Drawing the Reader into Character


Is building sympathy for your character the key to hooking a reader?

Beginnings – and hooking the reader – have always been my bugbear. Big complex plots, interweaving stories, multiple characters, action scenes – no problem. Getting someone to read the story in the first place – Big Problem.

The difficulty is that what one reader responds to in a character is often vastly different to another – in fact often diametrically opposed. One reader’s cool detached hero is another’s arrogant, insufferable narcissist.

I used to come home from critique groups puzzled by contradictory comments that made little sense until the penny finally dropped. If people don’t like your characters, they will just  not gel with your story. Once you reach that stage the critter will start (often unconsciously) working overtime to find all the things ‘wrong’ with your piece, when the real problem is that it simply has no resonance for them. They will talk vehemently about the punctuation on p3, or how they got mixed up in the dialogue, the logic error in par 5, or yada yada, yada… The same thing happens with editors. The reasons they give for rejecting your manuscript may have little to do with the real reason, which may be that they struggled to emotionally connect with the character.

Even very successful writers don’t seem to have real control over reader’s reactions.

One of David Gemmell readers all time favorite characters is Waylander. David Gemmell himself set out to make this guy a real piece of work – a nasty customer that no one should like; a ruthless assassin that kills without a thought. The surprise was that people loved Waylander, and he went on to be one of Gemmell’s most successful characters, extending over three books and carrying the story well in each one. So why did people respond to Waylander? Was there something unconsciously carried through from Gemmell about that character’s destiny that altered his portrayal? Or do people just love the bad guy – the old Sympathy for the Devil chestnut?

What really draws you into a character? Their sense of connection – the  way they love someone else or show they care? Being the underdog? Strength? Courage? Determination? Their vulnerability? Their sheer undead coolness? Or is it something less tangible than that. Is it being able to relate to the ordinary troubles and mundane problems that you share with the character i.e. they may be an immortal space traveller, but they still get parking tickets at the spaceport?

Got any clues to share on building emotional resonance and sympathy for character?

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