What Makes a Reader and Character Connect

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How does a reader connect with a character? This is a well-debated question, and one that many authors have asked themselves. It can mean the difference between a novel’s life and death.

“Which of us has not felt that the character we are reading in the printed page is more real than the person standing beside us?” -Cornelia Funke

The reader rarely cares about what happens to your book’s character unless they care about the character. That’s a pretty powerful statement when you think about it. You could have the best novel plot in history, but if the reader doesn’t care about your protagonist, then it could be of little use.

There is much debate about what is more important, character or plot. This post is not going to weigh in on that. But one statement that I will make (based on Ryan’s opinion chapter 3 verse 7) is that the character’s voice is more likely to catch the reader’s attention first. It is my belief that the character will create that initial spark, and the plot sustains it.

When I built a fire at summer camp as a teenager, I was taught to prepare three things: your kindling,  the frame, and the additional firewood. The first thing I did was set up the frame (usually leaning pieces of wood standing-up into a teepee shape) and lay the kindling inside.

I imagine character to be both the kindling (what initially sparks the reader’s attention) and the frame. The additional firewood (representing the plot), is added in successfully larger pieces to fuel the fire. Neither of the three elements are lesser, and without one of the three, a fire wouldn’t last as long. There are many ways to build a fire and construct a character/plot ratio, but that’s at least the way I give it thought.

“…You enter into characters, so that it seems as if it were your own heart beating beneath their costumes.” -Gustave Flaubert

There are two reasons that a reader might connect with a character. Let’s take a look at the two in an effort to increase this in our own writing.

 

The reader relates to the character
The most common example of this is the “every man” type character. Someone who has no special abilities or supernatural powers (like the reader) but is still able to get the job done. An example of this would be Edward Norton’s character in the movie “Fight Club.”

This sort of character is the type where the reader can subconsciously think, “That’s like me,” which creates an emotional bond.

Another way to look at this would be the action of a character. If a super-human character makes a very human decision, that has the same effect. It makes an unrelatable character more relatable in the process.

The issues and obstacles a character faces can resonate with the reader’s own experiences. You’ll notice that even in sky-high stakes like the world’s destruction, there are several sub-plots on a much more common level, such as protecting a loved one, honor, being a part of a team, self-doubt, and reputation. Test it out yourself. Check out a super-hero/comic book movie and see if many (if not all) of those elements are included.

“When writing a novel, a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.” -Ernest Hemingway

 

Traits a character has that the reader admires or wishes they had
At first glance, this one is easy. Arguably, this is the entire appeal of super-hero movies and comic books. Most fans, if they were honest, would admit to at one point having fantasized about what it’d be like to fly, have super speed, x-ray vision, teleportation, etc.

The “cool” factor certainly is in play, depending on the genre. For science fiction and fantasy, this is their bread-and-butter. Readers often expect for characters (or magic/technology being wielded by characters) to come to the table with abilities that the reader envies.

But there are enviable traits in characters for reasons other than magic wands and twelve-inch adamantium claws. Often, the decisions and judgment calls are ones that we wish we could make. You might admire Frank Underwood from the show “House of Cards” and wish that you could make hard decisions like he can (although hopefully not repeating a certain few).

The character Egwene al’Vere in Robert Jordan’s book Knife of Dreams show tremendous fortitude while a prisoner. The way she overcomes that situation made her character stand out in a way it hadn’t in the ten books prior. Her POV chapters went from “interesting” to the most exciting. I couldn’t wait to get back to what decisions she would make next.

“Character, I think, is the single most important thing in fiction. You might read a book once for its interesting plot—but not twice.” -Diana Gabaldon

 

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Image courtesy of Ray Smith via Flickr, Creative Commons.

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40 thoughts on “What Makes a Reader and Character Connect”

  1. That quote at the end resembles me a lot. XD The best plot in the world is useless to me if I decide that the characters annoy me, or (heaven help them) are just idiots. I may finish the whole book if it is written well… or short… but I will definitely not read it again!

    Thinking about it a bit, I believe there is one character type that is about even in popularity with the ‘everyman’, and that is the ‘outcast’. A character who just doesn’t fit in for whatever reason is something that almost everyone relates to. Of course, the trick is to make sure they don’t come off as whiny. ^-^

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  2. I never understand why people need to relate to characters. I always just look for characters to be interesting. That’s what makes me want to turn the page. Relateable can be extremely boring.

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    1. I do agree with you, but I’ll ask you a hypothetical follow up question simply as a brain-teaser.

      Are you entirely sure that your interest isn’t directly tied to how you relate/admire the character on some subconscious level?

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Do you hear that . . . that is the sound of my MIND BEING BLOWN!
        In most cases, yes. You can say I’m relating to characters because I’m interested in them. But then again the books that I truly love usually feature people in our the real world that are totally fascinating and nothing like who I am or want to be.
        However, as I’m typing this I’m starting to think maybe there is a connection and oh my god this is too much . . . *runs away screaming hysterically*

        Liked by 1 person

  3. There is this one character in a story I am going through, that at this time I don’t seem to like his character much at times, but I am very curious what he is going to do. His willing for “badness” and crossing a line makes him interesting.

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  4. I like your analogy, and I agree. The plot can be brilliant, but without developed characters, it will all fall short.
    That is why I enjoy books where the characters appear to have pasts that are not all smiles and rainbows.

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  5. I really appreciate that analogy. Also when writing once you know your characters the plot comes along much easier. The characters do their thing and you get to tell about it. (Something I never believed happened until I experienced it.)

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  6. I believe a reader’s connection to a fictional character has at least two parts: the first is a recognition of commonality — that there are things in life they must both tackle. The second part is appreciation for the way the fictional character deals (or elects not to deal) with those same issues. A clever solution, for instance, that the reader hadn’t thought of, or more likely, couldn’t get away with, pleases the reader, who naturally wants to see more. A skillful avoidance of a painful choice works the same way. How a character handles failure is equally important in cementing the reader/character bond. My tuppence, anyway.

    –Josh

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  7. Wonderful post! My first two favorite authors were Beverly Cleary. She because of her character Ramona Quimby. This little girl inspired me as a little girl to go a little farther than my own worries might allow at times. I loved her! Still do. My second favorite author I ran into when there was nothing to read at grandma’s house but a bood of short stories called Night Shift by Stephen King. The cover creeped me out. It was a bandaged hand with eyeballs peering out! I don’t even have a clue why I opened it other than I was bored and wanted to read. His characters were so real to me, I couldn’t tear myself away from the book. I can’t say that I related to any of them, but I definitely felt I had something real there.

    Pinning this jewel. Thank you!

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  8. Reblogged this on On Writing…Writing On and commented:
    Ryan Lanz has written a lovely piece on character that particularly resonates with me because 1) In the books I read, I love characters more than plot any day, 2) I write because I want to know what my characters are going to do/ be/ become.

    Thanks Ryan for helping me with a fab. Monday morning post, with next to no effort on my part.

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  9. This was a very helpful article – thank you! I definitely agree with both of your statements about character, relatable and admirable. I also enjoy it when the author can create a character with a surprising quality, when the character does or says something I did not expect. The surprise must still be consistent with the person otherwise it is frustrating, unrealistic, and disappointing.

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