The Reader-Character Bond: How the masters do it

This week, we’re learning how to forge the reader-character bond.  Here’s how the masters do it:

For these examples, I’m rereading only the opening scenes and otherwise drawing from memory.  Let’s Get the classic example out of the way first:

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J. K. Rowling (MG)
Main Character: Harry Potter
First two chapters, pages 7-27 in my copy

  • Sympathy:  Harry’s parents are dead and he’s gone to live with terrible people, his aunt and uncle.  Harry’s room is the cupboard under the stairs, while his cousin has a second bedroom for toys.
  • Jeopardy:  When they drop Harry off at the Dursley’s, McGonagall, who’s been watching them all day (as has the reader), is appalled.  “Harry Potter come and live here!”
  • Likability:  Harry takes his mean aunt and uncle in stride, never lashing out when his aunt wakes him up and snaps at him to make bacon or when his uncle yells at him that “MOTORBIKES DON’T FLY!”
  • Fascinating:  Harry, an infant, somehow managed to thwart He Who Must Not Be Named, the greatest dark wizard ever, of whom everyone else is afraid.  Also, at the zoo, he communicates with the snake and makes its glass disappear.
  • Wish-Fulfillment:  Harry gets to go to wizard school.
  • Familiar:  The Dursleys talk about Harry like he’s not in the room. Most everyone knows what this is like.  He also does normal-kid stuff, like watch TV and play on the computer and go to school.
  • Relatable Goal:  In his opening scene, Harry’s goal is to stay home, so he can “watch what he wanted on television for a change and maybe have a go on Dudley’s computer.”
  • Empathy:  The dialogue of Harry’s aunt and uncle is fantastic. You can hear their tone, their anger, and just how fed up they are with being put out like this, with having to take care of their nephew . . . and feel what it must be like to be Harry.

Vampire Academy, Richelle Mead (YA)
Main Character: Rose Hathaway, an under-aged dhampir (vampire guardian) who’s taken it upon herself to protect her best friend, Lissa, the last living Dragomir moroi (mortal vampire) royal.
First chapter, pages 1-11 in my copy

  • Sympathy:  After running away 2 years ago, and successfully keeping Lissa safe, including getting away from the guardians every time they’ve shown up, Rose is at last caught, and now she and Lissa will be taken back to St. Vladimir’s Academy.
  • Jeopardy:  There’s a man watching her, and then someone else joins him.  She knows who they are and is afraid they’ll catch them. She’s got to protect Lissa, and, since she’s just donated Lissa some blood, she’s feeling a little drunk.
  • Likability:  She comforts Lissa, who’s having a nightmare, and then, when she notices her friend looks hungry, offers up her own blood.
  • Fascinating:  She’s a dhampir. (What’s that?)  Her friend has “complete faith that I will take care of everything, that we would be safe.”  She also preemptively attacks a guy older (more experienced) and at least a foot taller than she is.
  • Wish-Fulfillment:  For those who’ve thought about being a vampire or a royal, or a badass royal vampire guardian.  (Or have a killer bod and great hair.)
  • Familiar:  Like most teens, she’s a little preoccupied with sex: Lissa’s nightmare wakes her from a dream, “which had something to do with a beach and some hot guy rubbing suntan oil on” her, and she later says being bitten is “Better than sex–or so I imagined, since I’d never done it.”
  • Relatable Goal:  To keep her best friend safe from those who would harm her, which, in this scene, means getting her out of the apartment and into their roommate’s car.
  • Empathy:  Rose’s voice is probably like that of a friend you know: funny, confident, loyal, boy-crazy, and with just a touch of snark.

Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk
Main Character: an unnamed narrator
First chapter, pages 11-15 in my copy

  • Sympathy:  The narrator’s best friend, Tyler, has a gun in the narrator’s mouth, threatening to kill him, all because of a love triangle:  “I want Tyler. Tyler wants Marla. Marla wants me. I don’t want Marla, and Tyler doesn’t want me around, not anymore.”
  • Jeopardy:  Tyler has a gun in the narrator’s, mouth, but that’s not as bad as the fact that they’re on the 192nd floor of a building that’s rigged to blow in ten . . . nine . . .
  • Likability:  It’s tough to do something likable with a gun in your mouth, but at one point, the narrator says, “Tyler and me at the edge of the roof, the gun in my mouth, I’m wondering how clean this gun is.”  I know I smiled at that.
  • Fascinating:  The narrator knows–and tells us–a lot of recipes for how to blow things up.  How and why does he know all this when the opening sentence said Tyler got him a job as a waiter?
  • Wish-Fulfillment:  Sure, in the disastrous sense, if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to have someone shove a gun in your mouth.
  • Familiar:  The person shoving a gun in the narrator’s mouth used to be his best friend.  Everyone’s had a relationship go bad and get violent or catty.
  • Relatable Goal:  In the first scene, I’m not entirely sure.  It doesn’t seem to be to survive.  It might be to just get it over with and be dead.  Or, toward the end of the scene, it could be to tell the story of Tyler Durden and make him a legend.
  • Empathy:  Using Palahniuk terminology, he goes “on the body,” which puts you inside the narrator:  “With my tongue I can feel the silencer holes we drilled into the barrel of the gun.”

GLOW, a show about women in wrestling in the 80’s; first episode written by Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive (the show’s creators)
Main Character: Ruth Wilder, who needs a strong viewer-character bond, because it’s tested right away. (I’ll tell you how after we establish her bond.)
First four scenes, approximately first 6 minutes

  • Sympathy:  Ruth gives a moving audition for a part only to find out that she was actually reading the man’s part.  The part she’s supposed to be auditioning for is the secretary.  Then, in the third scene, and the reason I picked Glow as an example, Ruth is in aerobics class with her best friend, who starts lactating.  Ruth saves the cat, or her friend, from embarrassment by literally giving her friend the shirt off her back. Genius. This scene also accomplishes a couple other things: First, the aerobics are somewhat complex, setting the stage for Ruth to easily pick up the wrestling choreography later, and it also shows that her friend has recently had a baby, which helps characterize the friend and makes the bond-testing aspect about Ruth that’s revealed soon after this scene much more alienating.
  • Jeopardy:  Ruth’s got $83 in her bank account, doesn’t know how she’s going to pay her gas bill, and has eaten cereal for the past six meals.
  • Likability:  Ruth gets emotional upon finishing her audition, and says thank you for the opportunity, because there just aren’t any parts like this for women these days.
  • Fascinating:  I’d say not really, unless she’s fascinating because she doesn’t seem like the type who would do the alienating, bond-testing thing she does.  She’s more Everyday Jane than fascinating.
  • Wish-Fulfillment:  In the “what’s it like to be an actress” sense, sure.  And, later, what’s it like to be in wrestling.  And a woman in wrestling.
  • Familiar:  Probably everyone knows what it’s like to struggle to get a job and/or to chase a dream.
  • Relatable Goal:  To get a job, preferably an acting job.
  • Empathy:  Ruth hides out in the bathroom for an hour, waiting to get feedback on her audition, only to be told something along the lines of every director says bring me someone I don’t know, someone real, and so I bring you in, Ruth, to show them that they don’t actually want the thing they think they want.  Ouch.
  • So with the bond nicely established, the writers then hit us with the alienating, bond-testing thing about Ruth:  She recently slept with her best friend’s husband–twice.  And yet, I still liked her.  There are other mitigating circumstances besides the viewer-character bond (for example, during sex, the husband tells Ruth she’s so real, recalling the audition feedback and, in a sense, punishing Ruth for what she’s doing), but the bond is a huge part of it.  And for me, it was the lactating/shirt scene that forged it.

It’s a Wonderful Life by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swirling and Frank Capra
Main Character: George Bailey
I just watched this all the way through for the first time. The writers go out of their way to make George likable at the beginning, and that’s a good thing, because he’s kind of a jerk, especially to Mary. (The writers also pay off all of the likability scenes by the end. Great craft.)

