Thursday, March 11, 2021

Want to Write Unforgettable Characters? Do this One Thing.

By Angela Ackerman, @AngelaAckerman

Part of The How They Do It Series 

JH: Quick
who are your favorite characters? Do you know why you love them so much? Angela Ackerman does, and she shares how you can write characters your readers will never forget.

Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression and its many sequels. Available in ten languages, her guides are sourced by universities, recommended by agents and editors, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, and psychologists around the world. 

Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, a portal to game-changing tools and resources that enable writers to craft powerful fiction.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

Take it away Angela...

Let’s be honest. When writers come across a great character in a book, one that hooks us through and through, we feel a mix of awe and envy. These fictional personas have shape and weight, and an abundance of realness that transcends the page. Their emotions, vulnerabilities, needs, and desires ring so true we can’t help but be pulled in by them. As we turn pages, shivers slide through us because these are the type of characters we want to write.

So, how does the author do it? What writerly witchcraft are they casting to lure readers away from the flesh-and-blood world and into the character’s fictional one?

*drum roll*


Great writers know that when readers see something within the character that resonates, something they themselves think, feel, or believe in, it becomes common ground that binds them to the character.

But wait, you say. That makes no sense! What does my thirty-two-year-old, baby Yoda collecting schoolteacher-slash-reader have in common with the fiery, laser-zapping sky captain in my steampunk sci-fi?

Oh, not much, except maybe…
  • The pain of loss
  • Making a mistake that can’t be fixed
  • The agony of hurting a loved one
  • How time stretches in a moment of humiliation
  • Knowing a love so pure they’d sacrifice anything for it
  • The dark thoughts that accompany a desire for revenge
  • Failing and letting others down
  • The chest-expanding rush of pride or validation
  • Experiencing the sting of betrayal
  • Worrying the past will repeat itself
  • Finding the courage to live one’s truth
…and so on.

Experiences, Good and Bad, Connect Us All

No matter who your character is, human or not, of this world or another, they will have experiences in common with readers. These may look very different, but in the hands of a strong storyteller, they will be recognizable, holding a core truth that stirs a reader’s thoughts and emotions. In some form they feel an echo of having lived the same moment, stood at the same crossroads, or felt the same thing.

Recognition is a powerful tool, hooking readers and keeping them engaged. By thinking about what it is to be human, and how to use that to find areas of common ground, we can create mirrors within our characters that draw readers in and trigger their empathy.

Two of the best places to look for common ground experiences that will really resonate are Emotional Wounds and Meaningful Goals.

(Here's more with How Shame and Vulnerability Can Connect Us to Characters)

Emotional Wounds

Trauma is an unfortunate side effect of life. We all carry the burden of painful past experiences – you, me, and readers. People can hurt and betray, they can let us down, and we can do the same to them or ourselves. Anything that is a big part of the human experience we want to weave into our character building. By brainstorming a character’s emotional wounds, we make them authentic, and it gives us a powerful way to reveal their vulnerabilities to readers.

Emotional wounds come in all shapes and sizes: Betrayal. Humiliation. Rejection. Injustice. Neglect. They cut, bruise, and most importantly, change the character. Just like us, the person a character was before a traumatic event and who they become after will be different. In the aftermath they carry scars in the form of unmet needs, fears, and false beliefs. They may believe they are less worthy, less capable, or somehow at fault. A wounding event can also reshape how the character sees reality, causing them to think people can’t be trusted, that the world is callous and unfair, or believe life’s cards are stacked against them.

As readers, we may see all the ways their thinking is flawed, yet still understand why they believe what they do. Their experience informs their opinions, just as ours inform us. And even as we root for them to see the truth and be free of their pain, we recognize and relate to the experience of missing what’s right in front of you.

We’ve all experienced wounds and seen loved ones be swallowed up by fear these events create. We’ve witnessed their dysfunctional behavior and unhealthy coping mechanisms cause problems. So when a character misbehaves, lashes out, or holds back because they are afraid of being hurt again in the book we’re reading, we get it. We connect to their struggle. Their fear is our fear. We carry the burden of it together.

