How To Make Readers Root for your Characters
by Jason Black
Experienced writers know how critical it is for readers to get behind our protagonists. Sure, we want readers to like and empathize with our protagonists, but more than that we need readers to be rooting for them. We want readers cheering our protagonists’ successes and lamenting their failures.
Whether a reader will root for the protagonist depends almost entirely on the protagonist’s actions, or lack thereof. Thus, those actions also control whether readers keep turning pages or whether they put the book down because there’s something more exciting on the home shopping channel.
Readers won’t root for a character that doesn’t do anything. Think about your favorite characters from books or films. Do they sit around watching the action, or do they participate in it? Do they timidly shy away from anything that might get them in trouble, or do they take risks in an outright attempt to affect the outcome of the action?
If you have a character that isn’t coming to life the way you want, ask yourself whether they are active enough. Are they taking risks? Are they attempting to influence the outcome of events? They don’t have to succeed in these attempts—failure is often more dramatically interesting anyway—but we must at least see them try.
Take a look at the scenes where your problem characters appear, and look for ways to make them more active. Let’s imagine we have a protagonist named Danny, and the scene in question is a school play. Here are three questions we can ask to help find good ways to make Danny more active in the scene.
What is the character’s goal? Regardless of what your goal for the scene may be with respect to the larger plot, ask yourself what the character’s goal is. What is there in the scene that the character cares deeply about? How does the character hope the scene ends? Now make the character do something he believes will create that ending.
For instance, perhaps Danny’s goal is to avoid embarrassment. Maybe Danny has a bit part in act three, where he only has to deliver two lines of dialogue, but sadly, he has failed to learn his lines. He is desperate for to avoid not only the on-stage embarrassment, but also the later playground humiliation of getting teased for not being able to learn two simple lines of dialogue. Worse, perhaps Danny couldn’t learn the lines because he is secretly dyslexic. He is very self-conscious about it, and can’t stand the thought that people might find out. His goal is clear: don’t go out on stage. His action? How about pulling the fire alarm at the end of act two?
Where is the character? Within the setting, where is the character physically located? You may simply have stationed the character too far from the action. A simple shift of location may be all you need to prompt an action. Draw a map of the scene and consider what the character could do if he was stationed at different spots. If other characters are slated to cause some mayhem later in the scene, position your protagonist such that he’ll naturally be caught in the middle, or at least such that he’ll be able to participate readily. And yes, actually draw the map. Don’t just imagine it. The act of drawing the map will force you to see and consider places your existing preconceptions about the scene will hide from you.
For instance, perhaps instead of the previous scenario Danny is a stagehand in the school play, not a reluctant actor. So rather than waiting in the wings, let’s put him backstage, busy making the right things happen with the set at the right time. During a scripted fight scene on the stage, a mock punch accidentally makes contact, and the two actors get into a no-holds-barred tussle. What props does Danny have at hand that he could use to break up the fight? How about a bucket of fake snow that’s supposed to be for a later point in the play? Danny rushes onstage to dump it on the two brawlers, much to the amusement of the crowd.
What are the character’s inner drives? Examine the character’s likes and dislikes. What are his interests? What are his morals and values? Somewhere in the scene you can likely find or create something that resonates with one of those deep motivations.
For instance, perhaps Danny is a deeply loyal person. Now we’ll put him in the audience, watching his older sister play the female lead, opposite the school bully as the male lead. The two have a kissing scene at the play’s climax. It’s supposed to be a demure and chaste kiss, but on opening night the bully makes it a real kiss. Danny can see his sister’s shock and revulsion, and is overcome with one single thought: Defend his sister’s honor. Danny leaps out of his seat, runs up onto the stage, and tackles the bully.
Note that actions based on inner drives are also excellent opportunities to show the character’s fundamental values and skills in action. Add a few such actions early in the novel so that when you use them later in situations that are critical to the plot, the reader will be primed to accept and believe them: After seeing Danny tackle the school bully on stage in front of everyone, readers will certainly believe it later when they see him take another extreme action motivated out of loyalty.
Readers want to root for our characters. Help them do that—and help them keep turning those pages—by making your protagonists active in every scene.
Jason Black is a freelance book editor who actively blogs about character development. He recently appeared as a book doctor at the 2009 PNWA Summer Writers Conference. To learn more about Jason, visit his website at www.plottopunctuation.com