Saturday, 20 August 2011

Making the reader care about your characters and themes

The themes that run through your novel are the drivers that create the emotion behind the plot. 

Themes like love, hate, rebellion, revenge etc, are all emotive; they have the ability to move us on many different levels. This happens because we recognise and understand those themes – we’ve dealt with some of them first hand and we’ve experienced many of those emotions.

You can have many themes running through your story, not just one.

And of course, without the characters to drive those themes, a reader would have nothing to care about.

Getting the reader to care about your characters is important, and empathy is key. A reader needs to recognise qualities in your characters that are inherent within themselves. Without empathy, the characters won’t connect with the reader.

Writers need the reader to care what happens to their characters, to read to the very end of the novel, because doing that will help a reader care about the entire story.

What makes us care?

The situations and obstacles that your characters experience, together with emotive themes like those already mentioned, helps create immediacy with the reader, especially if they’ve gone through similar situations, because then they can empathise with your character, they have experience of it.

Realistic experiences become the foundations of the themes we choose. Things like the loss of a loved one, being bullied, becoming parents, landing in trouble with parents, peers or teachers, losing a job, or perhaps finding love, seeing the world, getting that dream job etc. Most people have felt many of these emotions at some point in their lives. 

Experiences play a significant part in making the reader care about your characters. They see these experiences and understand the difficulties your character faces. You’ve created empathy.

Likable Characters

The people we like are the kind of people just like us. By giving your characters realistic personalities you endear them to the reader - they will be looking for exactly the same qualities as they would choosing a friend.

Complex, emotional and often conflicting characteristics make for the most intriguing characters. Your reader might identify with the extrovert, or the shy and retiring, or the bold and brassy characters.

The likability factor goes a long way in making the reader care about your characters.

Opposites Attract

Of course, it’s not just likable main characters; readers love a good villain, too. The polar opposite of your struggling protagonist - the darker personality of your antagonist - will have the ability to stir the emotions of your reader in a slightly different way; they will dislike the villain by virtue of his or her actions, and by doing so you further bolster their bond with your protagonist.

Readers want to see the main character win the day, to triumph over the villain, or situation, to know that by the end of the novel the main character will have overcome all the troubles and obstacles the writer could throw at him or her. Readers want a satisfying resolution (a happy ending is a bonus), so this alone will keep their vested interest in your main character.

Inflicting the Worst

The one thing that does stir emotions is the theme of pain. This can take the form of emotional pain, physical pain, psychological pain or inferred pain. It’s the one emotion guaranteed to grab your reader’s heartstrings. 

With enough empathy created through a character that is easy to identify with, whose struggles the reader can understand, whose persona the reader likes, they can therefore feel the pain of whatever the writer throws at their characters, the reader becomes immersed in that emotion.

Emotions drive all of us. It’s part of our dynamic make up, so emotions should drive your characters too - their goals, their desires, their needs, their disappointments, their failures.

Give them terrible situations to deal with, almost impossible obstacles to overcome. Their struggle will become a theme in itself, and will hook the reader to find out what happens to your main character by the end of the novel.

Summary:

  • Create empathy, create immediacy
  • Create characters that readers can identify with
  • Create sympathy for your character’s situation
  • Create emotive themes the reader will understand – the motivation that drives the story forward – love, hate, revenge, death etc.
  • Make characters believable and interesting
  • Create antagonists a reader would love to hate
  • Inflict pain upon your characters, make their lives hell, make the reader feel for them  

Think about the characters that you connected with in films and literature – characters you liked – did you root for them, did you cry for them, did they make you smile or laugh, or did they make you angry, sad or indifferent? 

Did they make you feel for them? Above all, did they make you care

If you can accomplish the same, then you can make the reader care about your characters and create a story they will thoroughly enjoy.


Next week: The importance of driving the story forward, and what this means.

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for this A.J. All great advice.

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  2. I think you're right that we need to be able to relate to a character and find them believable to really care about them.

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  3. I've just battled my way through a book. I could find nothing in the heroine to admire, in fact if I met her in real life I might have to slap her.

    However, I stayed with the book because I wanted to see how it ended.

    I didn't care what happened to her, I wanted to see how the writer resolved the issues.

    Perhaps it was the writer I cared about? On reflection I believe the story was good enough to carry the character - clever writing.

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  4. PS - the Live Traffic Feed doesn't work.

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  5. Thanks all.

    Interesting comments Baggy.

    The LTF is causing issues at the moment.

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  6. I like what you say, but it doesn't help much. You say to create a good antagonist and create empathy and make believable characters and inflict hell but you don't say how to do it. I'd like to know precisely how to do it, or at the very least, how you'd go about doing it.

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