How To Make
Readers Root for your Characters
by Jason Black
Experienced writers know
how critical it is for readers to get behind our protagonists.
Sure, we want readers to like and empathize with our protagonists,
but more than that we need readers to be rooting for them. We want
readers cheering our protagonistsí successes and lamenting their
Whether a reader will root
for the protagonist depends almost entirely on the protagonistís
actions, or lack thereof. Thus, those actions also control whether
readers keep turning pages or whether they put the book down because
thereís something more exciting on the home shopping channel.
Readers wonít root for a
character that doesnít do anything. Think about your favorite
characters from books or films. Do they sit around watching the
action, or do they participate in it? Do they timidly shy away from
anything that might get them in trouble, or do they take risks in an
outright attempt to affect the outcome of the action?
If you have a character
that isnít coming to life the way you want, ask yourself whether
they are active enough. Are they taking risks? Are they attempting
to influence the outcome of events? They donít have to succeed in
these attemptsófailure is often more dramatically interesting
anywayóbut we must at least see them try.
Take a look at the scenes
where your problem characters appear, and look for ways to make them
more active. Letís imagine we have a protagonist named Danny, and
the scene in question is a school play. Here are three questions we
can ask to help find good ways to make Danny more active in the
What is the characterís goal?
Regardless of what your goal for the scene may be with respect to
the larger plot, ask yourself what the characterís goal is. What is
there in the scene that the character cares deeply about? How does
the character hope the scene ends? Now make the character do
something he believes will create that ending.
For instance, perhaps
Dannyís goal is to avoid embarrassment. Maybe Danny has a bit part
in act three, where he only has to deliver two lines of dialogue,
but sadly, he has failed to learn his lines. He is desperate for to
avoid not only the on-stage embarrassment, but also the later
playground humiliation of getting teased for not being able to learn
two simple lines of dialogue. Worse, perhaps Danny couldnít learn
the lines because he is secretly dyslexic. He is very self-conscious
about it, and canít stand the thought that people might find out.
His goal is clear: donít go out on stage. His action? How about
pulling the fire alarm at the end of act two?
Where is the character?
Within the setting, where is the character physically located? You
may simply have stationed the character too far from the action. A
simple shift of location may be all you need to prompt an action.
Draw a map of the scene and consider what the character could do if
he was stationed at different spots. If other characters are slated
to cause some mayhem later in the scene, position your protagonist
Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009
naturally be caught in the middle, or at least such that heíll be
able to participate readily. And yes, actually draw the map. Donít
just imagine it. The act of drawing the map will force you to see
and consider places your existing preconceptions about the scene
will hide from you.
For instance, perhaps
instead of the previous scenario Danny is a stagehand in the school
play, not a reluctant actor. So rather than waiting in the wings,
letís put him backstage, busy making the right things happen with
the set at the right time. During a scripted fight scene on the
stage, a mock punch accidentally makes contact, and the two actors
get into a no-holds-barred tussle. What props does Danny have at
hand that he could use to break up the fight? How about a bucket of
fake snow thatís supposed to be for a later point in the play?
Danny rushes onstage to dump it on the two brawlers, much to the
amusement of the crowd.
What are the characterís inner drives?
Examine the characterís likes and dislikes. What are his
interests? What are his morals and values? Somewhere in the scene
you can likely find or create something that resonates with one of
those deep motivations.
For instance, perhaps
Danny is a deeply loyal person. Now weíll put him in the audience,
watching his older sister play the female lead, opposite the school
bully as the male lead. The two have a kissing scene at the playís
climax. Itís supposed to be a demure and chaste kiss, but on
opening night the bully makes it a real kiss. Danny can see his
sisterís shock and revulsion, and is overcome with one single
thought: Defend his sisterís honor. Danny leaps out of his seat,
runs up onto the stage, and tackles the bully.
Note that actions based on
inner drives are also excellent opportunities to show the
characterís fundamental values and skills in action. Add a few such
actions early in the novel so that when you use them later in
situations that are critical to the plot, the reader will be primed
to accept and believe them: After seeing Danny tackle the school
bully on stage in front of everyone, readers will certainly believe
it later when they see him take another extreme action motivated out
Readers want to root for
our characters. Help them do thatóand help them keep turning those
pagesóby making your protagonists active in every scene.
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Jason Black is a freelance
book editor who actively blogs about character development. He
recently appeared as a book doctor at the 2009 PNWA Summer Writers
Conference. To learn more about Jason, visit his website at