Hello and welcome back readers! I hope you all had a wonderful weekend! Mine was jam-packed with events, but pretty solid as a result (though packed). And there were some real booms on the Starforge Alpha 2 as well, with one reader clearing nearly a quarter of the book in a single sitting! Related to that, it’s a good thing I’m almost done with the final chapters for this Alpha, or I’d have people catching up to me!
Ultimately what this means for most of you is that Starforge continues to inch closer with each mighty step of its heavy tread. And yes, it’s still pretty heavy despite the trimming and the cuts. This will definitely be the biggest book I’ve released once it’s published. And it’ll probably stay the biggest for a long time. I don’t see myself outdoing this one anytime soon.
But enough about Starforge, let’s talk about today’s writing topic. This is going to be a familiar one to some, as it is a bit of a recurring theme across writing. In fact, I’m pretty sure (but not going to do a search for it) that we’ve devoted a post to this very topic at least once or twice, and definitely spoken about it dozens of times in other topics.
But it still remains a hot topic among authors and writers of all ages. And with good reason, as getting readers and audiences to care about characters can be quite difficult. Empathy is an acquired skill, and asking a reader to exercise that empathy with a character bound between a few pages? Well, that’s an art. A carefully developed, practiced art, and one that many would-be writers dive headfirst into without any understanding of perspective, leading to a creation that doesn’t hit the way they’d hoped it would.
So, let’s spend today talking about getting our readers to care when we present our characters, their setting, and the events that they will go through. Let’s talk about how we can avoid melodrama (and maybe what that is) and instead give our readers real, actual empathy for the characters we’ve built.
So, you’ve got your characters figured out. You’ve got your setting picked. Now you’re introducing these characters and the events that they’ll go through, but you’d really like it if the readers felt for the characters and were invested in whether or not they succeeded.
Thankfully, you’re not enough of a novice to think “Well clearly everyone will care. They’re reading the story, right?” because you know it’s not that simple. People try out stories all the time still put them down a few chapters or pages in because they felt nothing for the people in it. The act of having characters is not enough to automatically acquire an interest from the reader.
Nor—and we’re going to hit this “don’t” early—is melodrama … at least most of the time. Melodrama, which we’ll dip into in a moment, does sometimes work because it can appeal to a certain type of reader. However, if I point out that perhaps the best examples of melodrama are found on reality TV shows, you can consider what type of reader that might represent.
Melodrama is cheap, overdone drama. Like a cheap perfume, it holds to the idea of “more is better” and will often dump on the reader in a short, savage waterfall of misery. “This is Bob. No one likes Bob. Bob’s own mother does not like Bob. Bob’s boss spit in Bob’s food today. His dog was hit by a car on the way home. There is a voicemail message on Bob’s phone that says he has cancer. Feel bad for Bob!
Now, you might snicker or giggle at the above passage, but I’ve read character melodrama like that. Over-the-top, dumping on the reader, and 100% convinced that the reader will now empathize with Bob. Melodrama is a cascade of misery and drama, all delivered with the idea that if you shove every flavor possible into a readers mouth, they’ll think about Thanksgiving.
But it doesn’t work like that for most readers. Instead, melodrama ends up being a slog, coming off for many more like a desperate salesperson clinging to the leg of the reader yelling “Wait, don’t go away! What if I throw in an incurable disease? Or a forbidden romance? Please love this character!”
This sounds a bit farcical, but it’s also pretty true. So, let’s talk about where melodrama goes wrong, and from there, step back into what we can do instead to get our readers to care without an avalanche of horrible happenstance.
One of the first things that’s common across melodrama as well as across stories that don’t get the reader invested in their characters is an abundance of tell.
This is something we’ve covered before, with whole posts on the balance of show versus tell (It is not, I repeat, not show don’t tell), and it is something very common to melodrama and stories that, without being entirely melodramatic, fail to invest their reader in the character or the plot. The story tells the reader what the issues are rather than shows them.
I quite literally read a short story this morning that did exactly this. The story was about a guidance counselor saving a orphan from depression by adopting them (oh yeah) and yeah, despite the obvious feel-good plot, it could have actually had some merit … If it hadn’t made the colossal mistake of showing none of what was going on.
None of the struggle. None of the pain. None of the difficulty! The orphan in question is having difficulty? We never see it, or are shown it. Instead the audience and the protagonist are told about it. Summarization! Same with the hoops and effort to actually adopt and be in a position to adopt. The story didn’t show any of it. It was told to the audience after the fact (and there wasn’t any difficulty anyway).
After all that telling, the audience was then “shown” a brief scene of the orphan being utterly shocked and crying and … scene.
But there was zero impact to it because there was nothing to dig into before that moment. Telling with our characters can be an effective tool—after all, we don’t need to see the character’s entire backstory when we can get a summary of the relevant bits. But at the same time if telling is all we’re getting, then what we as an audience have received is the equivalent to a file folder with a checklist of things.
