Monday, 4 February 2013

Forcing Readers To Like Characters: Recognition

So far in this series on how to force readers into an emotional relationship with the characters in a story we’ve looked at the various ways to create sympathy. 

Another technique is to create a character that the reader feels they recognise and relate to. Someone who’s dealing with things that strikes a chord with the reader’s own experiences

However, this does not mean the reader will only identify with characters who are similar to themselves. If that were true, every story would only have a very limited readership. And any story set in an unfamiliar world would be rejected immediately. Clearly that is not the case, so what is it that readers do identify with?

The general characteristics we all share are not particularly useful when trying to get readers to recognise themselves in a fictional character.  Eating, sleeping and passing gas—just because we all do those things doesn’t mean we are going to be drawn to a character who also does them.

Writers sometimes use those sorts of characteristics to evoke realism or to establish normality before things get crazy, which is fine, but those things don’t in themselves automatically establish a connection with the reader. We have those basic similarities with everyone on the planet, but we don’t find everyone interesting, and the same applies in books. You need more than that.

At the same time, just because somebody is going through an experience you have never experienced doesn’t mean you can’t relate to what they’re going through.  A story about a pregnant woman won’t just appeal to other women who have been pregnant. If it’s well written, anyone will be able to relate to it, including men and children and child-hating robots (it’s only a matter of time).

Obviously, pregnant women will recognise and relate to specific things the character goes through, but that doesn’t mean everyone else will be excluded from getting it.

If a story has multiple character, can you relate to more than one of them? If the characters are of different races, genders, social standings, can you identify with their experiences? Undoubtedly you can. But what specifically are you responding to?

At the most basic level, when characters find themselves in a difficult situation and have a quandary about what to do, we are interested in that. We have been in that situation, we have avoided that situation, we’ve never considered that situation—doesn’t matter. We want to see it play out.

This is where how you make your characters relatable splits into two distinct approaches.

We all have a part of us that wishes we could do amazing things that would make us special and revered. In real life we don’t often get the opportunity to do those things, and even when we do, they carry huge risks and long odds.

An example would be saving a child from a burning building.  We’d all like to do it, but in reality we’d be one of those people standing around watching (for the obvious reason that getting yourself killed isn’t going to help anyone).  But in fiction we want to see the person who acts morally or ethically, who takes care of others, tries to fight for justice, shows kindness, caring, generosity, and takes the risks we wouldn’t. In short, all those traits that are considered heroic.

We relate to this character, not because they are like us, but because they are how we would like to be.

It’s a weird, fake kind of relatability, but it’s one you can’t deny as existing. A lot of stories, certainly most of the million sellers, have this kind of character at their centre. Superheroes are based on this. Cool action movies are based on this. Mary Sues are based on this. Very cheesy romances are based on this. These sorts of wish fulfilment characters are very popular and readers relate to them even though they are far from being realistic.

The other approach is to have a character that doesn’t have the skills to do the job, but does it anyway. Why do they do it? Because they have no choice.

A guy outside a burning building with his kid trapped at an upstairs window and no sign of the fire truck is going to take a risk we ourselves would really take, and be as terrified doing it as we would be. 

And the main difference between these two types of characters is this. The first guy is probably going to succeed. He’s going to encounter difficulties, but he’s handled worse. The second guy is probably going to fail.  He’s going into the burning building not because he thinks, ‘I can do this’ but because he thinks, ‘I have no choice’. Even though he’ll probably end up succeeding (this is a story after all) he’s going in with a completely different mindset. One that most of us are far more familiar with. 

This is what readers relate to in a non-wish fulfilment character. First dealing with situations we’d rather avoid. Second, having to do so because we have no choice.

Once you understand this, any situation can become more relatable in ways that directly affect how the reader feels about the character.  If John goes to work by taking a bus, even though we have all taken a bus at some time, it doesn’t make John particularly relatable. If I stuff the bus full of unsavoury commuters and make the journey a nightmare, readers will identify with his situation even if they’ve never been on a bus in their lives.

Is it an unpleasant and difficult journey? I can certainly make it so. Could he have avoided it? Not if he wants to get to work on time. That’s all you need to do.

Readers will relate to that journey far more than they would to John sitting quietly at the back of the bus thinking about his backstory.

A documentary about childbirth is of interest to people who are curious about childbirth (probably quite a lot of people).

A story about a woman who is told her child will be born mentally handicapped and has to decide whether or not to have an abortion, that’s a story that will be of interest to everyone. It’s got nothing to do with politics or religion.

Is the character in a difficult position? Can she avoid dealing with it?

Even if you have very strong and definite views about what you would do in that position and what that character should do, or if you don’t care about this particular issue, as long as the story makes you see her predicament in the terms I’ve outlined above, readers will relate.

The ideas you choose to tackle will obviously have an effect on the reader. People are drawn/repelled by various subjects. Some people might refuse to read anything to do with abortion, others may avoid anything with dragons. Certainly, that is something to take into account, and has a lot to do with what you as the writer find appealing and interesting, and even what’s popular at a particular time, but that has very little to do with how and why readers identify with the characters in those stories.
The next post is the final part of this series (I know, I thought it would go on forever too) I'll be looking at how to evoke admiration for characters. And not just by using 'save the cat'.

