Making readers care about characters

Something that has been popping up in discussion lately is how to write characters that people care about…


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Writers are constantly told to ensure that readers care about their characters otherwise nothing that happens in the story will have any impact on said reader, so it’s no surprise that there is oodles of advice and conversation threads on ‘how-to’ do this.

I’d like to add some of my slightly contrarian thoughts on the matter 🙂

First up, I don’t believe that an author can 100% make a reader care about their character(s). At least not in that magical goal where readers feel like the fictional character is real for them, feels what they feel and just generally experiences empathy for them. Don’t get me wrong there are a myriad of tricks and tactics to setup readers; generally speaking a compelling well constructed story is the best bet for garnering such feelings from a reader, but ultimately whether a reader cares for a character is a complicated interaction that depends as much on that individual reader as the writing itself.

P.S. I’m not saying don’t bother with the concept!

Secondly, this is really, really, just my opinion but I suspect that pushing the idea of caring for characters is mildly misleading. Like Human Rights, a story is built on multiple overlapping concepts and devices, while we like to talk about character vs plot a so forth the two are not really as inseparable as many talk about them.

For example is Frodo Baggins becoming progressively affected by the One Ring character development or plot movement? When we watch Breaking Bad do we care about him personally or are we fascinated to see what deplorable thing he does next?

My point is that in a well constructed story people care because the situations that are presented to them have bearing and consequences for the story arc. Neo fighting Agent Smith in The Matrix isn’t just an awesome fight scene, the outcome of the battle has a powerful bearing on everything the plot has setup – I think trying to write a story so that we care about a character ‘just because’ is a wrongheaded approach.

This may seem like splitting hairs, but I often see writing advice about ‘saving the cat’ (or rather making a hero do something suitably heroic with the first few scenes to make readers care) and such like, whereas I personally believe that rather than trying to manipulate the reader into ‘caring’ the goal of a writer should be to create tense stakes and scenarios and let the reader decide how they well about it all.

I was going to pontificate a little longer, but the words are jumbling through the slightly off-putting effect of a migraine aura (AND I have a strong bias of avoiding saving drafts to come back to them later, I know not very writerly really, so feel compelled to finish posts AS IS.)

Thanks team, let me know what your thoughts are on caring about characters – any tips or tricks to share? What about examples of characters you think readers can’t help but care about?

Engaging Readers from the First Sentence

First words – arguably the most important

ML Keller- The Manuscript Shredder

Chapter 1- This is not a drill

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Since most of my edits are first chapter shreddings, I see more opening pages than any other part of a WIP. After reading them, I’ve concluded that so many fail because writers are treating chapter one like a practice run. They iron out a setting, introduce the entire cast (complete with grocery list descriptions), and jot down some backstory so the real story can begin in chapter 2.

Too bad your reader has already abandoned you.

From the first sentence, every word in you MS must be part of the story

Yes, the story must begin with the first word of the first sentence, and it must leave everything that isn’t part of the story out. Do we want to hear about Goldilocks getting dressed that morning? No, it isn’t part of the story. What about the very dramatic argument the Three Pigs…

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What the Hulk taught me about character

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Sometimes bad writing has as much to teach us, if not more, than good.

I wouldn’t say writing (and I’m including screenplay/scripting in this category) is completely unique in this respect, but I feel confident that musicians don’t have as much to gain by delving into crappy compositions.

Now this may seem a little harsh but I’m looking at you two Hulk movies:

There are probably a few criticisms to make of these films, but I want to specifically focus on character. Bruce Banner/The Hulk are a fascinating dual-personality with plenty of potential pickings for compelling characterization. After all you’ve basically got a superhero version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a classic character! what could possibly go wrong?

I remember when I sat down to watch The Credible Hulk, realizing that there is a bit of a story telling trap with The Hulk. All his plots seem reduced to Banner attempting to avoid The Hulk and external antagonists trying to provoke/kill/capture him. While this doesn’t seem too bad on the surface there is actually a major problem with it, well a few. For one people want to see the Hulk, it would be super awkward to have a film without the titular green giant, so while Banner might be motivated to avoid the big lug audiences do not.

This brings me to my first point – when fleshing out a character you’ve not to have some empathy for where the audience is going to sit with it. Usually we side with whatever the main character(s) want, but also readers will also have desires beyond this, such as seeing the Hulk rage out. The movie Logan provides a good example of this where Logan really doesn’t want to get dragged into the plot, but obviously as audiences, we do.

Jumping back to the Hulk movies, portraying a character wanting something different to the audience isn’t necessary going to ruin a story, but it needs to be handled deftly, as you want to sate your audience while also resolving character motivations.

