I’m sure every blog on fiction writing has covered how to make readers care about characters. But recently I started thinking about specific characters and the reasons why we love them. All the best-loved characters in literature (and TV and movies, too)—why, and how, do they steal our hearts?
Besides writing my own thoughts and character examples, I’ve asked a few other writers for theirs. (Credit given where applicable.)
So, here we go. First:
They evoke our pity. Quoyle, the main character in E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, draws the reader’s sympathy right from the start. He is ugly, lacking in confidence from years of being told he’s nothing, and his genuine love for Petal, a heartless woman who cheats on him over and over again, as well as his gentle affection for their young daughters, makes me immediately invested in his happiness. He has so much to overcome, and I’m desperate to see him do it.
They don’t care what other people think. The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society‘s heroine, Juliet, gets the reader on her side through her quirky letters (the book is written in second person). What draws us to her is her honesty—as well as her wit—as she tells it like it is. I’d like to think if I met her in real life, I’d immediately know where I stand with her. You can trust a person like that.
We care about what they want. One writer I polled points out that “the reader has to be invested in the character’s goal. It doesn’t matter so much to me whether the character is good, bad, or likeable, but the writer has to make me root for a character and to care about what they want. I think it all boils down to stakes and tension. (Laurie Gardiner, Fiction Writing)
They reveal their vulnerability. “Showing me a vulnerability works wonders, especially if it’s hidden among other things. That shows me that the person isn’t a weakling but is drawing you into his secret self.” (Jennifer Worrell, 10 Minute Novelists). An example of this is Eleanor in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. She is curt, aloof and blunt with other characters, but as the story progresses we see what’s under the hard surface. If we never saw that, we’d simply think “what’s her problem?” and stop caring about her journey.
There’s something about them the reader has to figure out. “I like it when the writer doesn’t fully connect the dots and leaves the reader to speculate what really happened. Maybe there are two conflicting backstories or the reader starts to question whether the character has actually lied about their past. All the more to pull the reader in and make them part of the story.” (Bill Kennedy, 10 Minute Novelists.) A good example is Nick and Amy from Gone Girl. You may not like either of them as characters, but you certainly care about finding out what they’ve done and who, if either, is lying.
They come across as real people. When characters are portrayed as if they could be a real person and not just plot devices, we can relate to them better. And what makes them seem like real people? The writer doesn’t hide their flaws, and there’s enough backstory to make their present-day actions and attitudes make sense. Stereotypical characters can bore us, and their stories are harder to follow. (J Cleveland Payneand Kami K’Bratten, 10 Minute Novelists). Think of Lou Clark in Me Before You, one of the most realistic characters I’ve read lately. She’s letting life happen to her, afraid to take risks and go after what she wants, and the author makes it clear why (no spoilers here).
When they’re not obviously likeable, another likeable character defends them. “Prince Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender is the first character that came to my mind. I started caring about him when he was still the main antagonist in the first season even though he was hyper-focused on capturing the main character and kind of a jerk to everyone, even his friends. The only reason I cared about him so early was because another character (his uncle who is instantly likable because he is so funny and sweet) loves him so much and constantly defends him, even sharing his backstory to put a sympathetic twist on his actions. So all that to say: hard-to-like characters are more sympathetic to me when an easy-to-like character likes them.” (Kendra Lusty, 10 Minute Novelists)
They show growth. Author Rennie St. James (10 Minute Novelists) wrote with examples of Mr Darcy (Pride and Prejudice), Sherlock Holmes and Dr House (from the TV show House). “I think my attraction lies first in respecting the cold intelligence and logic of the characters. I like the arrogance as they can back it up with knowledge and success. Perhaps more importantly though, I see the potential journey they will take to become more than just a brain.” She points out that seeing small changes and foibles that make them more human—more emotional—endears us to them. “How they connect to other characters also draws us, especially if it’s slightly out of character and shows growth.”
There are countless other reasons and examples of why we care about characters. I’d love to hear more examples of well-known characters, and if you’re a writer, what techniques you employ to get readers on your character’s side. Please leave your thoughts in the comments!