One of the most frequent comments I get about my books is how much the reader feels he or she connects with the characters I've created. Odd considering I write suspense where it is often thought that story rules, not the characters. But for me it's all about the characters. People are what make a story interesting, what keeps readers turning pages, not the plot.
We are social beings and it is innate in us to want to connect with other people, fictional or otherwise. We want to empathize with them, share a common bond, a common enemy, join arms in a common cause or fight. That's how God made us. So the challenge is to create characters with whom the reader can relate.
When someone sits down to read a book she doesn't just want to read words on a page that, put together, tell a story. She wants to experience the story, and she wants to experience it through the characters. She wants to walk in his shoes, feel her pain, experience the love, the anger, the deep hurt or frustration or panic.
To achieve this connection I constantly draw on my own experiences, my own emotions, my own background, trials, triumphs, and screw-ups (and there have been plenty). I get real honest with myself and do some soul searching. And I take a chance that the experiences I've had and the emotions that have stemmed from them are not that much different than the experiences and emotional responses the reader has had. See, humans share the same basic struggles, the same basic emotional blueprint, we strive for basically the same things (if viewed in very broad strokes).
So here's a couple challenges:
1) Don't be afraid to be honest with yourself when creating characters. The reader will never know the pain your character felt at the loss of a loved one was really the pain you felt when your husband walked out on you and your kids.
2) Give your characters real emotions, emotions you've felt and lived through.
3) Make your characters flawed people, everyone of them. Because we're all flawed, we all have inconsistencies, annoying habits, shady pasts, prideful tendencies, fears, and self-esteem issues (some of us more than others, I'm sure).
4) Give your characters messed-up relationships to work through. We are relational people but often we're not very good at relationships.
Question for you: Do you agree that characters are what keep readers turning pages, not the plot? That if a reader cannot connect with the characters the story is just a story, and turning pages will become a chore?