Writing Characters That Mirror Real Life

So I contacted Kristen awhile back and asked her if I could hijack her blog and she graciously said Yes. Because of this lapse in judgment outpouring of generosity, I’m going to try and forget that sarcasm is my love language and, instead, be professional. I’ve just launched a book and am feeling absolutely giddy with freedom, so this is easier said than done. But we’ll give it a go.

I’ve been thinking lately about something that Angela and I touch on in all of our books: The Mirror of Real Life. It’s this idea that something in our stories is like a mirror for readers that reflects back to them something of themselves. When we portray the character as this mirror, it draws readers in and encourages empathy because they recognize a commonality with the character.

In today’s world, where there are roughly a gajillion books your readers could be buying, it’s super important to pull readers into YOUR story. You want them staying up way too late finishing your books, thinking about them after they’re done and running to the computer to see when the next in the series is coming out. While there are a number of ways to encourage this fascination, one of the strongest methods is by writing characters that resonate with readers on a personal level. So I want to talk today about common elements that, when applied to our characters, increase our chances of engaging readers.


I’m not talking about surface phobias like Brussels sprouts and spiders (though, please, both are icky). I’m talking about deep-seated, debilitating, life-altering fears: rejection, failure, betrayal, physical harm, the death of a loved one. These fears are so great that they become drivers for our behavior, leading us to do and not do things that we believe will keep these painful events from happening. Inflicting these on our characters is cruel and probably makes us as authors horrible people, but they do serve a solid storytelling purpose: they tap into common experiences that readers understand. When readers see the character struggling with a familiar fear, a connection is forged, and empathy is born.


There are many contributors to the formation of a character’s positive and negative traits. Fears can be a factor: Mom is proactive, observant, overprotective, or paranoid because she’s afraid something will happen to her kids; Joe worries about rejection, so he tends to be withdrawn, abrasive, or cautious. Upbringing can be instrumental, along with the caregivers who raised the character, positive experiences and successes they’ve had, their ethics and values—even genetics can play a part.

Regardless of their origin, when a character’s dominant traits mirror those of the reader or people in the reader’s life, the character becomes more interesting. Traits like stubbornness, optimism, fairness, and impulsivity act as tags that say, “Hey! This guy’s just like you, or Grandma, or that jerk kid who lived down the road who used to shoot you with his BB gun.” Giving your character flaws and attributes that are common to the human experience can be the most straightforward way to bridge the gap between readers and your cast.

Human Needs

This one takes us back to Psychology 101 (which is farther back for some of us than others) and good ol’ Uncle Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The premise of his theory is that there are five basic categories of needs that all people must have in order to be wholly realized. When one of these is missing, we become compelled to fill that void, and we do this through adopting new habits, thought patterns, and beliefs that align with that purpose. These needs are universal, meaning that even on a subconscious level, we all share them. So, for example, when readers see a character whose safety and security has been compromised, they understand what that’s like and why it’s so important for the character to get it back. Boom! Connection.

Story Goals

And how does the character regain that missing need in their life? Through an overall goal. To paraphrase Michael Hauge in Writing Screenplays That Sell, every plausible story idea can be explained with a simple formula:

It’s a story about A (the protagonist) who wants B (the story goal) because Y (the missing need that will be filled through the accomplishment of that goal).

Getting the girl, escaping an alien invasion, winning the court case, avenging oneself—we see the same goals repeated from one story to another because they’re tried and true ways that missing needs can be met. Why does he need to get the girl? Because he’s missing love and belonging. Why does she want to win the court case? Because it will provide the esteem she’s been lacking for so long.

Story goals resonate with readers on two levels. First, they’re goals the reader personally has pursued or have seen others pursue. Secondly, they recognize, often subconsciously, that achieving that goal will fill the need; they know that getting B is vital to the character’s happiness and success, and they want the character to win. Give your character an overall goal that not only makes sense for the story but also meets that internal need, and you’ll increase the chances that your reader will relate to the character.


We may not verbalize it often, but we all are on a journey in this life to improve ourselves. We don’t want to be the same people ten years from now that we were yesterday, and we all hope to leave the world a better place than it was when we found it. When readers see characters on this journey of discovery and self-growth, they get it. They’ve been there. And they want the character to succeed because if the character can do it, then there’s hope for them too.

Emotional Wounds

I saved this one for last because, when it comes to mirroring real life, nothing has the impact of an emotional wound. We’ve all experienced terrible things in our lives—singular events or repeated situations that were so emotionally and/or physically painful that we don’t want to ever go through them again. Readers can relate to those experiences and their devastating effects. As a matter of fact, when you take the effort to explore your character’s backstory and unearth this formative event, it enables you to incorporate all of the aforementioned elements, resulting in a character that reads as true-to-life and utterly relateable. In a nutshell, here’s how it works:

Something awful happens to your character (emotional wound). They become afraid that it or something similar to it will happen again (fear). So they adopt emotional shielding to keep them safe in the form of new characteristics (traits), behaviors, and false beliefs about themselves or the world. But instead of protecting them, this shielding ends up creating other problems, such as keeping others at a distance or limiting their ability to successfully do what they love (human need). To fill the void, they either knowingly or unknowingly set out to accomplish something (story goal) that they believe will meet that need. But they’re unable to succeed because the wound is hobbling them, holding them back. It’s not until the character is able to face that wounding event and come to grips with it (self-growth) that they can distance themselves from the past and move forward into the future.

Basically, the wound is the Alpha and Omega of reader-character relatability. It supplies the starting, middle, and end points for a story structure and character arc that will offer many opportunities for readers to see themselves in the protagonist and the story. And once readers care about your character, they’re going to want to keep reading to see if he or she overcomes.

