Monday, June 27, 2011

Poor Little Thing: Making Readers Care About Plot-Centric Characters

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Got a great question recently…
I've read quite a few books (i.e. Deeper than Blue) where someone close to the protagonist is hurt in the first few chapters. We only got a scene or two to know them, so because of that, we don't care that much when they get hurt or die. Afterward, when the protagonist cares a lot about that person and keeps thinking about them, but I couldn't care less, it becomes a bit annoying and creates quite a disconnect.

I'm planning a story at the moment where the protag's friend is hurt in the beginning and the rest of the book is about the protag doing stuff to, ultimately, help her, so I'm a bit worried about this. In The Shifter, though, we only had two (I think?) scenes with Tali to get to know her before Nya has to try and rescue her. I found that I did actually care about Tali, and wanted her to be OK, even though we hadn't known her for long -- and I doubt it had anything to do with Nya caring.

How to you develop characters like that? Make them likable, and quickly, in only a few scenes, or just one? Make the reader connect to and understand the protagonist when she spends bits of the rest of the book thinking about her friend/sister/etc. that we haven't spent very long with?
So many writers face this issue. Having the protag care about someone or something the reader doesn’t really know, and needing them to care. It might be a person (a missing sister, a kidnapped wife, a lost mother) or a thing (an item of power, an important keepsake, a family heirloom), but unless the reader also wants the protag to find/get that person/thing, it can come across flat and boring. Excitement comes from caring.

The first thing I did to make my readers care about little Tali, was make readers like my protagonist, Nya. If they didn’t like her, there was no way they’d care about her soon-to-be-missing sister. Nya’s also my narrator, so the reader sees the story and world through her eyes, picking up on emotional clues from her. Readers need to make a connection to her.

Step One: Craft a likable protag
The easiest way to do this is to find some trait(s) that shows they’re a person worth caring about. Show the reader right away the reasons to like this character. I used humor, made Nya risk something about herself for a total stranger just to help them, and made her vulnerable but strong. All qualities to encourage a reader to like her.

Your protag doesn’t have to be perfect (Nya sure isn’t), they can even be doing something wrong when you meet them, as long as you display the traits that show they’re a good person despite these things. If you can show the key strengths of your protag so much the better. The traits they’ll be exhibiting throughout the book.

But just having readers care about your protag isn’t always enough to make them care about what that protag does. The “worry” character (the character that will vanish soon but you still want them to worry about them) needs to matter to readers as well.

Step Two: Craft a likable “worry” character
You do this in about the same way you craft a likable protag. Show the reasons to care about this character. But here you can do things a little differently because you don’t need a reader to want to follow this character’s story. You just want them to make a connection of some type to this person.

With Tali (Nya’s sister), I took advantage of the fact that she’s a child. People tend to have more sympathy for the helpless and vulnerable. I made sure readers knew these two girls were orphans and had no other family but each other. I gave Tali a skill that’s inherently good and helpful to show her good heart (she an apprentice Healer). I looked for things that would naturally trigger a reader’s sympathy.
  • What inherent emotional triggers are in your “worry” character?
  • What makes them vulnerable?
  • What admirable traits do they exhibit?

I also showed the risks Tali was taking for her sister so readers would see she was worth worrying about (and saving). Even though she was scared, she “stole a Heal” for Nya (took her pain so Nya wouldn’t suffer, even though this could get her kicked out of school). She also suggested there might be a way for Nya to become an apprentice if she helped her (another display of her willingness to help at a personal cost to herself) and then a plain old simple sister-worry, by making her afraid Nya wasn’t getting enough to eat and sneaking her food. (Another thing she could get into trouble for)
  • What does your “worry” character do to show they’re worth saving?
  • Do they take any risks for your protag? For others?
  • Do they show they care about the protag?

Last, I put Tali in a situation that readers could understand was dangerous, horrible, and worth worrying about.

Step Three: Craft a worthy worry situation
If a reader can’t imagine what it would be like to either be in that situation or have someone they cared about in that situation, it makes it harder to relate to (and thus care about). A missing family member is something everyone can relate to, even if they’ve never been in that situation. They can imagine what it must feel like to have someone they love disappear. While no one is ever going to be in the situation I created (it is fantasy after all) there are some human issues at the core, things that translate to our world. (Which I can’t say or I’ll spoil the book for those who haven’t read it, but think about horrible things that might happen in a hospital). I kept it “human” even though it’s not something anyone will ever really face.