This leads me to point two – when the Hulk typically appears in movies he basically solves everything. The quintessential Hulk appearance is either after some hapless thugs antagonist Banner, military attempt to capture him, or a similar big nasty appears that only Hulk can defeat. If you look at this from a story perspective its not actually that compelling:

  1. MC tries to avoid something the audience wants to see
  2. MC is antagonized forcing the situation
  3. Hulk solves everything

While I like the whole ‘you won’t like me when I’m angry’ thing it actually makes more compelling sense to allow Banner to choose to become Hulk, as the fact that Banner has no control over Hulk (usually) does that annoying thing where Main Character doesn’t have to take responsibility for his choices, after all it’s the bad guys that set Hulk off.

This brings me to my third and final point, the two movies mentioned above pull punches when it comes to Hulk’s danger. Despite being told that Hulk is super dangerous we are typically only shown him harming people who are trying to harm him, and causing property damage, which as we know in movies doesn’t matter anyway. I’m not suggesting that all Hulk stories go the bath of disturbing blood baths like the Marvel Ultimate universe did (in that comic series Hulk would often be described as eating several civilians whenever he got out) but having some consequences would definitely up the tension.

The reason I said all of this was a sort of trap is that I believe it seems like compelling story telling – a man trying to resist a dangerous power within himself, one that he can’t control, baddies trying to capture or kill him in relation to said power. But as I hope I conveyed above its not actually that interesting.

One final beef is that Hulk movies always seem to be about Hulk’s character developing,  and it’s always around Beatty and how Hulk seems to love her too (but platonically of course because WTF?) but its never presented in good story fashion where Hulk has to make choices (seems almost anathema right? But I think it could be done) he just abruptly does what he has to for the story.

What would make I believe a compelling Hulk centric film is one in which Banner actually develops and makes different choices in relation to the Hulk some good some bad and develops form them. As above even Hulk could actually be challenged to make choices, he is typically shown as little more than a smashing machine, but instances of Hulk being given a choice of targets for example could show steroid Kermit in a compelling situation.

I title this post about being taught about character, but it’s sort of turned into a rant about Mr Green, however I hope within said rant my insights are clear.

My Favourite ‘wise’ tale

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An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

How To Use Flipboard

Holy Crap I had been looking through flipboard forever and did not know their could be a share button on here!

Hugh's Views & News

Flipboard is a social media platform where users create their own virtual magazines and add articles to them. With over 40 million users, it’s no wonder why I have seen a sudden upsurge of traffic on my blog from Flipboard.

The following figures speak for themselves, although I should add that I’ve only started using Flipboard within the last few days. Up until then, Flipboard was nowhere in sight on this list.

Referral stats for Hugh's Views & News WordPress Blog

The good folk at Flipboard have been in contact with me after I published my recent article on how to add a Flipshare sharing button to a WordPress blog. They thanked me for posting the article and asked if there was anything else they could help with. I asked them for a link to an article that detailed how Flipboard works. They kindly sent me a link to a page that shows new users how to use…

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Brief review of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 (guess who my fav character was)

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This movie is Mad!

Mad I tell you!

Crazy!

Unpredictable!

Irreverent!

In many respects this film shouldn’t work. The majority of the characters are incredibly made up aliens – or in the case of two, a sentient raccoon and tree, completely CGI – yet produce amazing performances, steeped in emotion and meaning. Some scenes actually jerking tears from this jaded watches eyes.

The plot is similarly ridiculous, I won’t go into great detail, but its an incredibly simple, even shallow premise. Again though the movie delivers a powerful tense journey, the humour absolutely timed perfectly ranging from comical silliness, slapstick, relational, ironic the whole ‘friggin’ gamut.

Somehow this is all pulled together to an amazing film, with very few flaws. It’s not a film that you sit down and feel stunned every second, there are many moments when the sheer audacity of the thing almost derails the experience, yet its almost completely fun from whoa! to go!

Marvel will be laughing all the way to the bank with this one, and I confess Spider-man Homecoming looks like possibly the only spider man movie I’ll actually like.

Phew – my laugh muscles are sore.

Description: Sensory Impressions

Great advice right here on writing descriptions

David F. Shultz

We want our scenes to be immersive and believable. But sometimes description feels flat and lifeless. A common weakness is not using sensory impressions effectively. Often, there is too much focus on the visual. We don’t just see the world -we experience it through smells, sounds, temperature, and many other senses (not just five). Writing should capture these other kinds of experiences.

It’s not just about using multiple senses -it’s also about choosing the right details to construct an immersive and psychologically convincing sensory experience.

In order to make our writing more immersive and believable, we should practice engaging multiple sensory modalities, and learn how we can effectively use various sensory details to construct vivid and immersive scenes.

This post is about developing the ability to use sense impressions and details effectively. There will be a few concepts discussed, and lots of exercises for practice.

Learning Goals

Understand the meaning and importance of sensory…

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