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?

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