Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Identification, please


As a writer what you want is for the reader to be absorbed into your story so they think, ‘Just this chapter and then I’ll go to sleep’ but when they get to the end of the chapter... they’ve got to keep reading.

What you want is for the reader to lose sense of time and place and be immersed in the fictional world you’ve created.

What you want is for the reader to identify with your protagonist so his adventure is their adventure.

So how do you do that?


Every reader is able to identify with all sorts of characters in all sorts of books. Characters who vary in how they look, what they believe, from different places in history and fantasy, and yet they have something in common, something every reader of whatever background can relate to and get caught up in.

In order for the reader to identify with the main character you don’t require similarity of background or beliefs or have to in some way create a character that the reader will see a lot of themselves in or wish to be like. A big macho man can read a story about a frail pregnant woman and identify with her struggles.

Identifying with a character doesn’t mean wanting to be them, it mean the character has a goal and the reader wants them to achieve that goal. If the reader supports them in their mission, whether it’s robbing a bank or making a sandwich, it will keep the reader reading.

It’s identifying with the goal that makes you identify with the character.

The goal doesn’t have to be something you would like to achieve in real life, it’s got nothing to do with you. It’s your ability to be interested in the specific details of others that is ingrained in every human. What’s he got? Where did she find that? Why did she choose him?

Those things that are unique to a person, specific to their needs, are the things we relate to most strongly and that feel universal. I realise the stories of people who want what everyone wants should logically feel most easy to identify with, but it’s only when you personalise those stories that they become captivating.

Exactly what it is the character is after and whether it will be considered a worthwhile story goal is a matter of personal judgement on the part of the writer. But whatever it is, that’s where you will engage the reader and where you should look to make sure you have the reader’s attention. The rest is up to you.

Different markets have different interests. Some readers are so keen to identify with a particular goal (romance readers with finding love, thriller readers with saving the world/girl, fantasy readers with heroic deeds etc.) that the writing and plotting can be quite pedestrian and still be best sellers. But generally speaking clichéd goals, obvious outcomes, trivial and mundane aspirations and casual desires will be easier to ignore and fail to connect with.

There are some people who think character is king and if you like the character it won’t matter what they get up to, but my feeling is if you happen to have a great character why not give them something interesting to do?

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25 comments:

E.R. King said...

I wish I were on Twitter, I'd tweet about this. You are right about rooting for the character. If you don't care what happens to them, you won't read on. Well said!

JJ Roa Rodriguez said...

You really are a help to me..

Taking down notes here.

JJRod'z

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That makes sense - it needs to be an interesting character and an identifiable goal.

Heath said...

Well-said. The character doesn't have to be heroic or even likeable, but there needs to be something about him/her that the reader relates to in some way. Otherwise, why should they give a damn when you put the character through his paces?

Abby said...

This is great. When you are rooting for the character you just don't want to put the book down. I love books that keep me turning the pages! This is a great article. :)

Anonymous said...

I think you hit the nail on the head by writing that, in order to create an identifiable character, you need to have a character with an indentifiable goal. I think this has been a weakness in my own writing - failing to clearly identify what my characters' goals are.
Kim Karras
kimkarras.blogspot.com

Alleged Author said...

I agree with this post. It's hard to root for a character if you can't identify the goal you're rooting for in the first place. Great post!

Sarah Pearson said...

I've read books where the aim is something huge like saving the world. I don't care. Show me how destroying the world will affect that one ordinary bloke, make me watch him struggle. Get me to care about him and I'm hooked.

PaulaSJwriter said...

To me as to you, Mooderino, there's no story without the characters.The plot has to be believable and involving, the action has to feel real, and (especially in SF and F) the internal logic has to hold together. But none of that is worth the writing without good characters to make you care about the what happens.

Lorena said...

I sort-of agree with this, Mood. Except that I recently read a book ("A Reliable Wife") where I didn't identify with the mc's goal at all (she wanted to poison her new husband to inherit his fortune.) Yet, I was totally hooked with this book because I NEEDED to know if she would succeed in killing him or not. Particularly because at the beginning it was unclear what her plan was and why she wanted to do it (it wasn't only the money.) So I would say that goal identification is one of the ways to hook the reader, but another way could be to have a big question throughout the novel. This is why, IMO, "ethical" dramas (a la Jodi Picoult) and mysteries do so well.

Crystal said...

Here's how I do it: Lots of tension, cliff-hangers, characters that aren't perfect, and the odd credible surprise or two! :-)

Donna K. Weaver said...

"It’s identifying with the goal that makes you identify with the character."

I like this. I also agree with your last statement, and perhaps that goes back to the one I quote above. If I like a character's goal, but I loathe the manner in which the character seeks to achieve it, I won't be able to identify with the character.

Michael Offutt said...

