As Steven James says, “If readers don’t care about your protagonist, they won’t care about your story.”
This readers caring about your protagonist business is known as the reader-character bond, character likability, and character identification. If you want your readers to care about your story enough to finish it, then you’ve got to know how to forge this bond. Here are 9 ways to do so.
The Reader-Character Bond: What is it?
I think H. R. D’Costa explains it best: It’s “a bond between audiences and your protagonist. Forging this bond helps ensure that audience members are in it for the long haul–that they will, no matter what, keep reading.”
She likens it to imprinting: “When a baby duckling hatches from its egg, it imprints on to the first moving object it sees, usually its mother. For a good portion of its life, the duckling will follow whomever it has imprinted on. And so it goes with audiences. Once they’ve bonded with a protagonist, they are, metaphorically speaking, willing to follow him wherever he goes.”
For James N. Frey, “Sympathy, identification, and empathy all help to create an emotional bond between the reader and the characters.”
Sympathy, Identification, Empathy . . . What are they?
Good question. When we start calling the reader-character bond “identification,” “sympathy,” or “empathy,” that’s when the what’s-its and the how-tos get a little circular:
Mr. Frey says, “Identification occurs when the reader is not only in sympathy with the character’s plight, but also supports his or her goals and aspirations and has a strong desire that the character achieve them.”
Matt Morrison sees it a bit differently. He says, “Identification, understood as a feeling of connection with a character and his or her predicament, is a prerequisite of both sympathy and empathy.”
Dwight Swain says, “When an editor uses the word, what he really means is . . . that a particular character excites and/or fascinates him to the point that he lives through the story with that character, enthusiastically.”
Michael Hauge says, “Empathy means that audiences and readers identify with a character and experience emotion through her: if the character is in danger, the audience feels frightened; if the character suffers loss, the audience feels sad.”
Mr. James agrees: “Empathy occurs when readers feel the pain, grasp the questions, or relate to the wounds of the character, vicariously, through the story.”
This is why I like D’Costa’s explanation best, and why I prefer the term Reader-Character Bond. Unlike the other terms and explanations, this term actually tells you what the goal is: to create a bond between character and reader, such that reader will follow character all the way to THE END.
9 Ways to Forge a Reader-Character Bond
With the possible exception of the first way, which is more of an explanation for why the following ways work, these nine ways of creating the reader-character bond are presented in rough order of effectiveness. But of course, the more of them you can use, the stronger your reader-character bond will be.
0. Create Universal Emotion.
“Identification can be established easily if the characters create emotion which we recognize at once,” says Lajos Egri. “And in writing, as in life, identification must be established through emotion.”
By emotion, Mr. Egri means the “universal emotions such as love, hate, jealousy, fear, greed.”
He gives the following as examples: “When a man, woman, or child is threatened by fire, flood, earthquake, wild animals, loss, embarrassment, fear; when there is hunger for love, food, companionship, vengeance; when one is shy, orphaned, ill, abused, humiliated; when charity, humility, kindness, loyalty, courage are displayed–audiences will not fail to identify. And there are a million other emotion-packed possibilities.”
The following ways to forge the reader-hero bond capture or explain Mr. Egri’s examples:
1. Make the Hero sympathetic.
Mr. Frey says “Sympathy is achieved when a reader feels sorry for the character’s plight.”
Mr. Hauge agrees, “If you can get the reader to feel sorry for your hero by making her the victim of some undeserved misfortune, you will immediately establish a high degree of identification with that character.”
“[M]ake audiences feel sorry for your protagonist by having him suffer a personal trauma,” says Ms. D’Costa.
This “[u]ndeserved misfortune,” says Mr. Hauge, “can originate either with a specific event” that happens to your hero at the story’s opening “or with a hero’s basic situation at the opening of the [story,]” something that happened in their backstory.
Jordan Rosenfeld says, “Emotional withholding is a great way to elicit sympathy, empathy, and concern for otherwise unlikeable characters, as well as to build concern and drama around sympathetic characters.” In other words, have one character withhold from the Hero the love, approval, etc. that the Hero yearns for.
2. Put the hero in jeopardy.
Mr. Hauge says, “Closely aligned to creating sympathy for the character is getting the reader to worry about your character by putting her in a threatening situation.”
“The jeopardy you create doesn’t have to be life-threatening,” says Mr. Hauge. “Danger of exposure, embarrassment, or loss of a job can be similarly effective, depending on the tone of your” story, and “physical, financial, or emotional threats to their heroes” can create empathy too.
Provided that the jeopardy makes the character active. Mr. Morrison says, “We generally respond well to character who continue to try and solve problems in the face of intolerable pressure.”
3. Make the hero likeable.
“I call it the ‘Save the Cat’ scene,” says Blake Snyder. “They don’t put it into movies anymore. And it’s basic. It’s the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something–like saving a cat–that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.”
“There are basically three ways to get a reader to like your hero,” says Mr. Hauge, “which can be used singly or in combination:
- Make the character a kind, good-hearted, and generous person. . . .
