A character's individual agenda will usually become what drives your story but first you need readers to care about your hero. So what can you do to make your characters instantly compelling?
Readers often root for characters that are innocent victims - or who are subjected to forces that are beyond their control. The girl running from the psychopath or a lost child, or an employee set upon by her boss, or a man struggling against the natural world. Even a nun or a prisoner. All of these characters have the ability to instantly illicit sympathy from the reader.
People like to identify with characters in danger. Think James Bond or Harrison Ford at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Although the viewer has no inkling of the character the first time they meet them, they want them to escape / beat the bad guys and triumph.
Jeopardy works for any characters involved in a life or death situation. Whether it's Clarice Starling at the beginning of the book Hannibal - she's FBI but that doesn't stop her from being terrified of an upcoming shootout. Or Carrie, where a teenage girl is taunted by her schoolmates for having her first period in the famous shower scene at the beginning of Brian de Palma's movie (based on the book of course.)
Ideally your character should be instantly likable. It's hard not to root for someone who cares for the sick or let's an old lady have a seat on the bus.
Show your character being kind - don't just say, He's kind and caring, your reader won't believe it unless you show the teacher helping a student, or a father coaching his son on how to ride a bike.
Open with the Character
As I mentioned above, it's hard for us humans not to like the first person we're introduced to. James Herbert, the British author, used to play with this aspect of our expectations in his novels. He would show the reader a character, describe them in detail and just when you liked them the most, he would kill them off! A clever twist on the guidelines - but I wouldn't recommend you do it too often!
People are naturally drawn to characters that are obviously good at what they do. Have you ever wondered why you might identify with a bad guy who is a good killer, a thief who succeeds in stealing a fortune in jewels, or a computer hacker that can bring down the CIA's mainframe? These are all examples of how we automatically admire great skill in others, no matter how nefarious.
Of course the same rule applies if the character is a good guy, using his skill to the benefit of others.
Deep down, we all want to believe we're the same - and have the same values. We treasure life, freedom, choice and the right to live our lives in comfort. At the beginning of a story, we like to see people doing ordinary things and living a good life (at least for while, until it gets boring!) You'll probably have noticed that this how the majority of horror stories start: the happy family, the good life, the innocence of youth etc. Horror stories use this convention because it's a very powerful way of drawing the reader into a highly believable situation before the 'unbelievable' happens.
Flaws and Foibles
This was one of the first pieces of advice I got from a literary agent. Make your characters quirky, he said. Of course I took it to heart and made all of my characters slightly odd with irritating personal habits.
I think the trick is not to go over the top - and present slight flaws and charming foibles that will endear your reader to your characters to the reader.
We should accept that there's something about the idea of having superhuman powers that intrigues us as a species. Perhaps it's related to the prehistoric myths regarding a time when gods allegedly roamed the planet - or perhaps it's more down to earth than that.
Perhaps as humans we always aspire to be more than we are, and would like to identify with being a superman or wonder woman - though why we need snazzy costumes to appear impressive is anybody's guess!
Be the Reader
One of the simplest ways of drawing in a reader is to tell the 'I' story. First person is eternally compelling but new writers often misunderstand why this is.
When a reader reads a story from the perspective of the writer, they are not generally identifying the writer as the kind of person they can relate to. No, in essence, they become the character. They share his world view while they are reading. The character is the reader. Many writers shy away from revealing themselves in writing but, counter logically, revealing your deepest and darkest thoughts is what the reader wants in order to fully identify with the 'I' character.
However it should be remembered that, when writing from the first person point of view you, the author, should not be in the story. The reader is only interested in the character and ultimately only in themselves in your character's shoes.
Character identification is part of a sacred pact between an author and the reader. The good writer understands that it is not the story or your writing that is important.
It is the reader's eagerness to become your character that defines your skill as a writer.
(c) Rob Parnell
Secret Attic Blog