I need to confess something: I arrive late to everything that’s popular. All the things everybody gets really into–games, apps, trends, TV shows–I’m usually about six months behind in catching on (if it’s something I’m going to like anyway). Sometimes, longer than that. I’m slow to keep up with the times. When everyone else has been into something for ages, it’s shiny and new to me.

That being said, I didn’t watch Stranger Things until well after everyone else had already binge watched the first season and fell in love with it. The main reason, apart from my usual being late to the party, is that it just didn’t look like my thing. That’s another quirk of mine–I CONSTANTLY brush things off as not being “my thing” and then when I give it a shot I’m usually really into it. But mostly, yes, I’m not a sci-fi fan, and I’m especially not a fan of the pulpy sci-fi that makes up the plot of Stranger Things, AND I don’t wanna watch a show about kids, yeesh!

Well, you can probably guess what happened when I finally got around to giving it a try. Yep, I found it insanely engrossing.

The thing is, I’m still not a fan of the plot, I think it’s campy and I’ve never liked the evil-for-the-sake-of-evil type villains, but I love the characters, and I find them mesmerizing to watch and to follow their story. And so comes our writing lesson for today.

Have you ever heard someone say “I don’t usually read (genre), but I loved the characters, I couldn’t put it down!” This is indeed a great compliment to hear about your own work, it means you crossed barriers to reach people outside your target audience. Characters are, hands down, what makes a story good. They’re what moves a story. They’re the reason for the story. And no matter if you’re writing about WWII or a grandma who solves murders or a town overrun by interdimensional aliens, it’s your characters who bring readers to the table. It’s your characters who make the story matter.

But what makes a character “good?” Usually three things: they’re interesting, relatable, and sympathetic. That means they’re the type of person you would want to have a conversation with, their struggle or desire is recognizable to you, and you understand why they do the things they do (even when they’re bad things). Of course not EVERY character in your story will appeal widely to everyone, but having at least a few in there pulls in an audience. Having engaging characters who appeal to a large amount of people’s general sensibilities–they want love, protection, fortune, to help their family, to succeed at something important–can make the difference between a flat story and one that really pulls people in, maybe even people who wouldn’t usually read the kind of thing you write. Sometimes, the characters are even more important than the plot.

As another example in TV, Breaking Bad was one of the most-watched and awarded TV shows of all time (and yes, I didn’t watch it until well after it was over and on Netflix). But the concept–a gritty, dramatic crimeworld show about the little man climbing the ladder of success–wasn’t exactly novel. However, the characters were amazing. So much so, even people who don’t watch that sort of thing (me) ended up watching it. It didn’t win a million Emmys because it was particularly unique, but because the characters felt almost too real at times.

So, there you have it. I guess I’ll be watching the second season of Stranger Things when it comes out this month. It was a good reminder for me to try things instead of just brushing them off, and also that it’s the characters, not the background, that makes a story great. Now, let’s see if I can keep up with the times. *waves cane*