I asked my lovely writer friend Brianna da Silva to do a guest post for me and she was kind enough to write up this super kick-ass article about How to Make Readers Care About Your Characters! It is full of amazing tips and things to consider while writing your WIP!
“Go ahead,” the readers say, stifling a yawn. “Eat his face off!”
Then, they do the worst thing a reader could ever do: They close the book. And if that happens, you might as well have never written it in the first place.
(Although, if you really did write a book about alien, four-headed zombies, maybe you should have reevaluated a long, long time ago.)
Without rich, relatable characters that readers can empathize with and root for, your story is toast. But sometimes, accomplishing this crucial element is easier said than done. How can you ensure that readers care?
In Hollywood, they have this down to a science. Michael Hauge, story expert and esteemed screenwriting consultant, described nine ways to establish character identification in his popular book, Writing Screenplays That Sell. While his techniques are intended for movies, you’ll find that they apply just as effectively for novels.
1. Create Sympathy for the Character.
This is the most common and most powerful technique. You can find it in almost every movie. As soon as you make readers feel sorry for your character – by means of any undeserved misfortune – they will instantly connect with her emotionally. It could be something truly traumatic, like abuse or the death of a loved one; or it could be something much smaller, like becoming the butt end of a joke or dropping an ice cream cone. No matter how great or small the misfortunate, your readers will begin to care the instant they see your character suffering.
2. Put the Character in Jeopardy.
Sometimes, having your character run away from alien, four-headed zombies really is all takes to put your readers on the edge of their seats. That being said, this technique (as well as the rest that follow) is most powerful when used in combination with multiple methods.
3. Make the Character Likable.
There are three ways to do this:
- Make the character a good or nice person.
- Make the character funny.
- Make the character good at what she does.
Note that this is arguably the most important method for character identification. Your character needs to have at least one of these three traits, or readers won’t care about her at all.
Also, it’s crucial to introduce your character’s likable traits early in the story, and introduce her flaws afterwards. If you show your character’s ugly side too early, then readers will be far less likely to identify with her.
4. Introduce the Character as Soon as Possible.
Your readers need a character to root for, right away. The longer you delay introducing your character, the harder it becomes for them to care.
5. Show the Character in Touch with His Own Power.
Power is fascinating for us, and powerful characters allow us to live vicariously though them, experiencing that control or capability for ourselves. There are three forms of power you can give your character:
- Power over other people.
- Power to do whatever needs to be done, without hesitation.
- Power to express one’s feelings regardless of others’ opinions.
6. Place the Character in a Familiar Setting.
It becomes immediately easier to relate to a character that lives in our world. This can be a disadvantage if, like me, you prefer to write in fantastical or historical settings, where unfamiliar locations can make the readers feel further away and somehow less real.
You can help compensate for this disadvantage by introducing as much familiarity as possible into your character’s world. For example, set up the dynamics of your character’s family and friendships in ways that are relatable. Show bickering siblings, protective mothers, or other relationships we’ve all experienced.
No one is perfect. There are few things as relatable as seeing a character that makes the same stupid mistakes as you do. Not only does it make you feel better about yourself, but also it makes the character feel like a real person. In every instance, we care more about real people than flat, fictitious ones.
8. The Superhero.
Much like giving your character power, giving them a superpower allows us to live out our fantasies through them. Who wouldn’t love to fly or turn invisible or beat up bad guys for a living?
9. The Eyes of the Audience.
Readers will identify most with whichever character is telling the story, whether that’s the hero or someone else looking in. Allowing readers to only receive information when the character does helps them to walk in her shoes.
Putting It Into Practice…
Michael Hauge’s identification techniques are storytelling scripture for me. In my current work-in-progress, a YA fantasy novel called Emergence, I ran into in issue with two characters on opposite sides of a war. I wanted readers to deeply identify with both characters, while also feeling the hatred they had for each other. This is because I love creating moral conflicts and torturing my readers.
In order to accomplish this, I employed almost all of Hauge’s techniques:
- I introduced both characters early in the story (Prologue and Chapter 1).
- I created sympathy for both characters. (Traumatic forms in both instances.)
- I put both characters in jeopardy, almost immediately.
- I made both characters likable. One character is funny, quirky and clumsy (familiar flaw); the other is good at what she does (skilled warrior).
- While the story takes place in an unfamiliar, fantasy world, I introduced as much familiarity as possible, with universal problems like broken families, imperfect societies, and the uncertainty of adolescence.
- I showed the reasons for the war by highlighting the cruel injustices of one side, committed against the first character. Then, I waited to show that character’s ugliest traits until she committed them against the second character, solidifying their justified, mutual antagonism.
Using these techniques by Michael Hauge makes you a storytelling superstar. It doesn’t matter whether your character is a sweet motherly figure or a heartless mass-murderer; readers will find themselves silently rooting for them, sometimes against their own morals. Their emotions are under your control.
And when four-headed zombies burst into the scene, your readers will be eagerly flipping the page, hoping your character can run fast enough.
If you enjoyed Brianna's article you should go and check out her blog http://briannadasilva.com/