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Robert's Rules of Writing #34: Get Dramatic

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

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.

Comments

The last line I agree with, but the stuff before doesn't hold true.

You can put a character through everything and if you haven't established some empathy with that character the reader is going to be rooting for the evil clowns and the nasty waterfall to take that character out.
"And thirdly, even a life and death struggle might not make a reader care."

But yeah, if your character is a total jerk, you're going to have a much rougher time making the reader care. It can be fun to try, though...
In some ways, all characters are trying to figure out their identity, just like people do every day. So I don't think it's necessarily harder or easier to write a character as you describe. Generally, though, a character like that might be an adolescent.

And I remember you. Just read a nice piece on the history of Green Lantern by you. (Do you have one webpage that lists all those articles, so I can simply link to it when friends ask me about the history of the DC universe?)
I've added this link to my component list of links on my blog's front page, and I'll add it to my main webpage's list of links when I have a moment. (I'll also announce it here when I have a moment and can think of the right way to do so...)

I'm very much looking forward to your Firestorm profile. I own every issue of the original two Firestorm series, as well as the current one. (If you ignore the one in which he battled Typhoon but it never got published except as part of the Comic Calvacade...)
"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:"

This may have been William James.
For some reason, I keep thinking that it was Erik Erikson. I'm not as familiar with as much psychological theory as I'd like to be.

Do you have a reference from James? Or maybe a book to recommend?
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