“I don’t care what happens to these people.”
These eight deadly words comprise the sentence you never want your readers to utter. It is the death knell of creative character-driven media of all kinds. If the readers don’t care about your characters, they won’t care about your narrative either. It’s important to note that ‘caring’ about characters does not always equate to ‘liking’ them. A reader might like a character, but not be invested in them and, to flip it around, a reader might hate a character but be totally entranced by their actions.
So how do we combat this and avoid those eight words? The first and most obvious step is character relatability. Again, a relatable character doesn’t have to be liked or disliked, just understandable. We’ve talked about this quite a bit, but it never hurts to reiterate this. Characters need to have motivations, thoughts, and feelings that make sense. If these things make sense to your audience, they will relate to the characters and, likely, become invested in them. It’s the classic ‘we like what we understand’ thought in action.
There are other things we should do to create this needed investment. Another way to create that ‘caring’ from the reader is to ensure that there is sufficient risk in the plot line, that there are stakes to the conflicts involved. Not just stakes, but stakes that fit the conflict involved. If there is no risk or stakes or drama connecting the plot and the characters, there’s no compelling reason for the reader to become invested in the plot, no matter how they feel about the characters. Yes, you can have a fully character-driven scene or story, with no real tension from the plot, but that won’t sustain a full-length novel very well.
I think the ‘appropriate stakes to the conflict’ part is something that is often a stumbling block. Not that you can’t sometimes overblow the stakes, hinging lives on a stand-up comedy routine as an example, but it’s usually best to keep them under wraps. You especially can’t understate the stakes. The stakes to a gunfight, for example, needs to, at the least, be the lives of the protagonists, if not more, otherwise there is no tension and no investment. Risk, sacrifice, and threat are all vital to creating that investment we all desire, be it physical, emotional, spiritual, or social.
What techniques and elements do you use to ensure that your readers care? If you’re just a reader, what do you look for in the characters that you do invest it? Let me know in the comments below!
Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!