Being a Better Writer: Connecting With Characters

I went out with my buddies to see a movie late last night.

I won’t tell you the title, as it isn’t important for our purposes right now, but I will tell you that it wasn’t that fantastic a film. It was … I suppose “adequate” is the best word I could use to describe it. But nothing more. The film wasn’t exactly grand. It was simply … a film. A sequence of events, with some action, some attempt at drama, etc.

So, of course, me being me, I immediately started asking myself why I felt that way as I watched the movie. And there were a lot of obvious answers. There were clear pacing problems, plot problems, character development issues … I mean, this wasn’t a gold star flick.

But the one issue that stood out to me more than any other was that I simply didn’t connect with any of the characters. None of them appealed to me strongly or even at all (and the one that could have come closest ended up being sidelined incredibly effectively, so that put that character out of the running).

Had there been that connection, I think the movie would have been a lot more tolerable. But without it, the movie was just  … there. I could nod as the special effects danced across the screen, or chuckle at the odd line of dialogue here. But without any connection to the characters, everything else was, by comparison, hollow. Had I been watching the movie on Netflix, I doubt I would have lasted long. At the very least I would have started doing something else at the same time, since the movie wasn’t enough to hold my full interest that often.

Right, so enough about the movie. What I wanted to talk about was that problem that I found with it, where I didn’t connect with the characters. Because this isn’t a possible problem that is limited to movies. Not at all. It’s something that can plague writing as well.

So let’s talk about it.

Now, I keep using the word “connect” here, and with purpose behind it. To clear up a minor estimate that some of you may have made, today I’m not talking about the “I don’t care about these characters” phrase that loves to get thrown around, though this is similar. The reason is that I’ve found “IDCATC” tends to be far more of a “blanket” statement, something that can be thrown at a book that the one using it can use as a general-purpose excuse. I’ve seen it used as an explanation running from “I was looking for an excuse not to like this genre” to “I don’t like the author for X reasons.” While it certainly can be a legitimate reason not to enjoy a book, on the occasions I’ve seen it used online it has often been a muddled excuse of one kind or another. So we’re not talking about that particular phrase.

No, instead I’m directly talking about any sort of connection between the reader and the characters that they discover. Now, I feel that I might be not properly explaining myself here, so just to avoid any confusion, let me talk about what I mean by a connection forming between the character and the reader.

In essence, what I’m talking about here is similar in tone to a sympathetic character, ie one that the reader feels for. Except in this case I want to focus on what would make a reader sympathetic to a character (except outside of just being sympathetic).

Take the movie I saw last night. I couldn’t form a connection with any of the protagonists (or antagonists) because there was no commonality between us. Goals? Nope. Methods? No. There was no similar ground that I, as the audience, could latch onto, and it left the characters on the screen feeling fake and distant. Unreal.

I guess what I’m getting at is there was nothing to draw me into those characters. None of their motives interested me. None of their personalities clicked with mine. None of their attitudes elicited any sort of emotional response. And as a result, they felt empty.

Bringing this back around to our writing, I’m reminded of something from my old bit on how I build characters. One of the most important steps in my process is asking myself the question “Why do we like this character?” Because no matter how interesting a character is, how good or evil, if the reader isn’t given a reason to like them, they won’t really want to read about them.

Interestingly enough, if I think back over a lot of my more “difficult to love” characters, the ones that are cold-hearted, egotistical, or otherwise carrying character defects that would otherwise make them less desirable to be around, there’s a common theme in the “Why do we like this character?” summary: Something that the reader can connect with. Be that feelings for family, desires to gain something that many readers can empathize with, whatever. There’s a line dedicated to “this is something common that readers can connect with so that they like reading about this otherwise unlikable character.”

Now, what this “connection” happens to be is entirely up to you. It can be something really simple and basic. Broad, like desire to complete one’s job for the day so that they can be paid needed money. Or it can be something incredibly specific, like a family connection. Pets are a common one (“pet the dog,” anyone?). It doesn’t have to be anything earth-shattering (or whatever the name of the planet you’re using is). Just something that your readers can connect with. Something that’s familiar to them, recognizable, or even empathetic. Something that will make them feel something in common with that character.

Now, a bit of caveat on this. You won’t always need to “worry” about having a connection. Some characters are going to be appealing to readers and form connections simply be the default of who they are. When I mentioned above that I had the step of “Why do we like this character?” I also added that this question and the resulting answer became a lot more important when the characters in question  were ones that I could tell the audience was going to have trouble connecting with. Anti-heroes, deeply-flawed characters, etc. Some characters are just going to be instantly approachable to your readers, while others … won’t be. Those ones you’ll want to take special notice of.

You also don’t need to worry that a character “connect” with the reader ASAP. If they’re going to be a primary character or take over the viewpoint, then yes, you should be thinking about it and it should happen early, but at the same time,  don’t rush to make them appeal to the reader so quickly that the pacing is thrown off or, worse, the reader can see your actions for what they are. Readers are usually willing to give a character a little leeway during the opening of a book because they don’t expect to know everything up front. You can take a few pages if the pacing demands it, as long as there’s something else to keep the reader invested. A story that starts with a daring heist, for example, may not have any immediate connections for the reader to make with a principle character that’s a thief, but can keep them reading anyway as the heist itself is both unique and impressive. There will be time later, after the cool action sequence, to give the reader a bit more on the character to connect with.

Or maybe they’ll connect with the thief right there in the beginning. After all, it wouldn’t be hard to slip some reasoning into the character’s musings as they attempt to carry out their plan, reasoning a reader could connect with. Or maybe the protagonist finds their job thrilling as they get to observe people and then create a careful, sneaky plan that works around their target? A reader could connect with any one of those things on some level.

Which brings me around to another point: Characters can connect with readers in a multitude of ways. A fully-developed character will be a complex individual with a breadth of personality, which means that they may have any number of aspects about them for readers to connect with. And the more aspects they have, the more chance for differing readers to connect with that character on different points. So if you find that your characters connect with readers in unexpected ways, note it, but don’t change it unless it actually does go against the rest of the story.

Ultimately, this comes back to writing real, three-dimensional characters. If we’re writing well-developed characters with depth to them, then there are going to be a lot more “connections” for different readers to empathize with, and therefor become invested by. Real characters, therefore, are characters our readers can connect with.

Now, when all this is said and done, this still doesn’t mean that every reader is going to connect with what you’ve created. The direction you’ve taken your characters will never appeal to everyone. Just as I couldn’t “connect” with any of the characters in the film I saw last night, there are the rare individuals who can’t connect with other much more critically and commonly acclaimed characters and stories. Nothing appeals to everyone, after all. And if your character is difficult to connect with, the window will narrow significantly.

So, are you sitting down to write up some characters? What will make your readers “connect” with them? Will you need to focus on establishing that connection specifically, or will the character or scene be appealing enough straightaway that you can put specific connections on the back burner? Are you connections not reaching out to the right kind of reader, or do you not have enough to offer because the character isn’t that well developed?

These are little things, mind, and things that intersect a number of other areas of interest when it comes to characters and writing as a whole, but it’s something we shouldn’t forget. When a reader isn’t connected with the characters, even if the story is compelling it’s hard to keep their interest. We need something to ground our reader in the universe we’ve created. A character they feel a connection of some kind with.

If we fail at this? Well, we run the risk of finding our readers in the same situation I was last night: Almost bored. And we don’t want that.

So give your readers something to connect to. Something to pull them in. Develop your characters. Give them depth. Give your reader the ability to connect with them. And then let it happen.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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