How to Make Readers Deeply Connect to Your Characters

writing characters fiction
Photo credit: Pak Gwei via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Today’s guest post is an excerpt from Hack Your Reader’s Brain by novelist Jeff Gerke (@JeffGerke).

There is one secret ingredient to crafting a novel that readers will read from beginning to end. All the other elements are important and necessary, but they play supporting roles to this one.

That secret is to connect your reader to your protagonist. Ever heard yourself (or others) say the following about a great novel?

“I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters, even when I wasn’t reading the book.”

“I had to find out if she ever reconciled with her father.”

“I kept forgetting she wasn’t real. I even caught myself praying for her once.”

These are all ways of saying one thing: I was there. I was so connected to the character that the line was blurred between what was happening in the story and what was happening to me. We’re talking about a psychological phenomenon called transportation.

Transportation Excitation

Imagine a group of cavemen sitting around the fire one evening, eating roast mammoth. Zog says, “You know, it was a night just like this, at just about this time, that my brother stood up from this very fire and walked into the jungle alone and unarmed. A saber-toothed tiger ate him.”

The other people nod sagely and then, when they’re done eating, stand up and walk into the jungle alone and in different directions.

You guessed it: Some of them weren’t in attendance at the next night’s fireside dinner.

That’s what happens when transportation doesn’t occur. When we’re not able to get out of our own heads and place ourselves into someone else’s, we fail to learn the lessons that could save our lives. We also fail to experience the joys of others and the sorrows of others. We miss the entire opportunity to grow through the experiences of others.

Happily, the Zog clan’s lack of transportation ability has not survived to modern times. If you’re reading this book, the odds are very good that you can indeed identify with what other people are going through. I’m willing to bet you can also feel what other people are feeling—even fictional people.

Which explains why you got misty-eyed at the end of that movie. Transportation explains why you squeezed your partner’s arm off during that horror film. And it certainly explains why, when the hero was hanging from the cliff while the villain stomped on his fingers, your palms were sweating.

We get into our stories, don’t we? This is very, very good news for those of us who are storytellers.

The question, of course, is how to cause readers to make that jump. We’ve all read stories that left us cold and did not get us to feel any kinship or concern for the characters. Worse, we may’ve even read stories in which we came to hope that misfortune would come to the characters.

How can we cause transportation to happen, and how can we be certain it will happen? We hack the reader’s brain, of course!

Emotional Engagement

When we show characters who have something in common with our readers, mainly in good and admirable ways, our readers will like them. They will begin to connect, to bond, to be transported.

Can you think of a way to show that your hero is friendly? Your reader will like him if you do. Can you show your hero being brave and standing up against injustice or bullies? Your reader will admire him if you do. Can you show your hero being generous or forgiving or responsible? What about scrupulously honest—returning a man’s dropped wallet untouched even though your hero needs a dollar to eat—unashamedly loyal, or earnest and hard-working?

Show your hero as the kind of person your reader would like if she met, and transportation will begin. Show your hero as the kind of person your reader aspires to be like, and transportation will accelerate.

When you cause your reader to feel that your hero is like her, or is what she’d like to become, she will become emotionally engaged.

Now I’d like to bring in some help from a surprising and marble-carved source.

A Single Soul Dwelling in Two Bodies

The Greek philosopher Aristotle said the definition of a friend is a single soul dwelling in two bodies. When it comes to fiction, we’re shooting for that sort of relationship between the reader and the hero.

Aristotle’s book Rhetoric reveals the findings of his studies in how to get people to feel what he wanted them to feel. In the context of a legal case, Aristotle wanted to give speakers the ability to cause judges and listeners to become predisposed to rule in the speakers’ favor. He wanted to manipulate—er, persuade—people to like who he wanted them to like and dislike who he wanted them to dislike.

Aristotle’s secret is to demonstrate that the person in question (i.e., your hero) possesses qualities the listeners (your readers) admire or will resonate with. He recommends showing the person as being worthy of emulation. If you show the hero as someone we would admire or even revere in real life, your reader will connect with him. Even showing the hero doing the actual admiring is powerful, as when you might show him going out of his way to help a veteran. If you make your reader surge with pride and admiration for the hero, she will like him. She will become emotionally engaged.

It’s a Rock—It Doesn’t Have Any Vulnerable Spots!

Tim Allen’s character in Galaxy Quest had trouble getting away from an alien rock monster, despite his crew mate’s “helpful” advice to attack its vulnerable spots. While rocks don’t have any vulnerable spots, your protagonist does. And when you reveal these vulnerabilities in the story, your reader will not be capable of disliking him.

When we witness someone in pain, in fear, in need—when we see someone vulnerable—we can’t help but want to rise up and do something. And if we’re not there in person but are only reading about the situation, we’re pulling for him. We place the force of our good wishes beneath his name. We adopt him into our hearts. Now he’s not just some random person on the page; now he’s our guy.

Wherever our guy goes for the rest of the story, we’re not only behind him, we have in some sense become him. We’ve identified with his cause and his pain so completely that his pain is our pain, his loss is our loss, and his victory is, at last, our victory.

All through a little trick called vulnerability.

Show your hero hurting and vulnerable—not because he’s a loser or a whiner-baby, but because he does right and yet is left in pain—and your reader will connect. She literally (and I do mean literally) cannot help herself.

Vise and Glue

I like to think of this process as someone gluing two pieces of wood together. There’s a period when the glue hasn’t set and won’t hold the pieces the way you want. So you have to hold the pieces in place until the glue hardens and sets.

The ideal solution is to use one or more vise grips. These are squeeze- or twist-tightened clamps that hold things in position. So the glue goes on, the pieces go together, the vise grips get attached…and then you wait.

The thing to notice is that the technique holding the pieces together at first is not the technique that will hold the pieces together permanently. But the long-term fixative takes awhile to take effect, so you use a short-term solution until it does.

So it is with fiction. Your long-term solution to connecting your reader to your protagonist is the “glue” of empathy. You’ll be using multiple moments and situations and approaches to create that tight bond that will last until the end of the novel and beyond. But those things take awhile to develop, so you need something to hold the reader to the story while they can. You need something keeping her reading until the empathy glue can set. That’s what the attention-grabbing material is doing.

Engage her attention with danger, tension, or surprise. But engage her emotions—the longer fix—by connecting her to your hero.

What could you use in your novel to catch your reader’s attention? And then what could you do, while that temporary bond is holding, to begin showing how likable, admirable, and vulnerable your hero is?

Hack Your Readers BrainThere’s nothing that says you can’t be doing both of these at the same time. Catch her attention with something dangerous that shows your hero being treated unjustly, maybe. Show her doing something fascinating while comforting a frightened child.

You’ll be doing these things throughout your novel, not just at the beginning. There’s never a bad time to re-engage your reader’s attention, admiration, or compassion for your protagonist.

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out Hack Your Reader’s Brain by Jeff Gerke.

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