The secret lies in the characters. Sure the story might be interesting, but it’s the characters we connect with and experience it through.
They become our friends and we love to care about them. They make us laugh, cry, get angry, and fear for their well-being.
We keep reading a story because we care about the characters, and therefore care about what happens to them. If the reader doesn’t care about your characters, she won’t care to finish your novel. Which is not what you want!
So how do you make readers care about fictional people?
You engage their emotions.
“In order for a reader to connect with a story, he must feel that he has a stake in the character’s plight and must care about the outcome.” — from Emotion Tension, and Conflict by Cheryl St. John
No matter how spectacular of a plot you have, your story will fall flat if your reader cannot connect with the characters on an emotional level. What keeps a reader turning the pages is the desire to find out what will happen to the characters that she cares about.
So how do you make a reader care about your character so that she will root for him/her to achieve his/her goal? You must make your characters sympathetic, relatable, likeable, flawed, and interesting. Let’s look at an example—Ana from Frozen.
Straight away we see that Ana is isolated from her sister, whom she loves. When the girls’ parents die they are left alone. With no friends and a sister who won’t speak to her for reasons she doesn’t understand, Ana is lonely and desperate for love.
Ana has a fun personality—she’s bubbly, outgoing, and optimistic. She also has a strong love for her sister, even though Elsa has shut her out for so many years.
Note that not all characters have to be “nice” to be likable. For example, Katniss isn’t sociable or friendly, but she has positive qualities. Your character needs at least one positive quality to make readers like them, and you need to show it as early as possible.
Ana is just like any girl—she loves chocolate and dreams of meeting “the one.” She’s also a bit of a dork.
Ana isn’t perfect. She’s a little naive (you can’t marry a man you just met!) and she also tends to be clumsy and has a habit of babbling. She can also be a little over-confident at times. No one wants to read about a perfect character—perfect is boring! Ana’s flaws make her charming and realistic.
Ana’s quirky personality makes her interesting and likable.
All of these qualities make us care about Ana. We want her to achieve her goal of bringing her sister Elsa home and repairing their relationship. We root for her along every step of the way.
Let’s look at another example.
Let’s say you’re reading a story about a Halloween party. Turns out there’s a real vampire in the room, and it murders a young woman. Interesting, exciting maybe, but other than that you’re indifferent about the situation because you don’t know the woman.
Let’s say beforehand you were shown that the woman is a single mother of two small children. She recently divorced her abusive husband and her girlfriends have talked her into going out with them tonight. Then she is murdered. Now some feelings might be stirred.
Think back to the last book you didn’t like. For me, it was The Maze Runner by James Dashner. Why didn’t you like the book?
I’m willing to bet you had an issue with the characters. The concept for The Maze Runner was interesting, but the characters were flat and I couldn’t connect with them emotionally. I didn’t care about them, so I didn’t care about what happened to them and I skimmed.
Conflict will not matter if the reader doesn’t care about your characters. So take the time to flesh out your characters, give them personalities, strengths, flaws, interests, and pasts so that your reader will connect with them and care about their fate.
What characters do you care about in books you’ve read? What makes you care about them?