Connecting With Characters

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Connecting With Characters

Postby Down the well » 21 Feb 2011, 13:23

I'm curious to know what it takes for you to get invested in a character when you read. Is it a matter of identifying with the character or their struggle? Or do you look for someone to root for (or against)? Why do you care what happens to the main character in a novel? And do you feel that attachment right away, perhaps by page two, or does it take you a few chapters to decide?

I think I know right away if I want to spend time with a character for an entire novel, but I'm not sure how I know. It's one of those intangibles I haven't figured out yet, mostly because I don't think it's necessarily about likability.

What do you think? Do you have to like the character to like the novel?
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Re: Connecting With Characters

Postby sierramcconnell » 23 Feb 2011, 07:27

I read something once, a long time ago, that depending on the age group, people identify differently with characters. I wish I still had the link...

I think you do have to like at least one character in the novel to get through the entire novel. To follow that person to the end of their thread. Otherwise, there's no connection to the story, and nothing to tie you to it.

I think Neil Gaiman's writing comes to mind. American Gods. I only slightly liked it. Everyone else loves it I hear. But think of the characters. The main character wasn't all that 'alive'. They even make referrence to that in the book. So you don't really connect with him right off, but with the people he interacts with. (At least, I didn't, not until the end did I realize how much of a character he really was.)

So you have to connect with someone. A person that you identify with that will carry you through the book and be your avatar, so to speak, in that world. Your eyes and ears to the actions you're reading. You become that person for however long you're reading. If you don't, there's no feeling to the book, and it's not the escape you want. It's not a connection, and you don't want to read it. You don't feel the pull to read, and the author didn't do the magical job that they were intended to do. They failed. And the book isn't what it should be. It isn't a world within a cover that you can take refudge in.

Does that make sense?
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Re: Connecting With Characters

Postby Guardian » 23 Feb 2011, 07:47

sierramcconnell wrote:A person that you identify with that will carry you through the book and be your avatar, so to speak, in that world.

A small add-on; ... a person that you identify, but you don't have to identify yourself to be that character, but the MC can be familiar to someone that you know, a friend, family member, etc, etc... One good example is a German bestseller what I've read recently: Tommy Jaud - Vollidiot.

There, an ordinary guy, Simon Peters is the hero who was dumped by his girlfriend, hates his job, can't get any joy from the bank and his dream is to meet the woman of his dreams. Now, as an ordinary guy, I was capable to identify myself as Simon Peters as the writer writes down how we, guys used to think and act sometimes. But the essence; this novel was suggested to me by my ex-girlfriend, who also loved this book and she also was capable to connect to Simon Peters because she knew people who acted on the very same way as Peters did, or experienced the very same what she lived (i.e.: the famous IKEA experience in that novel.). So the MC doesn't have to be your personal avatar, but it can be a familiar face, a "friend" who is guiding you through the world and the actual storyline. So one way or another, the character must have realistic and believable traits.
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Re: Connecting With Characters

Postby sierramcconnell » 23 Feb 2011, 07:54

Guardian wrote:
sierramcconnell wrote:A person that you identify with that will carry you through the book and be your avatar, so to speak, in that world.

A small add-on; a person that you identify, but you don't have to identify yourself to be that character, but the MC can be familiar to someone that you know, a friend, family member, etc, etc... One good example is a German bestseller what I've read recently: Tommy Jaud - Vollidiot.

There, an ordinary guy, Simon Peters is the hero who was dumped by his girlfriend, hates his job, can't get any joy from the bank and his dream is to meet the woman of his dreams. Now, as an ordinary guy, I was capable to identify myself as Simon Peters as the writer writes down how we, guys used to think and act sometimes. But the essence; this novel was suggested to me by my ex-girlfriend, who also loved this book and she also was capable to connect to Simon Peters because she knew people who acted on the very same way as Peters did, or experienced the very same what she lived (i.e.: the famous IKEA experience in that novel.). So the MC doesn't have to be your personal avatar, but it can be a familiar face, a "friend" who is guiding you through the world and the actual storyline. So one way or another, the character must have realistic and believable traits.


Well, yeah. They don't have to be just like you, no. But they have to have something to draw you to them. Something familiar. I often identify with either a male or "someone who is not like everyone else who has been thrust into a sudden role" (ie. Nephilim, Angel, Faery and didn't know it all this time, omg! XD). Which obviously, I'm neither of those things. I think. It would be cool if I were something I didn't know I was all this time!

