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.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.
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?
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
More ways to create characters