Don’t tell us that a character is jumpy because of a car accident in their youth. Show it. Don’t deluge us with misery and tell us “Dave is very sad.” Show us that Dave is sad from just one or two of those experiences!
Being told about a character having a hard time often elicits a response of “Well, yeah, that sounds awful” but little further reaction because as an audience we’re not being given information to contextualize it. It’s akin to buying an end-table from Ikea, in the idea that the text telling a reader asks them to fill in all the gaps, the blanks, character inferences, everything, all on their own.
But being shown something? That brings with it emotion. Reaction. We see the character undergo pain, loss, difficulty, and the like. In turn, we as readers can empathize with and understand that. We see a character saddened by the loss of a pet, or express disappointment that they dropped the meal they just purchased, and these are things that we ourselves not only may have experienced, but can feel empathy for when we see the actual act, as well as how the character struggles with it.
Show your readers your characters and your struggles. This, almost more than anything else, will forge connections between your audience and the characters they read about. Let them see what the characters are going through. Don’t, as the story I read this morning did, “tell” the problem and drop a solution in the first couple of paragraphs.
Which leads us into our second point for getting our readers to care about our characters: Give them time to latch onto a character.
This is an issue that comes up a lot. Many young readers will drop a character on the page, formed, present them to the reader, and then off the story goes. And while yes, that is how it works, what they forget to do is give the reader any time to digest and understand, or draw connections with that character.
Again, this is something where showing as noted in our first point definitely helps out quite a bit. Telling just drops a bunch of information on the reader, which also happens to pass very quickly.
Showing, on the other hand, gives us some time to see the impact of the various elements we’re introducing with our character. It lets the reader not only see a larger swath of the character themselves, but also digest that information to form a clearer picture of who the character is.
Time doesn’t just matter for the character, however. It also matters for the events the character undergoes. A good way to look at this is to back up and ask yourself what kind of time investement your reader has to actually care about the character. What are you giving the readers that lets them bond with the characters you want them to care about?
Now, don’t mistake, this isn’t saying all your intros have to be slow and plodding and devoid of action. We can use action just as well as we can stillness to communicate a character to our reader. It’s giving what we’re using space to breathe and have an impact on the reader that we’re referring to.
For example, the character of Anna in Colony is given a very action-packed introduction, with a gun battle that blows apart a skybridge and ends with one-on-one combat against an exosuit. It’s action-packed. But what it doesn’t do is skip through that action. It instead embraces it and uses it to show Anna’s character. We see her reactions, her personality, her skill, and more, all shown off in her opening chapter. Before the action gets going, when she’s bored and providing security, we see her muse on her desires and goals.
Effectively, this opening chapter spreads out a whole bunch of aspects of Anna’s character, but rather than dumping them on the reader, they’re delivered in bite-sized chunks. “Oh, she’s a mercenary.” Chew, swallow. “Oh, she’s sending the money she makes to her mother and younger brother. That’s why she’s putting up with the boredom here and an employer that doesn’t respect her.” Chew, swallow. “Oh, the job is almost over, and she really doesn’t like her employer’s disrespect. Have I been there.” Chew, swallow.
You get the point. I’m not trying to toot my own horn with that example, but use it to show that giving our audience some time to connect with our characters is really important to them empathizing with, and therefore caring about, them.
Now, this can seem a lot harder in a short story, yes. So, my advice there is to focus your view. If you have limited space, don’t focus on a dozen different aspects of the character, but a few precise ones that can be explored, while the rest can be shown, inferred, or yes, even told (since we’re giving time to showing the others).
The important part to remember is that we don’t want to drop everything on our reader like a drive-by process server. We don’t want our reader standing there holding our story going “Wait what?” as the author drives off at speed.
Give our readers a bit of time to know our characters. Let the empathy seep in. Give our character’s not just presentation, but time for the weight of that to sink in.
Speaking of weight, here’s another important aspect to giving our readers characters they can care about: Let the characters struggle. Let them be challenged! Put another way, let the conflict be abrasive to them.
That short I read this morning? There was none of that. There wasn’t even inconvenience. “Child needs to be adopted” was said, and everything that was needed to accomplish that was, no joke, the shortest bit of the story without a single setback or even acknowledgement outside of a one sentence where another character goes ‘You’ll have to do all these things’ after which we are told that the character does.
That’s the sort of thing that comedic books joke about, where characters are told about hardship and difficulty and then the readers are told, quite simply “So they did.” But here it wasn’t played for laughs, it was played straight.
Sadly, I’ve run across this a lot before, and it’s a disservice to the entire story. However, we’ll keep our lens closer, because we’re talking about characters.
