Why your reader needs to care about your fictional characters

What’s most important in your writing is to get the reader to care – about the main character, the story, the idea. In fiction you don’t necessarily need to like the hero but you do need to care about him or her. That’s what keeps you turning the pages.

After all we might not like Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs but we care enough to watch to the end. In fact, we care so much that Lector has been voted AFI’s most popular villain.

In fiction you want to make your characters live and breathe on – and off – the page. Of course, you need to focus on your protagonist but also remember your minor characters. If they are stereotypical or one-dimensional, it affects the whole story. This makes it hard for us to empathise with the characters or feel connected to them. In short, we don’t care enough.

We read because we want to feel what it’s like to be another person and experience another reality. We watch films for the same reason. When a movie or a story is gripping it is because the emotions that we’re seeing on the page or screen are replicated in us.

We become so involved with our characters’ lives that we think about them after we’ve left the cinema or put the book down. Something inside us is touched – and through that we are changed.

This is the power of fiction. This is why professional writers write and re-write. We are constantly trying to strip away to get to the bones of our characters, into their innards, their deepest corners, the secrets they didn’t even know they had.

This is also why writing can be tiring. Sometimes I feel exhilarated, other times I am wrung out. It’s as if I have imaginatively lived through what I just put my character through.

So here are 5 terrific ways to make your readers care:

  1. Make sure you have a well-rounded backstory of your main characters. You might write this as you go or you might write it before you start. Either way, you are bound to keep adding as the narrative advances. You want to know the big things that have happened to shape them and the small things. How does your schoolteacher react when she stubs her toe, smudging her black nail varnish? How does she cope when the smarmy school principal put his hand on her thigh at the end-of-school dinner?
  2. Reveal their flaws. None of us are perfect. We identify with others’ weaknesses and their strengths. One-dimensional characters tend to be black and white but even villains can have redeeming attributes. Find them, explore them, surprise us with them.
  3. Use all five senses to show how a person reacts. This tip isn’t new and I am sure you’ve all read it a zillion times but people forget that it’s through our bodies, that we make sense of the world. And that’s how our characters make sense of it, too.
  4. Get as close as you can to your character’s voice. For anyone who’s attended my Creative Writing Stage 1 course at the Australian Writers' Centre, you’ll know I spend a lot of time working on point of view (POV). Within third person POV you have a midway point, which allows you to get closer to your characters and keep flexibility. This is called free indirect discourse. This lets us see through the character’s eyes as well as through the narrator’s eyes. It works because it creates a gap between author and character. But, it doesn’t rely on tags like ‘he thought’ or ‘he said’. This makes it seem as if we are inside the character’s mind – like an interior monologue.
  5. Combine what’s going on internally with what’s happening externally. Just as you are reading this blog, you are probably aware of other things happening around you. The sound of the fridge, the fact you are hungry, noises on the street… In real life many things are happening to us all at once. You need to replicate this experience for your characters, as it will make them more credible for your reader.

Most importantly, make sure you care about your characters. After all, if you don’t care, why should anyone else!

Claire ScobieClaire Scobie is the award-winning author of Last Seen in Lhasa and The Pagoda Tree. She has lived and worked in the UK, India and now Sydney. Claire teaches Creative Writing Stage 1 at the Australian Writers' Centre.

Claire is offering all Australian Writers' Centre graduates a 10% discount off her Wordstruck Supersessions, giving you the chance to talk through your writing dilemmas and get professional feedback. Just go to the Claire's website and use the code “AWC” (no quotation marks).

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