  • Sympathy:  The movie opens with voiceovers praying for George Bailey. Someone who needs prayers is someone who needs sympathy.  Also, George loses his dad when he’s about to go off to school, and instead of leaving, he stays to take care of the bank and the town.
  • Jeopardy:  In the second likability scene, George, still a kid, gets beat upside the ears by his boss for questioning what the boss put into a kid’s pills.
  • Likability:  George jumps into a freezing stream to save his little brother from drowning and loses his hearing as a result (touching on sympathy).  Then George saves his boss (who’s just lost his son and isn’t functioning well) from putting the wrong medicine in some pill capsules and ultimately poisoning a kid.  Later, when George feels he has to stay in Bedford Falls, he gives his school money to his brother.
  • Fascinating:  No one else seems to be as eager as George to get out of Bedford Falls, so he’s sort of fascinating in that sense.  Plus, all the girls like him.
  • Wish-Fulfillment:  George is given a guardian angel.  I know I’d like one of those.
  • Familiar:  George wants to get out of his small town and do something important with his life.
  • Relatable Goal:  Again, his goal is to get out of his small town and go to school and do something important with his life.
  • Empathy:  George is ready to go off to school when his dad dies, but he feels he has to stay, so he stays and he gives his money to his brother.  Later, his brother comes back from school and George thinks he’ll be able to leave town now that his brother can take over the bank, but his brother’s got a job offer elsewhere.  George never does leave Bedford Falls.

Now for some less successful examples:

Subhuman by Michael McBride
This story’s about cone-headed skeletons found in Antarctica.  McBride introduces a new character every chapter, seven in all, including the prologue.  After everyone had been introduced I had no idea which character I was supposed to focus on as the protagonist, let alone bond to.

That said, I knew which character I wanted to focus on:  Jade, the only one given a bonding cue.  In her scene, she’s walking through the aftermath of a bombing, I think, looking for proof of targeted genocide.  She comes across a woman who died while reaching for an infant.  McBride writes, “Her [the dead woman’s] fingers rested inches from those of the infant.  Jade knelt and brought their hands together. It seemed like the very least she could do.”  Likable.  Very likable.

Alas, Jade is definitely not the protagonist. I can’t tell Jade from Anya, another character.  The characters who most stick out to me are Roche, the silent, observant, clever one, and Kelly, who’s always fretting her fingers, which is how she got into seismology. (This has prompted me to do the next tool on character tags–sign up for updates to make sure you get it.)

But I don’t think either of these two is the protagonist either. (I’m currently 233/419 pages in and I still don’t know who the protagonist is. Maybe McBride intended for me to bond with all of the Unit 51 characters. I can’t say I have.  So far, the concept is what’s holding me.)

The Demon Crown by James Rollins
This is about a prehistoric species of wasps used by the antagonist to torment two series characters in particular and ultimately the world.

This was another story that introduced lots of characters, one POV a chapter, at the beginning.  Unlike McBride’s Subhuman, I knew which character I was supposed to bond with (Gray), because, unlike the other characters, he was introduced while at his leisure, as opposed to in the middle of high action, and his scene came with a big dose of backstory. However, Gray was not given any bonding cues.

Gray’s introduced while lying on the beach in Hawaii, watching a hot, naked woman emerge from the ocean (his girlfriend, it turns out).  There’s one line of sexy times, and then the island is bombed with wasps and he shifts into action mode.

Gray’s a decent guy, speeding toward the danger, because he knows there’s a little league game going on and he wants to warn them. But, if I remember correctly, the story cuts to another character before Gray actually gets to the game. So it’s a while before we actually see him act cleverly and selflessly.

I have to admit I didn’t finish this book. This was the umpteenth book in a series of these same characters, so long-time readers were probably riveted, but this being my first adventure, I was not.  I skimmed the last third of it, looking for how the wasps were defeated (so, again, the concept had my attention), but I didn’t care about the characters.


Well, that’s it for me.  What about you?  What bonding cues did you find in the first pages of the novels featuring your favorite characters?  Tell us in the comments!


We’ll see what kind of bonding cues we can come up with for the characters in our own work.  See you then!

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