her face covered with a shawl, and acts like a ghost to scare the brat. She realized she did wrong and apologized, but it was great to see her lose her straight face. Great post! Sophia

  3. A hero that picks the bitty old neighbor's own rose from her rose bush and hands it to her with a sweet kiss on her cheek. Dismantling. I love meeting the mush inside of the rock. Great post.

  4. I also like a man who likes babies and puppies and old people. I like a heroine who plays ball with her son or becomes a boy scout leader when there is no one else.

  5. Interesting ideas and I LOVE the EditorDevil name for this blog!

  6. Geez, Christine. It's like you're hacking into my computer and peeking at my work in progress sometimes! In the revision letter on the book I just turned in, my editor said that she wasn't sure if readers new to the series would connect to the hero. Clearly he was missing some charm, and I kid you not, the first thing I thought of was trying to smuggle a puppy into his office! Great minds think alike, eh? (Unfortunately the puppy trick wouldn't work in this case, but dang!)

  7. This is a great post! I'll make a conscious decision to do things like this in the future.

    Just by chance, I used a pig in my book that'a coming out later this year. It's a really cute pig! I wish I'd put it in the first of the series.

  8. Sometimes, too, especially with villains you can have them rationalize their actions in terms of, for instance, protecting children (or puppies). As a horror writer I may write about a vampire or a (sentient) zombie but, to make the character interesting, I have to occasionally let the human -- or once-human -- side shine through, however briefly.

  9. MONA, Eve Dallas is a great example of someone who, when she lets her guard down, is very charming even though she's so rough around the collar. My fav is when she snorts at Roarke's comments. So unlady like but cute!

    SOPHIA, that author did well making the Countess vulnerable. In that example we see pure humanity--not as much about creating charm, but creating sympathy, which is even more important!

  10. DOREE, the hero picking the rose and handing it to her is a great example of mush!

    MARY, I esp like the idea of a heroine who becomes leader of her son's boy scout troupe--that's a fish out of water scenario that would really show how much she cares about her son. I attribute that to showing Heart big time!

    JOYCE, thanks, I like the Editor Devil name because it allows me to push harder and be a bit devilish in my commentary :)

    ROBIN, Oh, but I AM watching your work. I'm that little devil on your shoulder, remember?

    KAYE, Love the pig idea! I had a friend who traveled across country with a plastic pig. She took him everywhere, even into restaurants, and took photos. It made everyone laugh and she charmed folks East Coast to West, which isn't an easy thing to do!

  11. JAMES: You make a great point about villains. I encourage authors to give them the same power of likability that you give the hero, AND THEN add the elements that make them icky. That allows the villain to be like the shadow self of the hero. Likewise, the hero has to exhibit qualities that are sometimes not likable/charming in order to be real. So they both have to be Human, charming, and have dark sides too!

    I'd like to see more editors/authors talk about how they make villains charming. That makes them close to the reader, so that when we start to dislike them, it's painful. Like a serial killer who we first meet when he's helping his ailing mom load her car with groceries. By the time we see his evil side, we'll feel contaminated for liking him, and he'll feel that much more creepy! Anyway, I talk about all this in my "Characters" book, but I think I'll make that my next post....thanks!

  12. Thanks for all the great ideas in this post. I need to work on my villian in my WIP, giving him more humanity. It's in my character charts about him, but so far not showing up in the book. Appreciate the incite.

  13. MARSHA, you are soooo welcome! Thank also for the great tips in the comments section from other authors :0) I swear it takes a village to write a book!

    One way to be sure your character's humanity is showing up on the page: surprise the reader. Put them in a situation where a behavior is expected, then flip those expectations. Have your villain rescue the cat from the tree. I think of good mafia bosses, who were great at sending flowers to community families for special/sad occasions. Every "bad" guy has "good" values, however warped.

  14. Great post! I was just helping a friend critique her manuscript and she had a scene were the romantic interest encounters his 5-year old nephew, it was very charming, and made me like her character even more.