How a deep connection between characters engages your reader.
“What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.” ― Aristotle
A writer recently posted a question in a group discussion. What causes a reader to return to subsequent novels by an author? He wondered if the author and their writing style was the reason.
I have heard this question many times, and I think that while an author’s style is important to a reader, what brings a reader back repeatedly is how the author crafts characters.
Once at a meeting of a writing group, we were discussing the merits of writing a novel series and what would cause readers to continue to follow the books. A local playwright listened to this discussion before pounding the table. He declared that there was only one reason a reader came back: the characters. Provide a character that a reader can identify with, care about, connect to, and they will respond and read everything you write about that character.
This is true for me personally. The first author and character I became enamored with were John D. McDonald and the infamous Travis McGee. Everything about his books drew me in. The main setting, the coast of South Florida, remains a favorite to this day. Every detail, the ancient Rolls Royce McGee converted into a pick-up truck, the houseboat he won in a poker game, the marina where the boat docked, all characters within the novels. But that alone did not bring me back.
Travis McGee was larger than life. A man of honor with a strong moral center who, while he would bend the rules to accomplish his goals, never lost sight of the truth and what was right. He was reliable, counted on to help people when they had exhausted all other possibilities to undo a wrong. I think we all want that level of stability and strength in our lives.
McDonald didn’t stop with his main character. He created a world of characters that existed from novel to novel. McGee’s best friend, the economist Meyer, was unique, along with a cast of colorful and eccentric characters. From Chookie, who danced at a local club, to The Alabama Tiger, who held a constant floating party on his boat, these characters became old friends. The last Travis McGee novel may have been the saddest book I have ever read. My friends were gone. There would be no new adventures.
However, that instant connection I had with McGee and company will never leave. I read those books over often and feel nostalgia and peace simultaneously. Once you have felt that connection whether in real life or in your imaginary life that feeling will never leave.
The question then becomes this. How do writers craft characters that readers can connect with at the desired level? Let us examine what makes a character memorable.
Who is this person?
You must establish your main character as likable and relatable. They do not have to be perfect but do need to have characteristics the reader can identify with, or there will be no connection.
An important consideration is not to stereotype your character. Perfection is not the goal here, realism is. The reader wants to see someone who is strong and heroic but with flaws that they have themselves. Then they can project themselves into the action. Remember, Indiana Jones was afraid of snakes.
Construct your character through show and tell, don’t provide a litany of characteristics. If your character is short (which I identify with) frame the description as “she stretched to reach the top shelf” not she was five-one. The reader will have experienced the reaching or watched someone who did and identify without an exact reference to the character’s height and create an image in their imagination.
Above all, reveal your character’s flaws. Are they afraid of new love because of hurt in the past? Are they devastated or angry because of a tragedy? Did they lose everything and have to start over? Show the fears they feel, the pain and anger. You should also give them a reason for hope—a faith that they will survive and reach their goal. Give them humor and confidence, even if you shake it from time to time. Let them laugh, cry, rant, and fight for what they want. Your reader should be cheering for your character to succeed with every word.
What are they seeking?
Establish your MC’s goal as soon as possible. What do they want? Once you have established the task before them, throw obstacles in their way. Create the need for the reader to become engaged in their quest. We have all wanted something we seemingly can’t have, and as problem after problem piles on, we think we will never reach our goal. Let the reader feel that frustration, fear, anger as they fight through the issues keeping them from their goals.
Who are their companions?
As with the Travis McGee series, secondary characters are significant to how your reader identifies with your main character and invests in the story. They need to be memorable as well.
I wrote a story where I introduced a character, a bartender in the New Orleans French Quarter, who was meant to be a vehicle for my protagonist to run into her former lover. Within two paragraphs, I had fallen for the bartender, and he morphed into a cousin and best friend of the former lover and became an integral part of the plot. The story became more vibrant with more depth because I added a character who had a vested interest in the outcome.
Create the friend, the mentor, the grandmother, the housekeeper, whatever character you need to help you present your MC’s human side. Someone who recognizes their flaws and is not afraid to tell them. Someone they can confess their thoughts to, someone they trust. With each interaction between these characters, the reader will become more attached to the main character.
What does this effort give you, the author?
Going back to our original question, why do readers return to a writer, they come back because they like the characters.
They “just click” with them. Standalone stories with great characters will bring readers back to an author. A series of novels with the same character succeeds because, while writing style may have allowed them to enjoy the first novel, readers will want to read the second and third and so on because you gave them a character who reflects their desires and one they can identify with time and again.
Never forget how it felt to instantly connect to someone important in your life. A good author will give that incredible emotion to their readers. Those readers will be back for more.
Deborah Ratliff is Southerner with saltwater in her veins and love of writing. A career in science and human resources provided the opportunity to write policies/procedures and training manuals, articles, and newsletters but her lifelong love of mystery novels beckoned. Deborah began writing mysteries and her first novel, Crescent City Lies will be published shortly with a second novel, One of Those Days to follow. Deborah regularly contributes articles on writing to the blog, Writers Unite! and serves as an administrator on the Facebook writing site, Writers Unite! which has 43,000 + members from around the globe.