Look, people empathize with others by bonding over shared experience. Struggle, loss, and conflict is something that all of us go through. Setting aside the fact that without conflict there is no story, without anything pressing against our characters, how can we ever show the reader who they are by having them act?
Characters need pressure, something that pushes against them that calls for action, or makes that action difficult to act upon. Characters need to fail sometimes. They need to stumble, or fall, or even lose. Because that is life, and each us is familiar with it. It’s very hard to empathize and connect with a character who wants to do something good but then never faces any difficulty in doing so. Of course, why wouldn’t one do the right thing if there was never any catch, difficulty, or cause to do otherwise.
But a character who does good even at cost to themselves? A character who splits their meager meal while aware that they’ll be hungry later, or knowing that if caught giving food to someone they’ll be beaten? Maybe they are caught, the audience is shown the beating, shown the character’s trembling hesitation the next day … and then the decision that they come to?
That’s powerful. That’s a bonding moment for the reader that shows them who the character is, and makes them care in some way. But it only comes about if we see the struggle that a character goes through.
The adoption short I read? There was no sense of struggle. The child was adopted with all the effort of someone ordering a burger at a fast-food joint. There was no difficulty, no questioning of the very real difficulty of adjusting one’s life in such a manner.
It served the story horribly, because it took away any chance at empathy with the character. They were doing a good thing, but at a cost so negligible it was literally invisible.
And readers won’t connect with that character because in the real world, all actions have a cost. It might be small, but it’s there. And when a character makes a big decision and sees no cost or difficulty, it drops a barrier between us and that character.
I’m not saying that this short needed to become some drawn-out legal courtroom battle over things. Just something as simple as the day-to-day difficulty of preparing for something like adopting a child would have been fine. Show the character attempting to prepare their home for their new adopted child. The difficulty with realizing their own life is about to be shared, and that they need more space, or can’t figure out how to fit the bed in the room they’d set aside for them. Show the meeting with a counselor or psychologist, even if it goes well, seeing if they’re of a fit mental state to be a guardian!
Backing away from that short now. But you get the idea: Show the reader what trials your character has to go through to earn what they want. Or even to just be themselves. Let the reader see your character’s character by what they do and endure. Let them connect with the struggles of our character.
Sands, maybe even let them see the failures. Not everything is a success. But readers know that failure happens. We’ve all been part of it in our lives. Things fail all the time. How we react to it, how we change or adapt, that makes us human. Readers seeing a character do that will cause them to empathize with, and in some way then care about, that character.
I do want to cover one last thing before we wrap this up, one last element of getting readers to care about their characters that sometimes does fall by the wayside: If you want your reader to care about your characters, let the characters act.
I’ve read stories before where the characters are clearly being railroaded or shoved onto a path that the author dictated. And it hurt them a little, because it meant that the character they’d shown wasn’t quite lining up with what happened, or what they did. It made them feel like actors on a stage, rather than people in control of their own destiny.
Let your characters be themselves. Let them act on their own, with their decisions and their own choices. Doing otherwise will cause them to not feel like a character to be empathized with, but a puppet carrying out instructions.
With that, let’s recap and tie things off for this post. As authors, we want our readers to empathize with and care about our characters. However, it’s not as simple or straightforward as just asking our readers to do that. We need to make sure that we allow the reader to empathize with our characters.
Thankfully, there are several things we can do to encourage this and make it easier for our readers to connect. First, we can show our character rather than tell. Second, we can give our readers time to see that show, time to digest and understand what they’re seeing. Third, we let them see our character push against pressures, be they common or rare. And lastly, we need to let our characters act on their own, which sometimes may mean that they take their own direction with the story beats, but such action is far more real to our readers.
Look, it’s not easy to get readers to care about characters. Even experienced authors get it wrong sometimes. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of effort. But like many things with writing, the result is worth the time. So take what we’ve talked about today, put it into practice, and see what sort of results you can get.
Good luck. Now get writing!
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One thought on “Being a Better Writer: How Do We Get Our Readers to Care?”
I forget who said “First, make a very likeable character, then do terrible, horrible things to them.” (paraphrased) but it works. That’s practically the definition of what I did in Monster in the Twilight. I’ve found the more difficult but really rewarding approach is to make a *dis*likeable character, show a weakness in the character that they are protecting, then get out the old clam shucker. A tough sell, but you get a more integrated character arc because you’re not going Likeable-injured-Likeable again, but Horrible, injured, Less Horrible and maybe on the road to something good, like Beauty and the Beast. (or in my case, Buggy and the Beast, and Diamond Tiara Buys a Little Sister, both of which rehabilitate (somewhat) awful characters.) I did that to a lesser extent with Trixie in Monster, and you cannot believe how pleasant it is to get comments that start out “boo, we hate Trixie” and wind up “Yea! We knew you could do it!” by the end 🙂