Monday, November 07, 2022

How to Make Readers Care About Your Protagonist—and Your Plot

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

If you’re struggling with a lagging story, a lack of character agency might be the reason why.

A helpful-yet-brutal piece of critique feedback is “Why should I care?” Why should readers care about the character, the conflict, or the story in general? Why should they read this novel you’ve worked so hard to create?

“Because it’s my novel and I love it” might be true, but sadly, no one outside our friends and family accept that as a reason. And sometimes, not even then if we have honest critique partners. Potential readers are lost every day to novels that might be good in every other aspect, but they just “didn’t care” what happened to the characters.

Often, this is due to a lack of agency.
Readers need a reason to care about the characters and story, and one proven way to make them care is to create characters with agency who are trying to solve problems that matter to them.

A character with agency wants to solve the plot’s problems for their own reasons, which gives the narrative a stronger drive overall, and gets readers emotionally invested in the story.

Even if you’re unfamiliar with the term “agency,” odds are you’ve been dinged in a critique for not having it at some point in your writing journey. It’s a critical element to crafting a proactive protagonist and the reason why the characters act in a story.

Agency is the feeling that a character is making the story happen through their choices and actions, and those choices and actions are based on personal motivations and desires.

It’s what makes a story a story and not just a report on a topic.

(Here’s more with Is Your Plot Going Somewhere Readers Will Follow?)

Here’s why agency is so important to making readers care about your novel:

Agency is like narrative drive for your characters.

It’s behind a character’s motivation to act, and the reason they’re pursuing whatever goal they’re after. They want things, and the various attempts to satisfy those wants create the plot and drives the story.

On a scene-by-scene basis, the protagonist makes plans to achieve their goals, and then enacts the steps of those plans. Things get in the way (the conflicts), but the protagonist doesn’t let those problems or obstacles stop them, even when they want to quit.

They’re determined, and they’re not going to let anything stop them from what getting what they want.

(Here’s more with Two Questions to Ask for Stronger Character Goals and Motivations)

Agency is the reason this character is acting and not that character

If anyone could step in and solve the novel’s conflict, then it’s basically a novel-length description about fixing an issue, not a story about a person resolving a problem. What makes a story matter to readers is why a particular character is in trouble and trying to get out of it.

How they do that differs depending on who they are. Their choices and decisions stem from their experiences, and what they want is personal to them, which puts a unique spin on what’s happening.

What they choose to do changes how a scene unfolds, because they’re making decisions based on their lives and what lessons they’ve learned in those lives.

Why they do it changes how readers (and other characters) view that character as a person. Their motives behind their actions reveal the kind of person they are, and helps readers connect to them on an emotional level. Changing the protagonist’s motives would change the story, because they wouldn’t be doing the same things for the same reasons.

(Here’s more with Whose Story Is It?)

When the protagonist is an integral part of what drives the story and plot forward, readers care about the outcome of the story.

Protagonists have to get involved or the story won’t work. They make choices, they have opinions about what’s happening, they have goals to pursue and plans on how to get those goals. They’re the ones who step up to fix the problem when no one else will, and they care about fixing that problem.

(Here’s more with Goals-Motivations-Conflicts: The Engine That Keeps a Story Running)

How to Create Agency for Your Characters

A proactive character with agency has wants, needs, and is able to affect their environment. Look at your character’s goals, motivations, and choices:

Identify what they want: Do they have goals creating the plot and driving the story? If not, brainstorm what series of goals will lead them from page one to the end of the novel. If you struggle here, try looking at the climax and working backward at all the things that had to happen to get to this point, and look for ways your protagonist could have caused them to happen (or been prevented from stopping them in some way).

Identify why they want it: Are they personally motivated to pursue those goals? If not, brainstorm ways to make what’s happening in the novel matter to them personally. How will their lives be changed for the worse if they don’t act? This is a core aspect of agency, since a character’s reason for acting is typically what makes readers care about them.

Identify how and why they need to act: Are they acting because they want to, or because plot needs them to? Examine why they’re putting themselves in danger to solve the problem, because you might indeed have a protagonist with goals and reasons for acting, but they’re the author’s reasons, not the character’s reasons.

Design choices that result in the protagonist pursuing their goals for those reasons.

Let them create the plot through their actions. Brainstorm options at your plot points so what happens is a direct (or even indirect) result of something the protagonist has done.

(Here’s more with 4 Ways to Develop Character Agency)

Characters with agency are in charge of their own lives, even when they’re struggling. And it’s that struggle that makes readers care.

In the end, readers want a novel that’s worth their time. They want to be entertained and swept away, captivated and intrigued, but mostly, they want to care about the story they’ve chosen to read. Make them care, and they’ll be glad they spent that time with your novel.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine your protagonist and plot. Why should readers care about either? Why should readers care if the protagonist resolves the novel’s plot? Look for ways to strengthen your protagonist’s agency.

What are some characters you’ve cared about as a reader? What made you care?

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

No comments:

Post a Comment