Connecting Readers & Characters

During a recent rewatch of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I found myself thinking a lot about what makes me connect to a character and how I can achieve that in my own writing.

In early drafts of PEARL, a beta said she just didn't care about Pearl. *Cue tears. I didn't understand, there was this poor girl, whose mother was absent at best, (believe me, it was worse), and who struggled with the turmoil caused by poor parenting and lifestyle choices. At first, I was crestfallen when I read the note "I don't connect", but after eating my weight in chocolate ice cream, doing some thinking, I unpacked what my beta meant.

Yes, she sympathized with Pearl because not doing so is like kicking a kitten. I mean, the mc's mother dragged her along for her rock and roll shit show, downfall, train wreck, et al. It was bad. She witnessed domestic violence, wasn't always sure where her next meal was coming from, and faced homelessness. You'd have to be heartless not to want the poor dear to get the heck out of that situation. But in fiction, it isn't enough to merely sympathize or care. Those are vital but aren't the only elements that are going to get a reader to the last page or if they do, they might not be fist-pumping satisfied when they reach the resolution.  

What was missing in that early draft was that Pearl wasn't necessarily likable. She was bland, taupe, her experience was mostly internal so the reader didn't get a feel for who she was aside from being a victim. They didn't see her in action. This is brilliantly achieved in Star Wars, the Force Awakens (I know, not a book, but Rey! Do you sympathize with her? Yes! Do you like her? Yes! Is that because you feel like you know her? Yes!)

We see Rey scavenging and struggling (sympathy), but then we see her kindness when she encounters BB8, her strength and determination when she interacts with Unkar Plutt on Jakku. Later, we see more of these qualities when she and Finn escape and holy-wookie, she knows how to fly the Millennium Falcon! Which makes her pretty badass. She's also sweet and funny. In a word, Rey is likable.

Confidence is key. Even if the story is one of transformation, like Pearl, where she goes through trials only later to emerge from her crappy life, there needs to at least be a glimmering of her inner girl power (or his). Like above, this can be seen through the main character having an amazing skill, making a difficult decision (choosing between what is right and what is easy), or not backing down from conflict. She can be sensitive and emotional, but in touch with her inner strength at the same time, even if it doesn't fully emerge until later. There need to be hints, at least. Note: not every character needs to necessarily have inner-Katniss fight. It can be quiet determination or we can see the character pushing boundaries or moving past her own comfort zones.

Now for the two A's: authenticity and accessibility. The character's qualities, speech, appearance, and actions, the whole tamale, has to be authentic, like a real three-dimension human being.

Why? Because that's what we want to experience when we're reading. We want to feel like we're deep in the protag's world, with them, or that we are them in some ways. It's ok for a character to be a hypocrite, to have flaws, and make poor decisions, but they have to be something he or she would genuinely do. Everything the mc does from page one until the end has to be authentic. It wouldn't have made sense for Rey to turn Finn in to the First Order after we saw her rescue BB8 from Teedo. But if she'd kicked the droid and demanded Teedo split the portions he got for trading him in for parts, well, that would be a different story, wouldn't it? We wouldn't be the least bit surprised if she turned Finn in. But of course that's not what happened and that's why we're rooting for her. The bottom line is the character must be true to themselves, (or if she makes a mistake, has to do everything in her power to make it right).

The other A is accessibility. I'm certainly not a pilot, and I'm not faced with fighting Kilo Ren, but I do know what it's like to long for something (in Rey's case, for her family to return), to make difficult decisions (food or integrity at the portions counter), and I prize my freedom (this one is pretty obvi). Rey may live in another galaxy, but she's accessible. We completely understand where she's coming from—there's a balance of her being fierce and being human (at least I think she's human; you never know with Star Wars).

What does this mean for PEARL? I had the sympathy piece dialed in. Beyond that, I knew the character, inside and out. I knew what she had for breakfast: a bagel, what she wore on her first day of school in third grade: a purple plaid dress, what she'd do when she found a lost dog: feed him, etc. But the reader didn't. During revisions, I shifted the internal reactions to external action, showing the reader that Pearl was likable. I gave her more agency, putting her into situations where she'd have to draw from her inner strength (or not and have to pick up the pieces later—another way to show strength is by going about it backwards and putting the mc through a trial.) I also brought more of her personality into play, thereby adding dimension and the two A's.

To recap, creating sympathy, making the protagonist likable, showing the character's inner strength, and making sure they're authentic and accessible are important components in creating a character worth rooting for.

What fictional characters do you love? How do you connect to the protagonist. What makes you fist pump the air and root for them? Please share below!

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