Can you create characters to which your readers feel emotionally attached? What are the tricks to getting someone to care about your main character (or supporting characters)?
This is the heart of good story telling. When you, as a reader, care about someone in the story, you emotionally invest yourself with the character’s plight, their struggle, their failures and their triumph. You, yourself, become vested with the outcome of the story. And this is key. But what is the primary hook that a writer can sink into your hand, into your eyes, your heart that will force you, unwittingly, to surrender part of yourself to the story? I think that singular force is…
Oppression. Mistreatment. Torment. Misery.
A writer must hurt their characters. Beat them physically and emotionally. Flail them with mishap and misfortune. Perhaps the character foolishly blundered into a vile nest of thieves, snakes, or stockbrokers. Maybe the character is broken, flawed in some way that allows such turmoil and calamity to befall them. Or perhaps, for no fault of their own, they are put upon by forces beyond their control, or powers tenuously linked to their past.
Regardless, they must SUFFER!
And through suffering, we will draw closer, empathizing with them as they seek to overcome the hardship that has befallen them. And they must overcome it. As they rise up, building and discovering their inner strength, we too, will follow along as they surmount all obstacles, slay all dragons, unite all tribes.
When they survive, they will do so with a moral compass that we can appreciate and relate to. They will choose the high road, but not always. Misled they will wallow until their own conviction and vision sees them through.
I’m always looking for simple rules that I can apply to my writing. Triggers. This, I think, might be one those rules: Be mean to your characters. Hopefully they will surprise you with their response. And by so doing, they will earn your respect, adulation and maybe, if you’re lucky, a few tears.
We naturally gravitate toward those who persevere under adverse conditions. Perhaps we see ourselves and hope that we too would react and rise above. There’s a sense of justice served when someone who has suffered under the system or nature, exceeds expectations and prevails. I suppose, if the story’s ethics are challenged and our character upholds them we may feel indebted to them.
If someone stands up for us. If they deflect criticism or shame or give us an honest compliment. If they were to save us from injury or save our lives. If they grant us a gift of any kind — we become emotionally indebted to them. Were that person to come under attack I would think we might feel compelled to protect or avenge them. We would care about them. I wonder, if by creating characters to whom we feel, in some way, indebted, this might make us, as readers, care about them, and perhaps, in the process, care even more about ourselves (and each other). [Thanks Duke!]
(An aside. This last part reminds me of a book by Maurice Sendak, Pierre. The boy of the story repeats over and over “I don’t care.” Perhaps, however we, as writers, incentivize our readers to “care”, about something, then we’ve succeeded. Apathy in readers is the ultimate failure.)