I also made it something that was terrible in general terms, but also personally awful to my characters. It wasn’t just a “bad thing” that happened. It had greater meaning (which made it worse) for these two girls on multiple levels. Personal levels. Things that would change them even if the outcome was good and they got their happy ending.
  • What about your situation taps into common human fears?
  • What about it is relatable to something readers can imagine?
  • What about this situation is particularly bad for the “worry” character? The protag?
  • What about this situation will change your characters? What are the long-term effects?

Naturally, I also did all the things you’re supposed to: made Nya care about her sister, show her fear, her worry, let her imagine what might be happening to Tali, etc. But those things just reinforced the care the reader already had. Nothing Nya said or felt would matter one whit if readers didn’t care at least a teensy bit about Tali to begin with. (Odds are they’d be annoyed at Nya for being such a whiner).

What makes you care about a secondary character? Why do you care about a situation? What tugs at your reader heartstrings?

More articles on developing characters and making readers care:
Making readers care
Adding character flaws
Creating characters
More ways to create characters


  1. Those were all great points on creating characters in general. I had to learn not to make mine perfect because no one cares about that.

    Another thing that you did well that you don't give enough credit for is that Nya is always worrying about Tali. So even if she isn't in the scene, we like her and worry about her through Nya's eyes. That's another example of what we can do to make this secondary character someone we care about.

  2. One of the other issues of a plot-centric character is that they tend to follow the plot and react to it. If someone is decent with characterization, this can be very good, but if they're bad with characterization, the result is one-dimensional characters. Vince Flynn's Mitch Rapp is very passionate about what he is and what he does, which comes through in his frustration with dealing with bureaucracy. But I found that James Rollins had more trouble making characters that anyone would care about.

    Likable is tough though. It's not as easy as assigning traits or flaws. I remember reading a thriller with three protagonists -- the characters had to work to be one dimensional. It felt like the author just had a checklist. Character Name? Check. Flaw? Check. Done. The flaws felt assigned to the characters, rather than a natural evolution out of the overall story. I think the single biggest mistake anyone makes in creating a likable character is in thinking that it's by the numbers. If you do X and Y, you'll have characterization. It doesn't work that way.

  3. This is really helpful -- thanks so much! :)

  4. Natalie: Perfection is certainly boring :) The worry is definitely part of it, but just worrying doesn't automatically transfer to those secondary characters. But yep, if the protag isn't worried, then there's no way the reader will worry no matter how well you develop that "worry" character.

    Linda: I agree there, there's so much more than a checklist to crafting a good character. But lists of things to think about are a good place to start if you don't know *where* to start. Lists have always helped keep me organized. But no matter how many correct pieces you give a character, if they're written poorly, they still won't earn a reader's sympathy. You need to bring a character to life, and we all know that isn't always easy :)

    Wendy: Most welcome!

  5. It's probably one of the toughest parts of writing a good protagonist, giving them something to care about without making them seem whiny, and making sure that the reader connects with that.

    This is definitely good advice, and I think it could be applied to anything that the protagonist stands to lose, not just a loved one.

  6. Fantastic post, I'm definitely bookmarking it. Some authors can do this so well, that even if someone died before the book began, and you never 'meet' them, you still mourn them perfectly along with the character.

  7. Great thoughts. Thinking in terms of a "worry" character is helpful.

  8. This one's a keeper (bookmarking)for me, too. great post!

    I generally write character, not plot-driven, so this may or may not be helpful, but occasionally I've written scenes not intended to be in the novel, but to help me flesh out even more who my characters are and why they behave the way they do.

  9. You just change my book with this post… and you just opened my eyes to a situation I was over looking.

    As always, your post is a lesson full of the right questions and answers.

    Thx for sharing your knowledge, it has helped me more than any other resource.

  10. Very informative. I relate to stories with real humans. I have trouble with science fiction. thanks found you from Roni's site

  11. Paul: I bet it can. The whiny issue is a big one, so I might have to do a post just on that. I know I ran into it on early drafts of Shifter. It's tough to get that balance between worried and whiny.

    Bethany: Thanks! I love books like that, too.

    Stephsco: Thanks! Crazy as it sounds, I've found that a lot of times just changing the way you think about a problem makes it easier to fix. It's like redefining the problem.

    Beverly: A friend of mine does that and I think it's a great idea. Most of the first draft of Darkfall I threw out because it was just something I had to write to figure out what I really needed to write.

    Jeff: Oh cool! Love when that happens :)

    A Mom's Choice: Welcome to the blog! I think if we strive for "real humans" no matter what we write (even they aren't human) we end up with better characters overall. It's the human that resonates with us.