We All Need Someone To Love: Creating Characters Readers Will Care About
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
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
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
Victoria was a moderator of a critique group
for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the
Historical Fiction workshop for Coffeehouse for Writers.