There are two basic types of character: the ordinary person and the special person.
The special person is really good at their job, has skills most people don’t, or maybe even possesses powers beyond those of regular folk.
The ordinary person is like you or me.
Once you decide which type your main character is, the important thing is to get the reader to see the character as someone worth reading about.
Both types have certain drawbacks which, while not a problem, need to be addressed.
Forcing Readers To Like Characters: Admiration
No matter what kind of personality a character has, helping others will win approval. Batman and Superman have very different approaches to fighting crime, but both are regarded as admirable.
As long as you show the character being helpful, you can get away with all sorts of other questionable behaviour.
This is sometimes referred to as ‘save the cat’ or ‘pat the dog’. You see the character do something nice and you like them for it.
But this is the concept at its most basic, and most transparent. A superhero who helps random people makes sense, it’s part of the job. An accountant who suddenly risks his life to get a cat out of a tree to make your character come across like a good guy, is going to feel like the obvious 80s movie device it is.
Forcing Readers To Like Characters: Recognition
So far in this series on how to force readers into an emotional relationship with the characters in a story we’ve looked at the various ways to create sympathy.
Another technique is to create a character that the reader feels they recognise and relate to. Someone who’s dealing with things that strikes a chord with the reader’s own experiences.
However, this does not mean the reader will only identify with characters who are similar to themselves. If that were true, every story would only have a very limited readership. And any story set in an unfamiliar world would be rejected immediately. Clearly that is not the case, so what is it that readers do identify with?
Sympathetic Characters Part 6: Unfairness
Over the last five posts I have discussed the various ways to elicit sympathy from the reader. But in all of these cases, it is possible to heighten the effect simply by showing the character to be undeserving of the punishment he’s being forced to undergo.
We all have an innate sense of right and wrong. Even when life proves to be oblivious to this idea, and even when we ourselves treat others unjustly, for some reason we cling to this concept of fairness.
Unfairness can come from a person, an institution or the universe. There’s no real logic behind why we expect good things to happen to good people and bad people to be punished (experience certainly doesn’t suggest either will happen very often), but we do. And this means a character who is treated unfairly is one who is probably going to win the sympathy of the reader.
Sympathetic Characters Part 5: Betrayal
One of the sharpest pains we feel on behalf of a character is when they are betrayed. In order for the reader to feel this pain, they need to know who the betrayer is. The closer the relationship between the character and the betrayer, the greater their pain and the greater our sympathy.
A story that focuses on finding out who the traitor is—a mystery—usually reveals their identity near the end of the story, at which point the reader and the main character discover the truth together.
In terms of creating sympathy you can use to draw the reader into the story, that’s too late to be of much use.
When it comes to sympathy, the sooner you reveal the betrayal and who’s responsible, the better.
Sympathetic Characters Part 4: Outcasts
There’s something very attractive about the outsider character. Being rejected and having to strike out alone feels quite romantic.
The main things to remember when developing this sort of character is to show how happy everyone inside the group is (even if they’re just kidding themselves), and to demonstrate clearly that the character is not welcome.
Humans, as a whole, crave belonging. We want to be accepted into the group, to obtain status and be listened to.
People who reject the mainstream and become Goths or nerds or B-boys are still looking for a gang to call their own. We form societies both in small, familial group, and large metropolises.
And each of these has its rules and hierarchies and cliques, even the ones that claim they don’t.
It hits deep when membership to any sort of club is either rejected or revoked.
Sympathetic Characters Part 1: Danger
This first part of this series on creating emotional attachment between readers and characters is going to look at engendering sympathy, and in this particular post, by putting characters in risky situations. If you want the reader to feel concern for the characters in your story, putting them in danger is a simple way to do it.
Any time something of value is on the line, how the situation plays out will be of interest, and that is true for all the parties involved. But if you can communicate what’s at stake and make the reader as keen to avoid that outcome as the character, then it will amplify the level of interest in what happens next.
Forcing Readers To Like Characters
The story you’re writing may have the kind of lead character that people automatically root for. He may be a good guy doing the right thing; or a decent woman trying to sort out something that needs sorting. Heroic behaviour and overcoming adversity can bypass the whole need to tell the reader this is someone to cheer on. It’s obvious.
But they might be a little more complex than that. Maybe flawed, maybe even a bit awkward. Or they may not get to their heroic moment until much later in the story. How do you get the reader on board as quickly as possible without having to add ‘stick with it, things get good later’ at the bottom of each page?
Let Characters Be Wrong
Nobody likes a perfect character. Someone who is super good at everything and gets everything right is annoying.
Even the most suave secret agents of indestructible superheroes need to make mistakes in order to make the story interesting.
There are two parts to using wrongness in a story. There’s the actual mistake (which sometimes isn’t known to be a mistake at the time), and there’s the consequences of the mistake, usually forcing the character to deal with powerful feeling of guilt or regret.
Reader Meets Character
In order for a reader to like a character that reader has to feel like they know the kind of person the character is.
This is easiest to achieve using archetypes, stereotypes and clichés. The cynical but brilliant detective, the unfairly betrayed wife, the shy but sweet nerd… You feel like you know these characters because you really have known them, in one guise or another, all your life.
And while the received wisdom is too avoid the overly familiar, I don’t think it can be denied that lots of successful books use character-types we’ve all seen many, many, many times before (maybe with an added twist, but not always); and these variations on Cinderella or Philip Marlowe or whatever can be very successful.
But often the reason writers fall back on the tried and tested is because they don’t really know how to get the reader to know the character quickly without resorting to the shorthand of referencing traits already out there.