So you finished the newest draft of your story.
You’re feeling good, you brilliant draft-finisher, you! Excited, you hand your draft out to your friends--the ones that won’t sugar-coat their critiques just cause you’re homies. Now, you wait for their notes; and, in your head, you’re double-checking everything in the story.
Your plot is solid, no logic gaps anywhere.
Character? Well, damn, your characters are the bomb-diggity.
And that twist in the end? Dude, your readers will be chanting your name for millennia to come.
A couple of weeks later, you get your feedback. You clear out your whole day just to nerd-out over those notes. Then, you start to notice a pattern emerge.
“Your plot is well-structured, but I’m not sure about your protag.”
“You did a great job with worldbuilding, I really felt submerged into the politics and food lore. But, your characters aren’t that approachable.”
“Yo, dog, your ensemble is wack, yo!”
Being the smart cookie that you are, you realize, between bites of that delicious chocolate chip cookie, that maybe your main character needs a little more love.
How do you develop a connection between your characters and your audience?
Answer: Rooting Interest.
What is Rooting Interest?
Rooting Interest is a fancy term for why we, as the audience, should care about your characters. Why should we fear for them? Root for them? Want to protect them and want them to accomplish their goal?!
To put it another way, why should we, the audience, walk, run, cry, laugh, get pissed off and live in their shoes for the length of the story?
“Uh, cause my protag is the bees knees, man!”
Well, that may be true, but your audience and readers won’t be able to appreciate and love your characters, see them, the way you do if they don’t first care about them!
Why don’t the audience care about the characters?
Before we get into how to connect your audience to your characters, let’s quickly talk about the number one mistake that writers make that keeps your audience from doing just that!
Here is something that you girls and boys may already know:
Act one, or, at the very least, the first few minutes when we are first introduced to your characters, we, the audience, have to see your characters’ ‘day in the life’ phase of the story.
We have to see them as they are. Before the trials and tribulations; before the romance; before the loss; before the betrayals, disappointments and fart jokes! (Maybe not the fart jokes, specifically).
Simply put: We have to know and care for the characters before the real story starts!
The mistake that writers make, even veteran ones, is that they throw their characters into every emotional plot point, every revelation and twist, and every gosh-darn life-threatening action set-piece before they make us care about said characters.
If we were to see Bane break Batman’s back before ever knowing anything about Bruce Wayne, we would probably go from “Holy shit, Alfred!” to “Oh, snap…crackle and pop!”
So, again, first we care for the characters, then the story can start.
How to develop Rooting Interest for your characters?
There are several ways, but, the two most effective ways concern the characters’: Aim and Relatability.
First off, a character’s Aim.
By Aim, I mean: Their goal.
What is their goal? Their want? Their drive? What are they after? What is the one thing that they will spend the story trying to get? The person, title, reward, etc… that they are willing to struggle for? What is their goal?
Side-note: A character’s Aim can absolutely change as the story progresses, but this usually happens as a result of the character’s failure to achieve their original goal and/or realize something about themselves that makes them choose to change their original goal.
Okay, so, back to your characters’ Aim.
Aim is the first thing you should know about each one of your characters, because, from there, you can make sure your characters’ goals possess the elements required for an Aim the audience can care about.
Character Aim element number one, and this goes for all your characters: your character’s Aim has to be bigger than they are.
Their goal has to be noble, genuine, courageous, selfless, and all those other inspirational qualities one finds in a role model...or Oprah.
Character Aim element number two: your character’s Aim must involve others.
Their goal can’t just be for their own sake. Achieving it shouldn’t just be beneficial for them. Others should benefit from your character achieving their Aim; be it in a big, direct way, or in a small, we crossed-paths-on-my-adventure and I helped you out kinda way.
In Kung Fu Panda, Po has always wanted to learn Kung Fu, train with Master Shifu and be part of the Five. By being given the chance to become the Dragon Warrior, he not only gets to realize his dream, but also have the honor to protect his home and the...uh...animal people in it.
In Spider-Man Homecoming, Toomes, aka The Vulture, wants to steal all of Stark’s tech and the Avengers’ goodies. Yes, this would make him a more capable villain and be better able to stick it to Stark for what he’d done to Toomes; but, it would also allow Toomes to better provide for his wife and daughter.
So, as you can see, both your heroes and villains can possess these elements; and, at least in my opinion, they should. Otherwise, your audience will be hard-pressed to connect with them. And you don’t want your audience to work to connect with your characters; that’s kinda sorta your job.
The Aim of your character should be beyond selfish human desires. Everybody wants sex, everybody wants money, everybody wants to eat cake and pizza all the time and not get fat. (#StuffedCrustLyfe)
But it’s the characters that put others before themselves, that put higher ideals before themselves, are the ones that we, on a visceral level, relate to the most.
The second element, after you consider your characters’ Aim, is their Relatability.
Relatability is divided into three sections:
Humanizing Your Character,
Unjust Circumstance, and,
Those phases build on and work with one another.
First off: Humanizing Your Character.
This one is actually quite simple to pull off.
Does your character have/care for a pet like you, me, and that weird cat lady down the street?
Does your character care for her sick, ol’ granny or little cousins that she constantly babysits?
Does your character ‘save the cat!?’ (Blake Snyder literally named his exceptional how-to book just that, Save the Cat!)
Does your villain have a thing for Yo Mama jokes? Does your villain smoke weed to help with their anxiety? Does your villain have anxiety?
Does your protag’s love interest have a no-fucks-given, devil-may-care attitude? (For real, love interest characters who are just there to be pretty trigger the shiz-nit outta me!)
And so on, and so forth. You get the idea.
Basically, you’re trying to have your audience find a redeeming trait in your characters to latch on to. To connect with your characters despite their flaws, despite their shortcomings, and despite the fact that some of them haven’t showered in six-months because of some personal decision; which, I totally respect...from an appropriate distance.
Next up, Unjust Circumstances.
Like everything in writing, and everything I’ve mentioned, this one can take many shapes and you’ll, wait for it, have to be creative.
Unjust Circumstances can range from Ella (Ella Enchanted), who was cursed to always do what she’s told, having to live with her evil stepmother and stepsisters, to Aladdin...
...the “diamond in the rough,” living as a street rat and having to steal food to survive with his pet-sidekick, Abu.
It’s a boy having to deal with his mother’s terminal illness.
It’s a single father whose lost everything searching the entire ocean for his lost son.
It’s a blind man who is outnumbered and out-resourced, taking on the criminal underbelly with nothing but his fisticuffs and strict moral code.
Keep in mind, the Unjust Circumstances, when combined with Humanizing Your Character, will produce the Deservability trait in your character.
Because your character is just like us, with noble aims and desires, because they’re in a world that doesn’t see them for how amazing and beautiful they are, a world where they have to fight to find their place in and be recognized, they deserve a shot of getting what they’re after.
They deserve a shot at overcoming all the obstacles in their way.
They deserve a shot at a happy ending.
Of course, how your character fairs is up to you; but, that’s a topic for another day!
Well, that’s all I got for you today, gang!
Keep telling YOUR story!