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Re: Connecting With Characters

Postby Down the well » 23 Feb 2011, 10:08

sierramcconnell wrote:
Guardian wrote:
sierramcconnell wrote:A person that you identify with that will carry you through the book and be your avatar, so to speak, in that world.

A small add-on; a person that you identify, but you don't have to identify yourself to be that character, but the MC can be familiar to someone that you know, a friend, family member, etc, etc... One good example is a German bestseller what I've read recently: Tommy Jaud - Vollidiot.

There, an ordinary guy, Simon Peters is the hero who was dumped by his girlfriend, hates his job, can't get any joy from the bank and his dream is to meet the woman of his dreams. Now, as an ordinary guy, I was capable to identify myself as Simon Peters as the writer writes down how we, guys used to think and act sometimes. But the essence; this novel was suggested to me by my ex-girlfriend, who also loved this book and she also was capable to connect to Simon Peters because she knew people who acted on the very same way as Peters did, or experienced the very same what she lived (i.e.: the famous IKEA experience in that novel.). So the MC doesn't have to be your personal avatar, but it can be a familiar face, a "friend" who is guiding you through the world and the actual storyline. So one way or another, the character must have realistic and believable traits.


Well, yeah. They don't have to be just like you, no. But they have to have something to draw you to them. Something familiar. I often identify with either a male or "someone who is not like everyone else who has been thrust into a sudden role" (ie. Nephilim, Angel, Faery and didn't know it all this time, omg! XD). Which obviously, I'm neither of those things. I think. It would be cool if I were something I didn't know I was all this time!

XD



This is basically what I was curious about. I don't personally have to identify with a character to enjoy the novel. I don't even have to like the main character, but I do have to connect to their situation. And even if I like the character that isn't necessarily enough to keep me engaged as a reader. I have to connect to the character as he/she acts within his/her unique environment.

A common refrain from beta readers and rejecting agents is that they "didn't connect to the character." I used to believe that meant the problem was the likability/lack of sympathy for the character. But I think it may have more to do with identifying with the situation or struggle that the character is facing and finding resonance in the way he/she reacts. Maybe I'm making a thin distinction, but it seems to me they might be slightly different.
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Re: Connecting With Characters

Postby Guardian » 23 Feb 2011, 10:16

Down the well wrote:A common refrain from beta readers and rejecting agents is that they "didn't connect to the character." I used to believe that meant the problem was the likability/lack of sympathy for the character. But I think it may have more to do with identifying with the situation or struggle that the character is facing and finding resonance in the way he/she reacts. Maybe I'm making a thin distinction, but it seems to me they might be slightly different.

This may happen by many reasons in my opinion. The lack of character development, the lack of sympathy, just as you mentioned, or simply because of the "matter of taste" factor. But taste can be changed with good character development or if you add simple, sympathetic or even unsympathetic realistic traits to the character.

The "I can't connect with the situation" is also used to come from few things; lack of development or over-development, a matter of taste or the worse case scenario, the lack of imagination (Unfortunately this is also an existing factor.). Sometimes when you get that the reader can't connect with something, always test that part with others. If others are also saying the same, rework that part. If just one is saying this, let's say... from ten or fifteen, leave that part as it is as in that case the problem is presumably not in your WIP, but in the reader.
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Re: Connecting With Characters

Postby sierramcconnell » 23 Feb 2011, 10:17

Down the well wrote:This is basically what I was curious about. I don't personally have to identify with a character to enjoy the novel. I don't even have to like the main character, but I do have to connect to their situation. And even if I like the character that isn't necessarily enough to keep me engaged as a reader. I have to connect to the character as he/she acts within his/her unique environment.

A common refrain from beta readers and rejecting agents is that they "didn't connect to the character." I used to believe that meant the problem was the likability/lack of sympathy for the character. But I think it may have more to do with identifying with the situation or struggle that the character is facing and finding resonance in the way he/she reacts. Maybe I'm making a thin distinction, but it seems to me they might be slightly different.


I think what they might be talking about, is that the character didn't seem "real enough", a common problem for writers no matter the level of ability. If you've not spent enough time in that character's head, or you don't know exactly what you're writing about, that character is as 2D as the pages you're writing on.

Say you have a character who you want to have the interests of knitting and gambling. But you've never done any of those. So you Google\Wiki it, and throw in a few things.