- Show your hero as well-liked by other characters. . . .
- Make the character funny.”
Mr. Hauge says, with emphasis, “You must employ at least one of these three methods of establishing empathy for your hero. Otherwise your reader won’t care enough about your hero to remain emotionally involved in the story. And if you can use two or all three of the above principles, identification with your hero will be even stronger.”
What else can your character do besides save a cat? Anything. Lots of stuff.
Mr. James offers several categories for acts of kindness. Your character could be kind:
- “to the planet . . .
- to an animal . . .
- to a person who’ll never know about it . . .
- to a person who can’t pay him back . . .”
And, as Orson Scott Card says, “The things that make us instantly like or dislike people we meet in real life are pretty much the same things that make us instantly like or dislike the people we meet in fiction.”
4. Make the Hero Fascinating.
“Inspiring fascination usually requires highlighting a skill or trait that audiences would like to have,” says Ms. D’Costa.
What kind of skills?
Any kind of skill, so long as the character is really good at it. “We are naturally drawn to people who are talented, who are masters at what they do,” says Mr. Hauge. “We want to become these characters–which is the essence of identification.”
What kind of traits?
Power. “Show the character in touch with his own power,” says Mr. Hauge. “Powerful heroes hold a fascination for an audience and elicit empathy on an almost fantasy level.”
Mr. Hauge says, “Power can take four forms in a character:
- Power over other people. . . .
- Power to do what needs to be done without hesitation. . . .
- Power to express one’s feelings regardless of others’ opinions. . . .
Courage. Mr. Swain says, “What do exciting, fascinating, successful story people possess that your reader would like to have? Courage. Courage to do what? Courage to attempt to control reality.”
“That is, you make the character someone who does what your reader would like to do, yet can’t,” says Mr. Swain. “[E]stablish him as the kind of person Reader would like to be like.” “[Y]ou identify because, unconsciously, you envy the courage of the character who challenges world and fate.”
Contradiction. Walking contradictions tend to fascinate readers and capture their attention.
5. Have the Hero Fulfill the Reader’s Wishes.
Mr. Swain says, “Actually, the factor on which identification rests, and the things too many editors miss, is a concept called wish-fulfillment. . . . the satisfaction of a craving.” The character’s “story activities help to satisfy some aspect of your own emotional hunger.”
“To that end,” says Mr. Swain, “make him attempt:
- The impossible.
- The unattainable.
- The forbidden.
- The disastrous.”
To get your character to attempt any of these four things, you might have to take another look at your concept and one-liner.
6. Make the Hero Familiar.
Mr. Hauge offers three suggestions of how to make the hero familiar:
“Place the character in a familiar setting. The time in which a character lives, the place where she works, and her home and family situation [if recognizable] all contribute to greater empathy.”
Also, “Give the character familiar flaws and foibles.” “[W]e identify with any hero who suffers some of the same nervousness and embarrassment we have.”
Last, “Make your hero the eyes of the audience. Identification is sometimes strengthened when the audience only learns information as the hero learns it.”
7. Give the Hero a Relatable Goal.
Mr. James says, “To touch readers on an emotional level, you’ll need your main character to desire something your readers also desire.”
“Give your character a goal that is noble, and the reader will take his side,” says Mr. Frey, “no matter how much of a degenerate slime he has proven himself to be in the past.”
Mr. Morrison agrees: “We . . . identify with characters who pursue goals we understand, even when their means of doing so are wrongheaded or unpalatable.”
For Chuck Wendig, a character doesn’t need a relatable goal, so much as relatable moments. “And not just one either. As many as you can give us within the appropriate context of the work. A relatable moment occurs when a character connects with humanity in common ways, demonstrating shared experience.” These relatable “moments are related to regular life” and help make the character “human.”
8. Arouse Empathy Within the Reader.
Mr. Frey says, “[Y]ou can gain empathy. You do it by using the power of suggestion. You use sensuous and emotion-provoking details that suggest to the reader what it is like to be [the character] and to suffer what he is suffering. In other words, you create the story world in such a way that readers can put themselves in the character’s place.”
Which sensuous details?
“[T]he sensuous details in the environment: the sights, sounds, pains, smells, and so on that the character is feeling–the feelings that trigger his emotions,” says Mr. Frey. “Such emotion-provoking sensuous details, through the power of suggestion, will evoke the reader’s emotions and propitiate the reader’s empathy.”
Also, Mr. James says “interpersonal struggles engender empathy.”
“When a character feels self-conscious (too old, too skinny, too ugly because of that scar or zit or rash, etc.) readers quickly empathize with her,” says Mr. James. “Give your character (1) a struggle readers have, (2) a cause they believe in, (3) a wound they share, or (4) a mission or objective they value.”
Okay, but how do I include this stuff?
“[Y]ou must use cues to signal to [the reader] that your hero is either likeable, sympathetic, fascinating…or a combination thereof,” says Ms. D’Costa.