George R.R. Martin keeps me reading by cliffhanging every chapter. He can do that because he has a dozen characters and rotates through them all so that each one has some kind of cliffhanger per chapter and it doesn't seem cheesy because he spaces them out with 10 other events going on with 10 other people. If you were to read one point-of-view character all the way through, I think it would look cheesy because all the drama in one character's life would pull you out of suspension of disbelief.

Ben said...

I agree, whenever I was really engrossed by a book (during the last year, main example was Dennis Lehane's Kenzie books) I kept imagining myself in his situations and playing my reactions before reading it. That's exactly when fiction is at its best.

John Wiswell said...

The motivation to read on varies wildly from book to book. Mere prose style, like what Michael Chabon displays in The Yiddish Policeman's Union, can draw me into a world every bit as much as the meticulous world-building in Patrick Rothfuss's Name of the Wind or the endearing character progression of Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword. In regards to your conclusion, that if you have an interesting character you ought to give them something interesting to do - well, yes. But I doubt it's a conscious choice not to. Typically it just requires the appropriate degree of reflection on the work.

Nosmo King said...

Great article. I have always thought of this as 'creating stereo-type characters (which helps the reader relate) and then defying that stereo-type to keep the readers interest.'

You talk about writing a good page turner that people don't want to put down. I wonder, however, what goes it to writing a novel that, once read, will be picked up and read again and again? Do people even write books like that anymore? A cult-classic, an enduring work of art that is timeless, that immortalizes the author, i.e. 'The Lord of the Rings' or 'Moby Dick'.

mooderino said...

@ER-i don't know how you managed to avoid being sucked into twitter, but well done.

@JJ-glad to be of help.

@Alex-the identifiable goal should help make the character interesting.

@Heath-it's the general advice I see about making characters likeable that led to me writing this post. Many of my favourite characters are far from likeable, but they're definitely interesting.

@Abby-cheers.

@Kim-I think a lot of writers shy away from making the character's goal clear because then the story's shortcomings may become obvious. Eventually they will becomes apparent anyway, so might as well sort it out sooner than later.

mooderino said...

@AA-and also if the goal is too easy to get hold of.

@Sarah-scale is one way to bumrush the reader (and often it works) but I agree, it's how it affects that one person that makes all the difference.

@Paula-I think they go hand in hand. Characters are made interesting by what they do. And how they do it.

@Lorena-I'm not saying the reader should be literally supportive of the character's goals, I'm not keen on mad men chasing big white whale's, but I think the reader needs to believe the character would do whatever it is they're doing, and then want to know whether they managed it. And whether they admit it or not, they will want the character to succeed in getting very close to the goal, although the actual climax may not be successful. It's that wanting the character to forge ahead that takes the reader along the journey, I think.

mooderino said...

@Crystal-you make it sound so easy...

@Donna-yes, it's what they do that makes it interesting. If it's too easy, or silly, or unbelievable (even if it's a true story!) it won't work.

@Michael-of course, some people have been known to abuse cliffhangers, sometimes keeping readers waiting for years. No names.

@Ben-I think sometimes it's about being the character, if s/he's cool, sexy etc., but that's a kind of wish fulfillment. The best writing focuses on the events.

@John-I agree that usually it isn't a conscious choice not to have something interesting going on, but once it's been pointed out often it becomes a conscious excuse not to rewrite it. That's when I hear the 'Interesting characters can do whatever they want' argument a lot.

@Nosmo-it's alway easier to see the classics once history has helped clear away some of the flotsam. Maybe 50 years from now the dust will have settled and the really good books will emerge. I hope so anyway.

Great comments, many thanks.

Stephen Tremp said...

Readers need to form an affinity with the characters, otherwise they will not care if they live or die. I like to make my characters start off a bit arrogant, then something happens to humble them, then they can begin to arise from the ashes and overcome a monumental challenge, usually with the help of their friends. People can identify with this. Makes the characters human and fallible, just like them.

Madeleine said...

Yes identification is important.
I want my story to linger in the reader's thoughts when they put the book down to sleep or do other things, for them to savour the words and ideas and want more even if they have to stop reading for something else. I want them to look forward to coming back to my book rather than slogging through it wishing they were reading something else instead.

Suze said...

'Maybe 50 years from now the dust will have settled and the really good books will emerge.'

Oh, to be in that pile ...

Juliana L. Brandt said...

I've heard that all characters have to have ingrained goals, such as survival and love. It needs to be instinctual because every human being will understand it.

Great reminder, Moody :)

mooderino said...

@Stephen-perfect characters who are good at everything usually tend to be annoying. Although there are a fair number of super spy/detective characters who people love. I htink it comes down to what you give them to do.

@Madeleine-couldn't agree more.

@Suze-indupitably.

@Juliana-cheers!

Charmaine Clancy said...

Absolutely! We need to care what happens to the characters even if we don't like the characters. In UNWIND something nasty was happening to a rather unlikable character, I was so immersed in the story I kept pushing the book aside hoping to stop it from happening!
Great post.
Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

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