Nope. That isn't going to do it for you. You need to have the feeling for it. You need to actually try it. Read about it. Get the feel for it, so you can first hand describe what its like to curve the needles or roll the dice with a twist of the wrist and watch them fly like twin doves ready to offer you the peace you so desperately need.

It's a connection of emotion. Of feeling. Of needing to care about the character on a level that only humans and human-types can. A heart to heart sort of thing. Empathy.

Maybe what they meant to say is that your character just wasn't doing it for them. They just weren't that into them.

So you need to, like any good Match.com Ad, make them that much more available to everyone. Quirks. Personality traits. Things that make them likeable. Even if they're an evil guy, they can be likeable. Carmine, Azazel, Jibril...these are all some of my bad guys, but they are likeable because they have flaws.

Just throwing stuff out there. :)
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Re: Connecting With Characters

Postby Down the well » 23 Feb 2011, 10:40

Well, I actually wasn't talking specifically about my WIP, just talking in generalities, but now that you mention it I guess I did have one agent use that excuse for rejecting me, lol.

Subjectivity is of course a factor in anything to do with artistic expression. Making changes based on one opinion is probably not smart, but as you say if several people are of the same opinion then a change is likely needed. I have been in revision mode for the last month based on some other feedback, but it's always a good idea to make sure the main character is as fully developed as we hoped. Bad guys too. And I suppose the only real way to know if we are succeeding is to wait for a broad reader response. Good suggestions. Thanks.



Edit:

"It's a connection of emotion. Of feeling. Of needing to care about the character on a level that only humans and human-types can. A heart to heart sort of thing. Empathy." -- Sierra

Love that. That's what we're striving for isn't it? That connection.
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Re: Connecting With Characters

Postby Margo » 23 Feb 2011, 11:56

Down the well, have you read Fire in Fiction? If I recall correctly, the first several chapters are all about this.
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Re: Connecting With Characters

Postby Down the well » 23 Feb 2011, 12:51

Margo wrote:Down the well, have you read Fire in Fiction?


Oh my, yes. I read the book last spring and then went to the workshop. But your question prompted me to pull the book out again. Lo and behold, I found some old pages from my WIP tucked away in the back of the book that I had forgotten about. Reading them triggered an idea for a scene I'm re-working, so yahoo! for that. Also, as I skimmed through the first few chapters of FIF I did take notice of something: the word "impact." Maybe connection isn't just about the right character details and development, but also about the character's impact on the world they inhabit. If that doesn't resonate as meaningful on an emotional level for someone then they're probably not going to bond with the character or the story. That may be the thing I'm trying to put my finger on.

Yes, I realize everyone else is probably saying "duh" : )
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Re: Connecting With Characters

Postby sierramcconnell » 23 Feb 2011, 13:10

Granted also everytime you read a book, you get something different from it. At least, I do. Everytime I edit, I pick up something new. So I'm sure it works that way for readers. If it works that way for one person, I can't imagine a whole unit of people getting something different. Everyone is going to feel something, see something, resonate with something different everytime they read your book just a little differently than everyone else, including themselves.

Strange, isn't it? Because we're always changing.

WE CAN'T KEEP UP.

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Re: Connecting With Characters

Postby Fenris » 26 Feb 2011, 12:48

I'm glad Nathan linked to this in his post today, on just about the first free day I've had in weeks. Unfortunately...a lot of things I'd like to say have already been said.

And I wonder if that's a good thing. It shows that I'm not the only one kind of "in the middle" as far as caring about characters goes--"caring" is not limited to the good guys. As long as we can see, however temporarily, from their perspective, even the bad guys can inspire sympathy.

Think about it. The human race builds upon itself through socialization. The reason we feel good when we can "connect" with characters is because we realize we have something in common with them. They're our friends. Two-dimensional, text-based, and typically larger-than-life, but friends nonetheless. Even those who we would never consider being friends with in real life we can still feel pity for, and that connection brings us closer to them. We understand them, at least in part, and that's the first step to caring about them.

That connection is absolutely necessary, but the wonderful thing about it is the multitude of ways in which it can be established. All we have to do is show they're human, and *bam*--it has begun. Now, we can't just leave it there, of course, because we need truly well-rounded characters to be effective.