She says, “Essentially, the beginning of your story provides you with the opportunity to build the bond between audiences and your protagonist in increments. You can establish and enhance the audience-protagonist bond through:
- your protagonist’s everyday world
- the inciting incident
- your protagonist’s reaction to the inciting incident.”
In other words, something in the character’s background, displayed in his first scene, elicits sympathy. The most commonly seen sympathy-inducing characteristic is probably “character is an orphan.”
Then the inciting incident happens, which threatens or jeopardizes the character’s status quo, causing the reader to worry about the character.
Then, the clincher, the character doesn’t fold up in ball and cry (at least not for long); he’s got a can-do attitude. He rallies. He forms a plan, and he starts taking action, giving him the potential to fascinate.
Yeah, but what if my character is an anti-hero?
So you have an unsympathetic character, and you like her that way. Do you really have to include bonding cues?
Nancy Kress would say no, “provided the story gives us something else–perspective or change or justice or point or sheer fascination–to offset our dislike.”
To that end, she offers “seven questions to ask yourself before and as you write your fairly-off-putting-to-totally-repulsive character”:
1. “What audience are you writing for?” Some audiences demand sympathetic characters and others demand unsympathetic characters.
2. “Is your unsympathetic person the only POV character? It’s easier to pull of an unpleasant protagonist if somebody more sympathetic is the POV character.” “Can you tell your nasty character’s story just as effectively from another POV, with a shared POV or using a fairly distant third person?”
3. “Is your character just too nasty to be believable?” Can you enhance her backstory to make her nastiness more believable, more understandable, more sympathetic?
4. “Will your character become more sympathetic by the end of your story? Many readers are willing to accept an unsympathetic protagonist if they sense that during the course of the story he’s going to change.”
5. “Is this a comeuppance story? Many readers like stories about distasteful people–provided they get squashed in the end, restoring moral order to the universe. . . signal from the beginning that your unsympathetic protagonist not only is riding for a fall, but will get it.”
6. “Are you trying to make a biting point about the world? . . . if the texture of the world is compelling enough, or relevant enough, or horrifying enough, many readers (not all) will accept the unsympathetic protagonist as an inevitable product of the environment you’re showing them.”
7. “A final good justification for Mr. Repulsive: Does he hold us rapt? . . . is he just so sheerly fascinating that we’ll want to read about him anyway?”
Mr. Frey suggests another way to cast a anti-hero in a more favorable light: Give him “a code of personal honor.”
Repeated from above, Ms. Rosenfeld says emotional withholding can create sympathy for any character, even unlikeable ones.
Last, Mr. Morrison says, “Another good tip is to keep an eye on the characters that surround your protagonist.” An even worse character can make an “apparently irredeemable” character “considerably more human.”
1. Don’t Delay.
Michael Hauge says, “The sooner you can employ this principle, whether as background for your hero or as an early event in the plot of your [story], the more effective and stronger the empathy with your hero will be.”
H. R. D’Costa agrees. “[Y]ou have a limited amount of time to forge a bond between audiences and your protagonist.” About ten pages, whether a screenplay or a novel. That said, if you can forge it earlier, do it (most agents ask for the first five pages). That said, “If you begin with an exciting genre-fulfilling sequence, there’s more flexibility.”
2. Bond first. Then flaws.
“You must combine these methods to create empathy with your hero immediately–as soon as possible after your hero is introduced,” says Mr. Hauge. “Only then can you begin to reveal flaws in the character.”
3. Don’t Overdo Alienating Behavior
Most protagonists aren’t saints, and they sometimes do unlikable things. That’s fine.
“Just be careful not to go overboard to illustrate your point,” says Ms. D’Costa. “[O]ne quick tip: use mitigating circumstances. They help smooth the edges, making your protagonist sympathetic even as he indulges in alienating behavior.”
4. Don’t Dilute the Bond.
So your story’s full of likable, sympathetic, fascinating–in a word, “bondable”–characters. The reader could end up rooting for the wrong guy or maybe even for no one. What do you do?
Mr. James says “either reverse the characters’ roles and give yourself a new protagonist or make your readers feel more empathy for your protagonist.”
Assuming you want to keep the protagonist you have . . .
“Use everything at your disposal to tell [the reader] that out of everyone they meet, they need to pay attention to this guy,” says Ms. D’Costa. “Metaphorically, a neon sign should flash above his head that says, “Look at me, bond to me, root for me.”
Make sure he’s on the story’s stage more than any other character, and if you’re using multiple POVs, use his most often.
And beware of too many POVs. As Peter E. Abresch says, “[I]f we dilute our multiple POVs too thin, we stand the chance of completely losing any reader identification.”
5. Show, Don’t Expect
“Don’t rely on your book description or series title to provide this information,” says Ms. D’Costa. You can’t tell audiences to bond with the hero; they’ve got to feel the bond.”
6. Remember, it’s about emotion.
“Let me repeat once more,” says Mr. Egri, “identification is emotion.”
Top 5 Books on forging the reader-character bond
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Well, that’s it for me
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