If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Other posts in the series can be found here:

Sympathetic Characters Part 1: Danger

Sympathetic Characters Part 2: Suffering

Sympathetic Characters Part 3: Noble Souls 

Sympathetic Characters Part 4: Outcasts

Sympathetic Characters Part 5: Betrayal

Sympathetic Characters Part 6: Unfairness

And don't forget to check out the latest posts from other top bloggers at The Funnily Enough


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

So it all comes down to what we wish we had the strength to do and what we know we'd do if we had no choice. And both are a deep-seeded, emotional response.

mooderino said...

@Alex - Both can get a response, but one can turn into a cheese real quick.

Shawn Yankey said...

Great piece. You made a lot of very good and interesting points. I liked it!

mooderino said...

@Shawn - thanks!

L.G. Smith said...

I know people like to put down the Mary Sue, wish fulfillment stories, but if you think about it that's really what a lot of writers do when they write. They write about a character they wish they could be, like Luke Skywalker or Indiana Jones. Nothing wrong with that.

Jay Noel said...

As a reader, I want to see how a character gets out of a difficult situation. And we're all a little self-centered, so we pose the question: what would we do? It's fun to compare/contrast a character's reaction to being in a tough spot.

mooderino said...

@LG - Yes, but the writer should be aware of that and approach it accordingly. Luke Skywalker doesn't write poetry in the Millennium Falcon. Although that does give me an idea...

@Jay - I also think we like to see what not to do. If I ever see large eggs on an alien planet, no way am I cracking one open.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. What I thought you were leading to was empathising or identifying with a character as they struggle with a dilemma. In other words, the identifying comes not from whether they do what we would have done, or do what we would not have done - whether it is a good thing or a bad thing - but that we see that what they do is the result of a moral dilemma regardless of whether we agree with their choice. This is something we all deal with at the mundane level (I know this packaging is recyclable but I can't be bothered right now) to the not so mundane (I couldn't let him talk to her like that, so I stopped him) Thus, we can even identify with Hitler if we see that what he did was, from his point of view, forced upon him by circumstance and done for what he perceived to be a greater good, even as we are appalled by and utterly disagree with his reasoning. Where characters fail to engage us is when they act for good or bad without apparent dilemma but merely because it is in their nature to be good or evil. We cannot identify with such characters because no human being thinks like that.

Michael Offutt, Speculative Fiction Author said...

Introducing Pants, brought to you by "The Oatmeal."

I think this captures pretty much what you've described here.

"First off, the author creates a main character which is an empty shell. Her appearance isn't described in detail; that way, any female can slip into it and easily fantasize about being this person. I read 400 pages of that book and barely had any idea of what the main character looked like; as far as I was concerned she was a giant Lego brick. Appearance aside, her personality is portrayed as insecure, fumbling, and awkward - a combination anyone who ever went through puberty can relate to. By creating this "empty shell," the character becomes less of a person and more of something a female reader can put on and wear. Because I forgot her name (I think it was Barbara or Brando or something like that), I'm going to refer to her as "Pants" from here on out."

mooderino said...

@Colin - We do seem to be moving more towards more simplistic, almost juvenile characters as the YA thing becomes more dominant.

@Michael - some people need an empty vessel to crawl inside.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Moody, it is indeed difficult to make readers relate to our characters in one way or another. We can keep trying to make our characters more relatable (is that a word?)

E. Arroyo said...

Connecting with basic emotions--fear, love--connects us.

mooderino said...

@Rachna - I'm pretty sure it's a word. If not, quick, trademark it.

@E - Yes, but not all stories, and certainly not all scenes, are about those big, basic emotions. Finding a way to connect with smaller, more subtle emotions is where people often have problems.

nutschell said...

Awesome post, mood!And so true. I love books where I can relate to a main character and see my ideal self in him/her.


mooderino said...

@nutschell -cheers!

Anonymous said...

The YA thing is only dominant in YA fiction, which I loathe, not so much because of its crude limitations but for its pernicious dominance in the market. In lit fic and literary genre work the complex character is alive and well.


Shannon Lawrence said...

Interesting points, to be sure. Knowing what it is that attracts people to certain kinds of characters is more helpful than just knowing what kinds of characters we're attracted to. We identify with characters who have flaws, but can easily get irritated with them when they don't do something to overcome them in some way, though in real life we likely aren't overcoming our own, just wishing we were.

Shannon at The Warrior Muse

Jamie Gibbs said...

Great points - I'm with you that we read about the people who possess some quality that we wish we had in ourselves; someone we can aspire to be in a way. Not the overly done Mary Sue, but someone who you read about and say "Damn, I admire that guy's honesty" because it strikes a chord with you.

Jamie @ Mithril Wisdom

mooderino said...

@Colin - They'll be doing YA version of the Bible next. Jesus at 19...

@Shannon - very true. We hold fictional characters to far higher standards than ourselves.

@Jamie - Cheers.

Rusty Webb said...

I'm not sure what to think about this. Wish fulfillment - yes, I think that's pretty common. A better version of me right there on the page. I'd read that.

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