3 Things Authors Shouldn’t Mistake For “Reader Interest in a Character”

1197469_reading_a_newspaperOne of the most important–and perhaps toughest– aspects of writing good fiction is crafting characters that have a life of their own, that feel believable as people in the world they inhabit, and that genuinely can catch and hold the interest of readers.

So what IS reader interest in a character? Well, we all want readers to care what happens to our characters. We want readers to connect with them on some basic, human level, even if their personalities are very, very different.

Just as important as what” reader interest in a character” is, though, is what it isn’t. And it isn’t these three things.

1. YOUR READERS HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER(S)

Can the way you tell a story about an intriguing, interesting character raise questions about that character’s motivation or background that you only resolve toward the end of a story?

Definitely: please don’t think I’m saying otherwise.

Does raising questions about a character’s motivation or background automatically mean you have an interesting, well-crafted character?

Not at all.

You see, there are characters whose actions feel like they intrinsically make sense. They go together. Even if a reader doesn’t hold all the pieces to explain HOW they go together, a reader can sense a solidity, a comprehensive cohesiveness to the life this person leads, the decisions he or she makes, what he or she claims to value ,and what is actually important to him or her.

That is very different from using “mystery” or “suspense” or “the big reveal” as a ploy to keep people reading about one-dimensional or flat characters.

How can a writer tell the difference?

  • Ask yourself: is there any hint, any indication as to the answer to the questions your readers will have? If there isn’t at least a tonal indication, and you are revealing a crazy or huge secret about a character that a reader could never even have suspected, something is wrong.
  • If you are worried about this, rely on beta readers. Get their honest responses to the character question. You can even ask them point blank: How did you feel about the secret of XXX? Did it make sense to you? Did it feel cheap at all?

2. READERS PITY YOUR CHARACTER

We all want readers to empathize with our characters. That is way, way different than pity.

The reason people hate pity so much is because it isn’t empathy. Far from it: empathy implies a recognition of equality, of common humanity. It means, “I understand your situation. I regret that you are going through this. Perhaps I’ve been there too.”

When we empathize with someone, we are sorry for their struggles and suffering. We wish they weren’t going through them. We wonder whether we could handle such a situation as well as he or she is, and we offer support and encouragement.

PITY, however, is disdain. That’s why we all feel repulsed when someone directs pity toward us. Pity says, “You poor soul, I’m so sorry you don’t have the strength to overcome this. I’m so sorry you can’t tough this out. Your situation stinks, but really, you stink more, because you’re not its equal.”

Pity negates that level of human commonality to make someone less than human, or at least less than you. Sometimes we might refer to empathy as pity, but true pity is not a good or kind thing.

Our goal as readers is to get readers to empathize with our characters, not pity them. How do we do this?

  • Make sure your characters are masters of their own lives. That they acknowledge their mistakes, confront their challenges, and take steps to act rather than consent to be acted upon. THAT is interesting behavior. Inspiring behavior.
  • If you DO have a character who is crying for pity, well…. It all depends on the story, but you have options. You can give early indication that this character will grow and change, so the reader knows a payoff is coming for investing in this person (who doesn’t seem worth it at the start.)
  • Another option is, through tone, plot, and theme, to show that you agree with the reader’s assessment of this character: he or she is indeed a miserable excuse for a person based on his or her life choices. When a reader knows you don’t expect him or her to like an unlikeable character, that character becomes MUCH more bearable.
  • You can also try to minimize the focus on the pitiable character, especially if he or she is not a major player. Less page time, less importance, means less annoyance from a character you know is kind of annoying. Remember, annoying characters are okay to write about. Sometimes people can be annoying. Challenging to deal with. That’s realistic. And that brings us to:

3. ANGER/ FRUSTRATION

It’s certainly possible to give readers cause to be frustrated with well written characters who are good people. That’s just part of being human: we all make mistakes, none of us are perfect, and we’re all going to do things from time to time to annoy or anger others.

Our characters will too.

As authors, though, when readers (say, beta readers) hint that a character is frustrating them, we need to ask some questions:

  • How annoyed are you? Just a bit? Annoyed enough to want to stop reading about this person?
  • Why are you annoyed? What precisely about this person or his or her actions/choices is frustrating to you?

You may find that the frustration is just a personal thing on the part of the reader. That’s fine. You might even intentionally be evoking that response. My point is, we can’t just assume that:

  • “If the reader feel annoyed, then he or she is interested in this character enough to invest in anger, and this character deserves said interest.
  • We tend to feel annoyed, angry with, and hurt most by people we know well and care about. So my readers care about this character.
  • This character has my readers focused on him or her, and that’s good no matter what.

It’s easy as an author to get sucked into that kind of optimistic thinking, but it’s not always accurate.

