So how exactly do you make the reader care about a character? I’ve learned this one the hard way by failing many times. Many, many, many times.
In fact, one of the inspirations for the conflict in the Redeeming Grace Trilogy was the utter unlikability of the main love interest in a previous story (we’re looking at you, Gabriel.) Readers simply couldn’t decide if they loved him or hated him, so I decided to lean into it and make him as morally gray as I could manage.
So how do I go about writing a character people actually care about? There are a number of ways, but the biggest concept for me is that love, like respect, is earned. We need to spend time with that character, feel like we know them intimately, and that we have things in common with them. Grounding the character’s experience in physical sensation helps give us a basis of connection—we feel things too.
Then we need to make the character’s thoughts and emotions logical enough for the reader to understand them, even if they don’t agree with them all the time. That doesn’t necessarily mean explaining their thoughts constantly (a trap I used to fall into a lot) but it does mean either having experienced something similar (or doing some research into the psychology of similar situations, which I will go into more in the “motivation and psychology” section) so that we understand what the emotional responses would be and represent them accurately.
We also need to see the character as vulnerable in some way, either emotionally or physically. A reader of mine observed that I frequently put my love interests in situations that cause medical distress. Truthfully, I put almost every character in that situation at some point because it’s a shared human experience and one of the most vulnerable places we can be. When we see a character humbled in a relatable way, we feel empathy for them.
One of the hardest things to do, in my opinion, is to create three-dimensional side characters that the reader is invested in. This was the dilemma I faced while writing the climax of Visions of Fire.
I had to create a character and kill them in a single episode, and not only that, but we had to CARE that the character died. I knew it was a challenge, and to help overcome it I pulled every trick I could think of.
First, I made the character polite and respectful of other characters’ consent. If you’re going to make a morally gray character, they have to be long-running enough that we get mixed episodes. This guy had to be a Boy Scout.
Next, I placed him in relatable situations by having him flirt with the main character and later become ill (also part of the plot/death sequence). The main character expressed concern and compassion, modeling it for the reader, but since she just met him, like us it only went so deep.
Then I pulled the final card. I introduced someone who knew him well and really cared about him. It could have been a sibling, a parent, a child, anyone who knows the character well and would be upset if something happened to them. By watching that character, our reader now understands and feels the emotions of someone who is deeply connected to the new character. This activates memories of grief and loss from our own experiences and instantly the character’s death takes on the traumatic, painful quality I wanted.
The concept of empathy or love being modeled by another character works really well outside of dramatic death scenes, too. Anytime a character is put in danger, having their loved ones’ reaction to the crisis pulls in the reader and makes it feel real. Giving characters a social web allows the reader to see the emotional consequences of the main characters’ actions, adding another layer of depth to the story.