How do you create characters that your readers will care about?
With rule #34, Masello advises writers to create characters that readers will empathize with, that they will root for, and that they will feel invested in. He points out that your characters' goals can be modest, but you can still make your readers care about them. But Masello stops short of actually explaining how to do this, so I thought I might offer a few thoughts.
The easiest way to make your readers care is to put your main character through a life and death struggle. But there are three problems with this solution. First of all, it's the easy way out. Secondly, many of us don't want to write about a life and death struggle. And thirdly, even a life and death struggle might not make a reader care.
So what can we do instead? Well, as I was telling my Grub Street class last night, the secret is to make your character's goal feel like it's as important as a life and death struggle. Suppose your story is simple as a man wanting a glass of water. Somehow make it clear that he really needs this glass of water, that his entire life revolves around getting this glass of water, and that without that glass of water he will feel like a complete failure. And the way to do this is to tie in the character's self-identity with the goal. Because preserving our sense of identity is more important than preserving our lives.
I wish I recall which psychologist created that concept, as I find it valuable when creating characters that I want my readers to care about. The idea goes something like this:
Human beings create an identity for themselves, how they want to be thought of and remembered, and how they want to think of themselves. And then they make choices for their lives based on how well those choices will allow them to fulfill their self-identity. For example, people who want to identify as philanthropists will take actions that fit their definition of such a person. They will raise money for charities and donate their own fortunes, so that they can think of themselves as philanthropists and encourage others to do so as well.
So a character's goal, no matter how minor, should be tied into the character's sense of identity. And the character's struggle, no matter how insignificant it may seem on the surface, should have a special resonance for the character.
In short, if the character cares, your reader will too.