How do you make your readers care about your characters? Is there some foolproof way to do that? If so, what’s the secret?
Jim posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
What’s the best way to include background info on a character in the first few chapters so readers will care about him or her?
Randy sez: Making your readers care about your character is extremely important. If your readers care, they’ll probably keep reading. If they don’t care, they probably won’t.
Is Backstory the Answer?
It’s easy to think that telling your reader the character’s backstory is the magic ticket. After all, if your readers know your character’s whole life story, won’t they want to know how things turn out?
Yes, probably. But the problem is that your character’s whole life story is long, and your readers are impatient. They want to see what’s happening right now. Your reader won’t care about your character’s backstory until they’ve emotionally committed to the frontstory.
If telling the backstory isn’t the answer, then what is?
The Short Answer
The short answer is that you need to make your readers relate to your characters. But that’s not a very good answer, because it doesn’t explain how you do it.
We’ll get to the long answer in a bit, but first, let’s look at an example of a best-selling novel that highlights how hard it is to make your reader relate to your characters. Let’s look at the novel Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card.
Ender Wiggin, Boy Genius
Ender Wiggin is a six-year-old boy genius. He is scooped up by the government and sent to an orbiting battle school where he’s going to be trained to command an interplanetary fleet of starships in a desperate bid to save the human race from being destroyed by an alien race that’s already on its way to planet Earth.
Can you relate to Ender? Is your life like his in any possible way?
If you’re thinking no, then you can see why this is hard.
So how does Orson Scott Card make you relate to Ender within the first few pages?
By putting Ender in a situation everybody can relate to.
Ender’s First Two Scenes
In the very first scene, which only lasts two pages, Ender has a painful medical procedure. Everyone can relate to that. So the reader is quickly on Ender’s side. The procedure doesn’t go well, but Ender muddles through. If all scenes were like this one, readers would relate to Ender, but they wouldn’t care that much about him. Because so far, Ender hasn’t shown how to rise above his hard situation. But the next scene is different.
In the second scene, Ender is ganged up on after school by a group of bullies. Everyone can relate to that. But this scene doesn’t end the way a bullying scene usually ends. Most people get beat up by the bullies. Ender isn’t most people. Ender fights back—and he wins. Partly by luck. Partly by being clever. Partly by bravado. And partly by pure desperation. The point is that Ender finds himself in a hard situation that most people can relate to. And he shows how to win.
That, I think, is the secret to why so many readers care about Ender. Even readers who aren’t six years old. Even readers who aren’t geniuses. Even readers who will never go to battle school, command a starship fleet, or fight aliens.
But all readers have faced an uphill battle against bullies. And they want to believe that there’s a way to win. Within just a few pages, the reader knows that Ender can win. And the reader is on Ender’s side. In the rest of the book, Ender goes on to face bullying that grows exponentially harsher. At each level, he grows and becomes tougher.
The reader wants to live Ender’s life. The reader wants Ender to show how to fight the bullies in the toughest situations imaginable.
The reader cares about Ender.
If we can boil this all down to two main points, we have these:
- Put your character in a hard situation that your reader can relate to.
- Show your character responding to that hard situation in a way that gives the reader hope.
Once you’ve done that, your reader will care about your character. And the reader will even care about your character’s backstory.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.