Making the reader care about your character: In praise of a light touch (and video games)

Your reader needs to care about your character. Period. The end.

They don’t need to necessarily like your character, or think they’re a good person, but they need to care. They need to have some reason they’re going to follow this character on their journey. Usually writers achieve this through undeserved misfortune. We see a character suffering when they did nothing to earn it, and we instantly feel sorry for them.

But undeserved misfortune, while an excellent start, isn’t enough. We don’t want to just feel sorry for the character. As the novel goes on, we want to connect with them. And for that, I’m in favor of the little moments. Those points that remind us how human and vulnerable they are (even if they’re not technically human). I like a light touch, subtle moments that draw me in.

When I think of moments like this, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t a novel, though there are many that do this quite well. It’s actually a video game, Bioshock Infinite. I’m not an avid gamer, but Infinite is one of the best games I’ve ever seen or played. And I love it because of the characters. That’s not something you hear a lot. Generally, when a person is picking out a game, their question isn’t, “Does it have well-developed characters?” but rather, “Are there cool powers, and how efficient are those powers at making things dead?”

And granted, Infinite has cool powers and violence in spades. But I love it because the story is amazing and the characters are unbelievably real, even though their circumstances are outlandish. There’s a scene from the game that I particularly love, a scene that, while not particularly important, shows both characters in a moment of vulnerability, of being utterly and completely human.

Before I show you the scene, I’ll recap what happens before that, if you haven’t played the game. It’s from fairly early on. The main character, and the one you control, is Booker DeWitt, a private investigator who’s been sent to the mysterious floating city of Columbia to kidnap a girl, Elizabeth, the other main character. His clients are unknown to us, but Booker owes them a lot of money, and if he brings them Elizabeth his debts will be nullified. He finds that Elizabeth’s been held in a tower most of her life, and convinces her to go with him under the guise of rescuing her. Almost right away, though, he cares for her as more than a means to an end, given that in addition to being trapped in a tower, she’s been experimented on in obviously disturbing ways.

The two of them try to leave the city, but the city’s president and “prophet,” Comstock, won’t let that happen. He’s somehow predicted Booker’s arrival in Columbia by telling his citizens that a “false shepherd” will come to lead the city’s savior, Elizabeth, astray. Booker’s “false shepherd” persona is portrayed in advertisements around the city as an outlandishly evil figure, either depicted as a sinister amorphous blob or a figure in a black hooded cloak, while Elizabeth is portrayed as completely innocent, usually a small lamb. It’s obvious what Comstock and his citizens think Booker’s relationship to Elizabeth will be when he arrives: he’ll either seduce her with false promises or be outright menacing and threatening to her. But neither is what ends up happening.

Onto the clip. This takes place a few in-game hours after you’ve rescued Elizabeth.

For those of you with the inability to watch it: While Elizabeth and Booker are trapped in a malfunctioning elevator, Elizabeth freaks out because a bee has gotten in. Booker tells her to kill it, but Elizabeth protests, saying that it will sting her. She decides instead to use her special power to get rid of it, but it doesn’t quite go as planned, and they almost get attacked.

What happens in this short scene isn’t particularly noteworthy in terms of story development. We learn that Elizabeth has mysterious powers, but we already sort of knew that. But it’s pretty damn important in terms of character development.

My favorite moment though, is just one word. When Booker, exasperated that she won’t kill the bee, just says, “Elizabeth!” I love everything about it. I love how despite the fact that you never see Booker’s face or the way he holds himself, you know exactly what he looks like and how he stands when he says it. He’s probably slumped over. He’s tired. He’s frustrated. I love the sense of familiarity, how we can tell that he cares about Elizabeth even though they’ve only known each other for a few hours. I love how it swiftly eliminates Booker’s image as the “false shepherd,” making him more than just a generic evil man in a black cloak, but it also makes it clear he’s no knight in shining armor. We get all that from just one word.

The scene in general is so great. It shows us that despite his streetwise skills, Booker is capable of real fear and vulnerability. And it shows up so much about Elizabeth, how though she’s probably not evil, she’s far from an innocent lamb; she has an unbelievable power, but she doesn’t know why and she can’t understand the consequences of using it until it’s too late. But still, in this scene, I fall for her as a character. She knows very well they’re about to face enemies way more powerful and scary than a simple bee, but in that moment, she can’t hide her fear and overreaction. And how many of us can relate to that? This scene is where I most connect to both of them, because it’s quiet and allows them room to breathe as characters, to grow for the brief moment they’re not facing an onslaught of enemies.