We all know: people we hardly know or don’t know at all frustrate us every day. And while you do want readers focused on your characters, you don’t want them focused on them for the wrong reasons.

Again, readers being angry with a character can be part of your plan as an author. And if it is, then none of this really applies. Also readers can get frustrated with good characters–with characters who grasp their interest–to varying degrees. That’s obvious.

Just don’t assume that readers saying, “I’m annoyed” means your character is deep and complex. Don’t assume that writing a character that you will know will annoy readers automatically means readers will be interested in that person: in his or her background, in his or her pursuits and goals, in what happens to him or her.

So, what are the most important aspects, or results, of connecting with a character?

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26 responses to “3 Things Authors Shouldn’t Mistake For “Reader Interest in a Character”

  1. In nursing they taught us that sympathy was feeling for a patient and empathy was feeling with a patient.

    • You’re right…. I was kind of hoping someone would point that out 🙂 I kind of combined the two here for simplicity purposes in order to contrast them with pity, but I learned that too in school: sympathy is feeling FOR someone, while empathy is being able to relate to what they’re going through and to put yourself in their shoes (maybe because you’ve gone through it yourself).

  2. I’m actually dealing with the anger/frustration part now. It’s surprising how livid a few people have gotten over the romantic subplot in my book. To the point where they want the female character dead or re-written. It’s really bizarre since people are showing pity on the male character (or calling him a ‘Loser’) or demanding that he go man-whore as an act of revenge. Keep in mind this is part of the open relationship plot line. So, I wonder if people can get too invested in a character. To the point where one ‘wrong’ move ruins the entire series.

    • I think people can definitely get too invested in a character. I personally DO like to draw a line between characters and real people (though I admit I pretty much grieved at the loss of David Tennant as the 10th doctor on Doctor Who.)

      Just curious…. when you say “open relationship plot line,” are you referring to the relationship where you don’t know which women he will end up with?

      • I get the feeling that the David Tennant loss is one of the greatest disasters of the modern world. I have friends who are still in mourning.

        That’s the relationship. I made a post this morning about it since I got so much heat lately. That’s an understatement too.

        • Ugh…. so sorry about the backlash! It stinks for sure when readers don’t react the way we anticipate to our characters and their choices. Sometimes there’s just no way to know!

        • Nope. It’s funny how a minor subplot that gets maybe 25 pages of attention at most caused such a reaction.

        • WOW it’s that minor? That’s really surprising it got that attention, for sure!!!

        • It was big in the first book and has been kind of a background because the female isn’t an adventurer like the male. She’s been left behind. I think the explosion happened in the third book because a guy showed up gloating that he slept with her to goad the hero into a fight. People took that as a sign that she was unfaithful even though she’s the one from the multiple partner culture. I’m guessing that prior to this, readers weren’t sure what she was doing and this locked it in for some. The character hasn’t been around to explain herself or say if this guy is telling the truth. I wonder what would happen if it comes out that this guy was rejected and merely wanted to rile the hero.

        • Yeah, if there’s no corroboration or proof, even if I would be annoyed if she DID actually sleep with him, I would try to hold off judgment until Luke actually received verification of some kind. Wow.

        • That’s the thing. She’s the one who comes from the culture where it’s acceptable and there’s ‘other’ reasons that could be behind it. Working off a world where pre-martial sex isn’t seen as a taboo makes things a lot rougher for this whole thing. Maybe things would be easier if authors wrote all their characters as celibate monks.

  3. Sadly, I can remember several books where the character just wasn’t there. It ruined the story because I was so frustrated with one of the characters, the main character. I finished the book, but only to see if the character improved, and she didn’t.

  4. Reblogged this on jbiggarblog and commented:
    some great thoughts here on how important it is to analyze your character’s traits, good and bad

  5. You made me think of “care-actor.” 🙂

  6. This is great and things I really need to think of more.

  7. Empathy and likability, yes. Sometimes, an author can fall into the “pity trap” by trying to engender sympathy for her characters. That happened to me once, and I never forgot the lesson I learned. As you say, beta readers can be the biggest help on issues like that!

  8. Three cheers for beta readers! : )

  9. Pingback: 3 Things Authors Shouldn’t Mistake For “Reader Interest in a Character” | Kaitlyn Deann

  10. Yes, I did enjoy your post. Having insight on what and how our readers think about the characters we right will only make us better writers and help us get a feel of what we should include in our books. Love the information.

  11. Pingback: Blogdom Dec. 18 ’13-Jan. 15, ’14 | Welcome to the ToiBox

  12. I know a lot of authors like to keep their characters at a distance, so they can be ruthlessly destroyed if needs be; but I think that keeping them a little closer gives you a better idea of how people might react to their situations. Personally I’m not sure how people are supposed to have a feeling of (at least) sympathy for my character’s total meltdown/deconstruction as a person if even I don’t… XD

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