(Here's more with Brainstorming Your Character's Emotional Wound)    

Meaningful Goals

Imagine a line where an emotional wound is on one end and the other, a meaningful goal. One represents fear, the other hope. And as powerful as fear is, hope can best it, which is why we give characters goals to aim for.

Hope is the trust and belief we put in our yearning for change. It’s the same for characters, that moment when they decide to tip the scales because what they want is more important than what may hurt them. They hold to hope, step out onto the ledge, and move forward despite fear.

Your character’s goal can be anything: To find a lifelong partner. Succeeding where they once failed. Forgiving themselves. Pursuing justice . Protecting a loved one. The only qualifier is to make this goal meaningful as they must also have strong motivation to achieve it. When obstacles appear, or adversity and conflict batters them, hope that they can get what they need most keeps them on course.

And beside them as always is the reader, willing them to succeed. Neck bent, readers consume words, desperate to know the outcome because the biggest recognition of all is unfolding: a twin journey.

(Here's more with Three Questions to Get to the Heart of Your Story)  

Character Arc: Where Readers and Characters Collide

Why are readers so fascinated by the character’s journey? After all, it’s fiction right, a bit of entertainment, an escape. Or could it be something more?

Okay, that’s a trick question. A character’s journey to leave behind a hurtful or limiting past and cross into a better, more fulfilling future should remind you of something. Life is a series of journeys. Like the character, we are always moving from fear to hope in some way. We yearn for internal completeness just as they do, so when we read, we recognize the steps they take, and the courage, growth, and sacrifice along the way. We root for characters to win because we want to win, too.

So, when you write, find common ground and put those shared experiences on the page for readers to recognize! Readers should see themselves in the character’s vulnerability and uncertainty, their wounds and fears. But most of all, showcase the character’s hope and goals. These remind readers what’s worth fighting for both in fiction, and in life.

About The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression

becca puglisi, angela ackermanThe bestselling Emotion Thesaurus, often hailed as "the gold standard for writers" and credited with transforming how writers craft emotion, has now been expanded to include 55 new entries!

One of the biggest struggles for writers is how to convey emotion to readers in a unique and compelling way. When showing our characters' feelings, we often use the first idea that comes to mind, and they end up smiling, nodding, and frowning too much.

If you need inspiration for creating characters' emotional responses that are personalized and evocative, this ultimate show-don't-tell guide for emotion can help. It includes:
  • Body language cues, thoughts, and visceral responses for 130 emotions that cover a range of intensity from mild to severe, providing innumerable options for individualizing a character's reactions
  • A breakdown of the biggest emotion-related writing problems and how to overcome them
  • Advice on what should be done before drafting to make sure your characters' emotions will be realistic and consistent
  • Instruction for how to show hidden feelings and emotional subtext through dialogue and nonverbal cues
And much more!

The Emotion Thesaurus, in its easy-to-navigate list format, will inspire you to create stronger, fresher character expressions and engage readers from your first page to your last.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Thanks for having me on, Janice :)

  2. I highly recommend Angela's book!

  3. MELODY HIGHMAN3/11/2021 11:26 AM

    Thank you for your book Angela! I use it whenever I get stuck. It helps me visualize and get to the heart of the emotion I am drilling down to. A wonderful tool. Great post. :)

    1. Oh, I am so glad to hear that! Sometimes all we need is a brainstorming nudge, and then we're off to the races.

  4. Thanks for the timely article. I can see my way more clearly now to tweak my protagonist's reasons for "standing at a crossroads." I love the inspiration of a twin journey.

    1. It's nice when the right article comes along at the right time--I am thrilled this will help you. :)

  5. Angela, your books sit permanently on my writing desk. You and Becca have opened up a whole new world. Thank you both.

    1. Linda, I am honored, and it fills me with such joy to know our guides are helping people. Writing is hard and it's so rewarding to be able to do something to contribute. Have a great writing week!