Undeserved misfortune is great (from a writing perspective). Elizabeth, obviously, has plenty. Booker’s an asshole with sometimes bad intentions, but it’s made clear that something terrible happened to him that caused him to go into debt. But neither of those things would make me care throughout the story if I didn’t also have moments like this. Moments where I get to see them interacting and being ridiculously human. We know our characters can’t be exactly like real people, but they need to be pretty close. Booker and Elizabeth know that they’re about to face things way worse than the bee. But just like a lot of real people would, when faced with a tiny yet difficult problem, they can still overreact. They can still make us fall in love with them even though they’re capable of doing awful and dangerous things, sometimes with no regard for the consequences.

So, what can we do as writers to insert these moments in our writing? How can we make our characters more than sufferers of their own fate? How can we make the reader love them when they’re at their worst? And how can we make them human?

The Two Sides to Torturing Your Characters

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been told this a fair amount. That I’m being too easy on my protagonists. That I’m not beating the weight of the world into them enough.

It’s good advice. It really is. People who aren’t writers might not realize how difficult it is, once you have a fully formed character who you want to follow through a whole novel, to then take that character and CRUSH THEM. It’s hard. It’s so hard we might tell ourselves, “No, you’ve suffered enough. I’ll ease up on you,” when really, they haven’t suffered nearly enough.

Why do they have to suffer? Oh, you know, the usual reasons. Because when a character isn’t challenged or put in danger the story has no tension. No drama. There’s no story at all, when everything goes great for the character all the time.

Assuming you’ve created a character we love and care about, making them suffer is part of the deal. We don’t want to see them in pain, but we want to see what they’ll do in response, how they’ll get themselves out.

But there’s another factor that, though I may have unconsciously known about it already, I didn’t really consider outright until recently.

I’ve been working on my novel for awhile. And for most of that while, there was something about it that just wasn’t quite working. Okay, multiple somethings. But there was one big thing that I needed in order to make the story compelling. My protagonist had to save another character. And obviously there needed to be obstacles in her way. But what should they be? Well, it’s a fantasy, so why not just throw in some riddles, some swords, some growling monsters, and voila! Right?

Well, not quite. There was still an element that was making it feel generic, and I couldn’t figure out how to pull myself out. That’s when I showed it to a friend, who asked me a simple question that changed everything:

What does your character fear?

It was one of those smack-on-the-head moments for me. What does she fear?

When I learned what my character feared, I knew how her story would go. Before, she was wandering aimlessly. Now, she had real obstacles.

Because here’s the thing. A challenge needs to be more than just a challenge. If I put a sword in my character’s hand and told her to go fight a dragon, well, that’d be difficult for her, but it wouldn’t be tied to the story, or who she was. It would just be a random difficult thing that she has to do.

But when I realize that what she fears most is her memories, and saving the day involves forcing her to confront those memories, well, then I’m getting warmer.

Think about Harry Potter. What does he fear? Losing the two most important people in his life, Ron and Hermione. Not having them when he needs them the most. What does he have to do in the final battle to get the Philosopher’s Stone? Fight without them. Not only does he have to fight without them, he has to leave them at the very last second, enter the last room seconds after he was with them. You feel his pain, his fear that he’ll never see them again. You’re not sure if he can do it alone, because he’s not sure if he can do it alone.

He’s not going alone because some random wizard decreed it, mind you; there needs to be a good reason besides “it’ll be good for you to face your fears.” But when you find your character’s fear, and when you find a compelling reason to put them in the face of that fear, then you’re making the reader care more than if you just gave them a sword and told them to fight a dragon.

Some of you might be saying, “Well, duh!” but maybe not. Maybe one of you is reading this and is thinking about this in a different way for the first time. I know I wish I’d been actively aware of this a lot sooner. I think I always knew it, on some level. I just couldn’t figure out how to translate it to my own writing.

So, what does your character fear? Are you putting up obstacles that force them to deal with it? Are there good reasons to have these obstacles that make sense within the context of your story?

It’s not enough to torture your characters. You need to tailor the torture so that when he enters that chamber alone, I know exactly why that’s so terrifying, so I feel scared right along with him.