I have to agree with Guardian, in that connecting to the characters and connecting to their plight are two different things. However, firmly establishing one and not the other can actually be counterproductive. For example, I'll use his example of false reactions. If a character doesn't react to certain stimuli in the way we'd expect, it can be jarring. Perhaps it is simply who they are (for example, a scientist reacting to a deadly chemical reaction with awe rather than fear), but if it isn't, there's a problem. A character who is usually fiery will not suddenly react calmly to a challenge. A calm savant will not explode with anger.

Sorry for the wall of text. I hope I didn't diverge too much.
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Re: Connecting With Characters

Postby PR Griffin » 28 Feb 2011, 03:27

I think in order to identify and be gripped by characters I need to feel emotional investment. The author has to speak to me through their trials and tribulations, but: I don't want slapped on OTT emotional fluff. William Trevor is a master of revealing investment in increments. Tiny slices of humanity through actions and words. This is what grips me about a writer and about their characters. Why care about someones heartache if the writer has not bothered to invest in them over the build up to their trial?

WHat makes a good character? Investment and what makes a good investment? Time. Being beguilled by the pages takes skill, especially in todays frenetic styles. Subtle quirks (the narrators voice for instance) help guide us to dislike or like the character.

Take Steinbeck's East of Eden, How do we feel about Adam compared to say, Charles. Adam is the reactionary character, Charles the younger hot head eager for affirmation. All parts of us yet we react differently to each. Good characters like Cathy (not good in behaviour but in the sense we remember them all the same) Trask, are hard to conjure without resorting to cliche.

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Re: Connecting With Characters

Postby polymath » 08 Mar 2011, 10:23

Down the well,

I feel a connection with you because we share a writing struggle. It's empathy more than sympathy from wanting to walk a mile in your shoes due to that connection. I find you likeable because of that connection. I want to be you for a time, give you advice, help you through problems, and cheer for you, commiserate with you, pity and fear for you, which pity and fear are the sympathy part of empathy.

There's conflict, voice with attitude, and subtext in your posts, plus causation, tension, and antagonism. The narrative distance isn't particularly close, though, because I don't have a clear sense of your setting, nor of your character traits, nor of a full appreciation of your larger struggles in life. My imagination projects an image of a vague person shape sitting at a neat desk typing on a PC in a clean, well lighted place. That image of your work place is probably grossly inaccurate though. My imagination defaults to a white room syndrome and white statue because I lack for setting and character details.

Narrative openings acquaint readers with all the above, mostly with an empathy-worthy likeable character in a conflict, meaning a clash of forces and/or persons, especially persons who are clashing forces. How's it done plagues me too.

My best answer is by introducing a character with an emerging struggle, as you note. I recently determined a formula that's fairly universal in the published works I read. Present a circumstance that's causal, then report a viewpoint character reaction. Like show a setting detail, say a visual sensation which causes a thought with an attitude. Set in train a cause-effect, action-reaction sequence with a logical flow. Add on pitiable and fearful circumstances, pose dramatic questions. Build complication and antagonism. Seems like a lot to do in a short span of a narrative's opening; however, rushing it is as problematic as missing critical details.

An example, not super engaging, yet on point;

A red tricycle rolled downhill on a headlong course. Mary guessed the Finstein boy was loose in the street again. Sure enough, here he came, barefoot and full bore running after the damn trike. The trike jumped the curb and plowed into the pond. The Finstein boy tumbling in right after it.

A little too much rushed summary in the last two sentences, though, yet, in all, with attitude, Mary's.

Other opening types start with an overt narrator's attitude. Like the opening of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. An overt narrator opening allows for readers' engagement with a narrator's persona somewhat removed from the setting rather than a viewpoint character in the immediate time, place, and situation of an unfolding scene. Narrative distance is more open, but can close up soon enough, and vary as circumstances dictate. Which Jane Austen's novel does.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

"However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters." Project Gutenberg edition.

Attitude, subtext, conflict, causing close narrative distance with the narrator. Then the narrative closes in to the scene.

"'My dear Mr. Bennet,' said his lady to him one day, 'have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?'

"Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

"'But it is,' returned she; 'for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.'

"Mr. Bennet made no answer.

"'Do you not want to know who has taken it?' cried his wife impatiently.

"'You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.'

This was invitation enough.

"'Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it, that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week."

The scene echoes the point of the narrator's opening commentary and fills in specific details. Still, it's got attitude, subtext, and conflict and closes narrative distance.
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