How To Get Readers to Feel Something For Your Characters-Part I

Last week I talked about the quickest way to get even loyal readers to ditch your book. If they aren’t emotionally invested in the characters of your story, they’ll bail on your lovingly crafted novel in a hurry. Right now you might be thinking, “All right, Ms. Smartypants, that’s all well and good, but how do I get my readers emotionally invested? I’m emotionally invested in my protagonist up to my eyeballs. Give me some for examples here.”

That’s a legitimate question. I went back and analyzed those six books that I bailed on recently and tried to pinpoint exactly how the authors lost me. Why didn’t I care about the characters? In this first post on how to write characters that won’t put your readers to sleep, I’ll focus on some of the pitfalls to avoid. All of six of the books committed at least one of these, usually more than one.

No emotional reaction

Characters lack emotional reactions. This is especially crippling for a novel if your protagonist is the one with the problem. Don’t get me wrong, I love a great stoic character. Stoic does not equal no emotion, though. The reason stoic characters work is because even though they aren’t crying as the love of their lives die in their arms, you know they are feeling powerful emotions and struggling to keep them in. As an author you’ve got to show us that struggle. If it’s a point of view character, for heaven’s sake, take us inside his head and let us know what he’s thinking. If he’s not a POV character, we need the actions that betray what he’s feeling—the trembling lips, the fisted hands, the clenched jaws. We also need that character’s actions and motivations to convey what he is feeling. The heroine might never speak of her burning need for revenge, but we can watch her hunt down the killer.

Dawson the Crybaby

There’s a reason I bailed on Dawson’s Creek, too.

Characters have only one emotional reaction. Yes, even in real life, people have a default reaction in stressful situations. Some are yellers, others are criers, and some people run away. A good character can absolutely have an M.O. What they can’t have is only one reaction over and over. I think everyone’s read a book where the character’s chest beat so much they should have died of a heart attack after chapter three. One of the books I gave up on had a female character that could do nothing but cry. Happy, sad, depressed, sacred, angry, Tuesday evening—you name it—she cried. A personal pet peeve of mine is the throwing of stuff off of desks and tables repeatedly to show a person is angry. Sometimes the author will shake things up and (gasp!) have the character also punch a wall or door. Buy an Emotion Thesaurus and give me some variety, please.

Low stakes for characters

I have to mention here that this picture is from an actual competition in the UK where people watch paint dry.

The stakes are too low. An author’s characters are her babies, so I understand the desire to not be mean to them. However, playing it safe does not make for good story-telling. Neither does it help your readers build an attachment to your babies. Writers need to be relentlessly awful to their characters. Readers bond with characters as they suffer. One of the books I ditched had dual protagonists. Other than the inciting incidents for each that set up the book, nothing upsetting happened to either of them for about 200 pages. I kid you not, I read chapter after chapter, and the only thing of significance that happened to either of them was they managed to get jobs. They weren’t even interesting jobs, nor was there any conflict in obtaining the employment. The two protagonists didn’t even meet until page 176. You know who else I hadn’t met after 200 pages? The antagonist. Or if I did, he was so mildly antagonizing I missed his entrance.

Whiny heroes are like toddlers

Whiny, selfish heroes. I just finished up a series of posts on the mythic hero. Traditional heroes generally aren’t allowed to be either of the adjectives I just listed, with good reason. It doesn’t endear him or her to your readers. I would suggest they’re not a good look on an antihero, either. Most of us can get behind a rough around the edges antihero who breaks the rules so long as the ends justify the means. No one likes a whiner, though. It reduces your hero or heroine to a petulant toddler. If your whole cast of characters is this self-centered, you’re essentially asking your reader to baby-sit.

Michael Bay Presents Explosions

No motivation/unclear motivation/unbelievable motivation. Why did your heroine just blow up that building? “Because it was cool,” is only a motivation if you’re Michael Bay. As an author, you need to know why your characters take the actions they do and say the things they say. What drives your hero? What is your heroine’s deepest yearning? What wound haunts your villain to make her so awful? If you don’t know, your reader sure won’t. If the plot isn’t driven by clear and believable motivation, how can the audience get lost in the world you are creating? It can’t. Readers won’t buy what you’re selling if they have to stop and start the reading process too often to try to puzzle things out.

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9 thoughts on “How To Get Readers to Feel Something For Your Characters-Part I

  1. So true! Unless I care about the characters, I won’t care what happens to them. I wrote a post on this subject a while back, actually.
    http://mishaburnett.wordpress.com/2013/05/27/its-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it-and-i-dont-care/

    • Thanks for the link. I didn’t start following you until shortly after that, so I missed it. More great points on a common problem. By the way, I really enjoyed your thoughts on the Amazon return policy.

  2. […] How To Get Readers to Feel Something For Your Characters-Part I […]

  3. I remember so clearly the very first book I ever stopped reading midway through… A young boy ran away from home with a small backpack, some bubble gum, and a toy gun that looked real. He got on a Greyhound bus right at the beginning of the story, and many chapters later he was still riding that Greyhound bus… making friends and talking to strangers… eating at rest stops… sleeping… zzzz… going to the bathroom… T_T

    It was such an incredibly devastating experience for me as a young reader!

    Up until that point, I had thought that all published books were sacred.

    Even the obvious Chekhov’s (toy) gun ploy did not work on me. I forget the name of that book. It would go in my list of Top 10 Worst Books Ever Published by a Big Name Publisher. It was a Penguin or something. And I was not a lazy reader… I had already gotten all the way through Lord of the Rings, a lot of Shakespeare plays, and much of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I was a book worm!

    • Yes, Sandra, I’m with you. Eating, sleeping, bathroom breaks–these are not high stakes activities. I’m a very loyal reader and will give authors many pages of wiggle room, but eventually you have to entertain me. I suppose if I was truly literary, the prose could be enough for me, but I am unabashedly low brow. I also think it’s not wrong to aim for both well written and interesting. Crazy, I know.

  4. […] about your characters, they are much more likely to ditch your book. On Monday, we talked about common author errors that lead to character […]

  5. Great advice! There’s a balance to be had to introducing your heroes, heroines and villains, establishing their characters and just getting on with things in your book.

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