Over the past week, I’ve been reading a couple of books that I’m enjoying. But for some reason, neither of the books completely wowed me. I wasn’t totally invested in the stories.
Sure, I kept reading each of the books because I liked the plots. But I knew something was missing—something that could have turned these great books into awesome books.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized what both books had failed to do. They’d both failed to create the kinds of main characters (MC’s) I could fall in love with. By a quarter of the way into each book, the main characters had failed to grip me.
So, of course, I began to think about what it takes to create MC’s that can grab readers within the first quarter of our books. What are the kinds of traits we can give our MC’s that make our readers fall in love with them right away?
Here are three key ways we can develop reader empathy for our MC’s early in our books:
1. Have them care about someone else.
All too often when we’re throwing our MC into the story’s initial conflict and tension (as we rightly should), we make that MC into a self-centered, whiny, poor-me kind of character. We heap bad things upon the character right away (and that’s good!), but in the process we can’t let those circumstances turn them into simpering saps who only care about themselves.
In order to avoid this trap, we can show our MC caring about someone else’s needs above his or her own. Even in the midst of a dire situation, they need to look beyond themselves and notice the plight of someone else who’s suffering. After all, in real life, we aren’t particularly drawn to people who only think about themselves. So why would we be in a story?
2. Have them do something heroic.
It may not be enough to have our character simply feel concern for someone. Yes, it’s a good first step. But if possible, we should have them act upon that compassion.
For example, in the Hunger Games, the author could have focused on Katniss and all of her troubles (which are numerous). We likely would have felt sorry for Katniss because of her hunger, poor living conditions, the loss of her father, etc.
But instead of making Katniss into a poor-me character, Katniss looks outside her own needs to those of her sister Primrose. But the empathy doesn't just stay in her head.She acts upon it over and over. Her compassion for her sister is the driving force behind most of what she does. Until finally, Katniss makes the ultimate heroic sacrifice by taking Primrose’s place in the Hunger Games.
When our characters are compassionate and acting sacrificially, we can’t help but fall in love with them. They grip our hearts. And the story moves us on a deeper level.
3. Bring out their strengths.
No one can empathize with a perfect person. Our characters need to have flaws. Even super heroes have faults that they must deal—pride, anger, false humility, etc. But amidst the problems that anyone person is struggling with, there is always something good in them.
It’s our job as storytellers to bring out that goodness, to show the inner strength of our MC. And even beyond that, we must make that strength larger than life. We need to make our MC into the kind of person we would aspire to be, not who we really are.
For example, in The Doctor’s Lady, my heroine is crossing the continent in a covered wagon. I’ve piled all the elements against her—heat, hunger, disease, fleas, raging rivers, lustful trappers, etc. If I’d been the one riding west, I would have whined and complained pretty much the whole time. And if I’d made the MC to react realistically, the way I would have, then my readers would have ended up disliking her for being so weak-willed.
Instead, I had to make her into the type of heroine readers could respect and admire. I had to focus on her strengths. Sure, she still whined at times, but overall, she handled the rigors of the trip heroically, and thus my readers were able to fall in love with her.
I like how Donald Maass describes developing characters in his book The Breakout Novel. He says: We read fiction not just to see ourselves but also to imagine ourselves as we might be . . . Characters in breakout fiction may seem realistic, even average, but they are bigger than their circumstances.
What about you? Have you fallen in love with a fictional character recently? What qualities did the character have that were especially gripping?