We All Need Someone To Love: Creating Characters Readers Will Care About
     Victoria Grossack  

One of the ways to make sure that your readers keep turning the pages is to give them characters – especially main characters, also known as protagonists – whom they will care about. Now, this technique is not absolutely necessary for a successful novel. For example, in Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, the author is very cynical about his main character. (I remember how shocked I was when I read it and realized how Thackeray felt. But I was only twelve, so this literary device was brand new to me.) However, for the most part, people will want to read about characters they love, with whom they identify, whom they want to emulate.

How can you make this happen? There are a number of ways that you can make your characters more interesting and sympathetic to your readers. Here are some of them:

Your readers identify with the main character.

One of the ways to make this happen is to give your main characters some of the same traits as your readers. These traits may be superficial, in that the characters are about the same age and the same sex, and so on – potentially very important, for example, in writing children’s stories, but in other situations as well. For example, when Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she wanted – she needed – to gain the sympathy of white readers. So she made one of the characters, George, almost white in color, so that it would be absurd, even for many of the anti-abolitionists, to insist that he be forced to remain a slave on the basis of his race.

Your main character has a familiar outlook while the other characters don’t.

This is another way to have your readers identify with the main character, although it is less superficial. There are many ways in which this can occur. For example, if you are targeting Christian readers, you’re probably going to want to have some Christian characters. Another way is to put a character with whom we identify into an unreasonable or at least an unfamiliar surrounding. Although this may deal with current political / religious events – think of Betty Mahmoody’s book, Not without My Daughter - it can also be done by putting characters from today into periods in the past, such as time-travel books – consider the classic, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – or the more recent Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. Or it can be done on an implicit basis, where a character with a familiar outlook is in a situation where the other characters have a less familiar outlook. For example, in The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel, a Cro-Magnon girl is adopted by a clan of Neanderthals; in Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross, young Joan does everything she can in order to learn to read and write. In these two last examples, the modern-day attitude that education for females is a good thing is something that is questioned severely by many of the other characters.

Your main character is a nice person.

If your main character is in the process of killing someone, or even in the process of doing something nasty, such as being rude toward another character in an inferior position, your readers may learn to dislike the main character. Now, this doesn’t mean that your readers will necessarily stop turning the pages.

How do you make your main character a nice person? Thinking of another person kindly; doing a charitable act for someone less fortunate; resisting the temptation to do something.

Your character is working for “the good guys.”

There are many situations in which “the good guys” are clearly defined – for example, the Allied side of World War II, or the police working to catch a particularly nasty criminal, such as a kidnapper or a murderer or part of the Mafia.

Actually, in these situations, it is not the “good guys” who are clearly defined but the “bad guys.” By having “bad guys” who are so clearly defined – and who are so categorically dreadful – you can introduce more shades of gray into your protagonists. Perhaps your protagonist is a prostitute, thief or even a drug dealer – but saves the day when it comes down to stopping one of the worst of the acts.

Your character is threatened.

If your characters are threatened, either in terms of life, limb, or property, the readers will tend to sympathize with them.

Your character is a situation that seems unfair.

Your character may not be allowed to study, or to go to the ball, or may be forced to wait upon her less beautiful (as well as spiteful) stepsisters, despite being more deserving (in the case of Cinderella, more beautiful both in body and character).

Your character is trying to do something worthwhile.

Perhaps your main character is trying to become a doctor, despite tremendous odds (Noah Gordon’s The Physician) or trying to save the city or even the planet from destruction. Because of the goals that are sympathetic, the character will also be sympathetic.

Your character has it harder than others.

There are characters who have it harder than others and who will therefore gain our sympathy. Some true life examples include Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life and Christy Brown’s My Left Foot (a man with cerebral palsy who was only able to control his left foot and learned, therefore to write – and thus communicate with his family – with that member). For a recent fictional example, consider the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, told in first person by Christopher John Francis Boone, a character who has autism, and thus has difficulty communicating with those around him. (This novel is also an example of a brilliant development of voice.)


Often more than one of these devices is used at a time, either because they overlap or because you have decided to use more than one. You will also notice that many of these devices are situational – not necessarily reflecting upon the innate qualities of the character, but in the setting and in the plot.

You may also consider these devices manipulative. Well, I agree; they are manipulative. But manipulating the reader is not necessarily a bad thing. When readers pick up your story or novel, they are agreeing to manipulated – but they want to be manipulated in such a way that they enjoy it.

Questions or comments on this article? Do you want to use it? You can e-mail me directly at Grossackva at Yahoo dot com. I also want to say that I really enjoyed all the responses that I received to my August 2006 column, “What Are They Thinking” – it’s nice to know what you are thinking. In particular, my thanks go to Mark Ratjens wrote to say that Tom Robbins wrote a book in second person called Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas and Tom Di Roma sent me a short story that he wrote in second person.

Until next time!

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About the Writer:

Victoria Grossack is, with Alice Underwood, the author of Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus, which, by the way, is an excellent example of a book with plot-driven chapters and cliffhangers. There's exciting news about Iokaste: even the Greeks are reading it! Learn more about Iokaste and other books in the series at Tapestry of Bronze

Victoria was a moderator of a critique group for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the Writing Historical Fiction workshop for Coffeehouse for Writers.