If this process seems oversimplified, it’s because there’s only so much information that can be crammed into a 1400-word blog post. For more information, the topic can be explored to its fullest, most in-depth, most ad-nauseum-est extent in our latest book: The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma.


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels, including the latest member of the family: The Emotional Wound Thesaurus. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writersa powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.



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  1. This is so helpful! I’m a pantser, and the story I am currently writing was at a standstill mis way through. At this point, I felt as though the book was a “Choose your own adventure” LOL. I didn’t know what would happen next or what should happen next or how the story would end.

    I applied a few of these points and created an over all story arc and now the next chapters are far more clear!

    Thank you!

      • becca puglisi on November 20, 2017 at 1:36 pm
      • Reply

      Oh, that’s awesome! I’m so glad you were able to work through your story problem :).

  2. Thank you for this post! I recently listened to the webnar on Emotional Wounds, and tweaking a manuscript because of its detailed information. It helps add clarity and resolution to my novel. Kudos – and keep creating your resources – such useful tools.

      • becca puglisi on November 20, 2017 at 1:37 pm
      • Reply

      Thanks so much, Kristan. I’m glad you found both the post and the webinar useful!

    • Mary Van Everbroeck on November 20, 2017 at 12:41 pm
    • Reply

    Hi Kristen and Becca: Your Post couldn’t come at a better time. It’s my first time involved with Nanowrimo (Rebel) writing scenes for what I hope develops into a novel. Your sharing gave me much to think about in regards to deciding whether my protagonist is ‘growing enough’. Thanks.

      • becca puglisi on November 20, 2017 at 1:38 pm
      • Reply

      That self-growth piece is so important. In any change arc story, the character starts out stuck or stymied in some way; it’s that ability to examine themselves and take steps to move forward out of incompleteness into wholeness that enables them to reach their goals and succeed. Good for you for exploring that!

  3. *pets Maslow chart* Precioussssssssssss…

    Thanks Kristen for letting Becca post today. (Psst., I think after reading her intro that my weirdness may be catching…)

    • CherylPR on November 20, 2017 at 2:57 pm
    • Reply

    “Giving our character flaws and attributes common to the human experience can be the most straightforward way to bridge the gap between readers and our cast.” That’s really what great stories do, isn’t it? Bridge that gap until the story no longer belongs solely to the author, but becomes a part of the reader, too.
    Thanks for the great post! I have every one of the books in this series and I use them all. My copy of The Emotion Thesaurus looks like my dogs got ahold of it, which is actually a compliment though I realize it might not sound like it.

      • becca puglisi on November 20, 2017 at 10:56 pm
      • Reply

      I’m so glad it resonated with you, Cheryl. And I’m happy that The Emotion Thesaurus is getting so much love :).

  4. Invoking Michael Hauge struck close to home, because just last weekend I attended one of his talks (not for the first time, either). Glad to hear you have a new book out, too, because while drafting a book I refer dozens of times to The Emotion Thesaurus. It really helps my characters come alive!

      • becca puglisi on November 21, 2017 at 8:47 am
      • Reply

      Michael Hauge is the absolute bomb. Angela and I have learned so much from him. I’m a little jelly that you were able to attend a talk of his in person! If he was ever in my area, I would jump at the chance to see him. And I’m happy to hear that The Emotion Thesaurus is earning its keep. Best of luck with your writing!

  5. Good stuff! I take exception to one point, however: Brussels sprouts are not icky when lightly steamed and served with butter. Preferably lemon butter, and preferably non-geriatric sprouts.
    Plus you can pretend you’re a giant eating cabbages in a single mouthful, and how many healthy foods give you that?

      • becca puglisi on November 21, 2017 at 8:48 am
      • Reply

      Brussels sprouts. The most polarizing vegetable ;). People either love them or hate them. I’ve sampled so many different recipes from people who assured me I would LOVE them this way, and…no, lol. Maybe my taste buds are faulty…

      1. Apparently there’s a gene some people have which makes coriander taste like soap – maybe it’s the same for Brussels sprouts? Or maybe it’s a psychic sprout-wound, secretly shared by half the population…

  6. Once you read it the answer seems plain and clear.
    I remember a panelist who defined most stories as “Character struggles to achieve goal, character falters. In a moment of desperation character changes, then demonstrates the change by succeeding where they failed before, providing clear evidence of growth.”
    Your outline of the pattern of the wound and healing is very succinct.
    I don’t know if it’s a common element of the pattern, but I’m often drawn to characters who know they are wounded, but refuse to heal, insisting that only those who are hurt can remain vigilant against future hurts; the character who must eventually learn the classic adage that “even though it hurts, risks must be taken.”
    I’ll definitely check out your book.

      • becca puglisi on November 21, 2017 at 8:53 am
      • Reply

      Risk is such a huge part of character arc. Once a character has been hurt, it’s that risk of being hurt again that becomes all-important. They think that by striving to not be hurt again, they’ll protect themselves, but it ends up train-wrecking their lives in all kinds of ways. It’s not until they recognize that everything of value includes risk (relationships, professional goals, being honest about who they really are, etc.) that they’re able to move forward.

  7. Great post, Becca! I Also highly recommend The Emotional Wound Thesaurus.

    Writing characters with deep, ugly wounds can be super scary, but I can vouch for the fact that the authenticity we gain will stick with readers for a long time. And in my own experience, it also teaches us as writers more about ourselves to find the common points we share with those characters. So yes, therapeutic.

      • becca puglisi on November 23, 2017 at 10:37 am
      • Reply

      Thanks so much, Talena! And yes, writing this book was an eye-opener, for sure.

  8. A helpful reminder. Much obliged!

  1. […] relationships, Mary Kole teaches how to write active character reactions, Becca Puglisi advocates writing characters that mirror real life and character flaws for your hero, and Jeanne Kisacky examines (too) close third […]

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