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.
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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
Ryan Lanz is an avid blogger and author of The Idea Factory: 1,000 Story Ideas and Writing Prompts to Find Your Next Bestseller. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.