Sunday, February 20, 2011

Bonding with main characters

How can we increase the odds of readers bonding with our main characters in those oh-so-crucial first few pages?

Bonding doesn't happen with every person we spend time with or every main character we start to read about. We are such unique creatures, so this isn't a surprise. I will form a temporary connection almost every time I meet another mom with young twins, but I betcha you won't. In fact, you might bow out politely when she starts raving about the double cost of diapers.

Bonding occurs when you've shared a similar experience.

The more universal the experience, the more we'll increase the odds of bonding. That's why so many books start with a death in the first few pages. Death is a universal experience (and taxes, but I dare you to get readers to bond with your MC over taxes).

I recently read Across the Universe, by Beth Revis (no spoilers, I promise). How did she get me to bond with her main character? Because, I know I'm in the minority here, but I have no experience being cryogenically frozen.

But she blended this creepy freezing scene with some universal things that we can all relate to: fear of being separated, fear of the unknown. Then she upped-the-stakes: she gave her MC the freedom to make a choice, where the decision has permanent, life-changing ramifications. And if that isn't enough to get you invested in Amy, the first 250 words include a "you go first" "no, you go first" dilemma, and yet another universal theme we can all relate to: the awkwardness of having to strip down naked.

XVI by Julia Karr gets you to bond with Nina over sexual issues (yeah, that strikes a cord with most of us) and the universal dread we all have of being controlled (GPS units embedded under the skin for tracking).

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson has this first sentence: "It is my first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomach-ache." Universal feeling of nervousness about starting something new.

Now, some books offer some less-than-universal premises. For instance, I bonded instantly (the very first sentence) with the MC in Pegasus, by Robin McKinley. "Because she was a princess, she had a pegasus". I love princess stories and I love mythical creatures. But it's not exactly universal.

How about my own MC's - what do they offer to bond with? Uh oh, do I really have to ask myself this question?

I have one 13-year-old MC being forced to tramp around the wilderness of Alaska for her summer vacation when she'd rather be at the neighborhood pool with her friends.

Another book (women's fiction) has an MC that's being stood-up by her husband on her first anniversary.

The third book (YA) has a seventeen-year-old whose mother gets wrongly arrested, leaving the MC on her own.

I'm too close to these stories to evaluate how universal the feelings associated with these situations are. Um, you tell me.

And tell me about one of your memorable MC bonding experiences.

ps. I highly recommend this amazing series of seven posts on How to Create Compelling Characters, with lots of great examples from movies.

pps. Writing Nut at Writing in a Nutshell, you are my 300th follower! Yay for crusaders!

ppps. Discovered that a kick in the as* works even better than motivational cheers when it comes to catching up with my word count. Leave me a kick as* comment here, and you have a chance to win a $15 Amazon certificate (two winners) by 2/28.


  1. Ah! We must have some type of writer connection, Margo :) I thought of making a post about spending time with our characters so they genuinely become our friends.

    These are such wonderful and helpful points. I agree that the reason many works are popular is because they touch on something universal. By the way, all of your beginnings sound like they're doing a great job with that! That's incredible you've written so many books. I started my WIP with a fight between a boyfriend and girlfriend; hopefully that'll remind a reader of a similar time?

    Looking back, every YA book I ever loved was because I related to the experiences those characters were having.

    Congrats on the 300 followers!!!

  2. My MCs usually take on a life of their own and amaze me as I get to know them.

  3. I know what you mean by being too close to your characters. I can't see many people bonding with them though they might enjoy reading about their adventures.

  4. Interesting observation.

    I am not certain why I connect with some characters and others not so much. But now I am going to definitely pay more attention!

    I am rather like Joanne....I get to know my own characters as I write them.


  5. Great points, especially that it IS all so subjective. I think your YA novel about the girl being left on her own is probably quite universal--fear of being parent-less and with no one to depend upon. The less independent the reader, the more that would cause him/her fear!

    For the 1st anniversary novel--fear of being rejected, which I would think everyone could relate to. And most teens can relate to having to do something for the summer when they'd really rather being doing something else! (ha, even adults, like being at work when they'd rather be at home WRITING)

    Have a great week. :)

  6. I don't think I have to bond or share a universal experience with the characters of a book I'm reading - although of course that helps! I think I just have to like them or hate them or feel some kind of emotional/intellectual reaction to them and appreciate (and not necessarily agree with) all their conflicts and psychological processes that drive them on.

    I like the premises of your books - I'm especially intrigued with the women's fiction one - there are so many questions raised already!! Great stuff! take care

  7. I loved this post! I feel like I'm just starting to really understand the importance of voice and how crucial it is to create a character the reader will root you made me want to read every single book you described. Thanks :)

  8. This is a really great point that never occurred to me before. With all the talk of making our characters unique but relatable this is a really great way of sussing whether a character appeals to a wide range of people. And I agree with Carol's analysis of the universality of your characters' situations so good job!
    - Sophia.

  9. Very insightful. I guess I knew they needed to be likable but never really thought about it this way. Believe it or not.

    I've enjoyed your posts and have awarded you The Stylish Blogger Award. It's posted on my blog now. So you can go there for the details.

  10. Okay, I've just had an OMG moment. I'd never even thought of it that way before, but you're so right. :D

  11. This is a thought-provoking post, and I think I'm with Old Kitty...I'm happy to go along on the ride with the MC even if their experiences aren't something I can't relate to...but I have to feel something (like, dislike, curiosity, etc). But I suppose even those characters I *think* I can't relate to are probably relatable on some level, when I drill down. Hm. As you see, you've got me thinking. :) I'm intrigued by all three of your premises, especially the YA one where mom gets wrongly arrested (what for? What does the daughter do?) I love it when these sorts of questions compel me to read further.

  12. Thanks for the link, Margo. You make a good point-- it makes we want to go back and tinker and add an eighth step: give your character a universal fear.

  13. Very cool post!

    I think the desire for a kid to do what she wants rather than the stupid thing her parents have chosen for her is a universal feeling. I feel horrible for your MC who was stood up on her first anniversary - that's just too horrible. Also universal, the fear and/or excitement of being left on one's own.

    My MC has to do a back-breaking and mindless job she doesn't want because it's her only way to take care of her younger sisters. I hope others find something universal in that situation.

    Good luck with your characters!

  14. Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! I've done HOOK reviews after reading first pages, but this is so much more relevant. Not a generic "what" hooks a reader, but "WHY" are they hooked. YES! Character connections! I love this post and saved it to my faves for future reference. For your beginnings: 1)I'm sure nearly every teen out there has been in a situation that they'd rather be doing something else,somewhere else. 2) i know I'D relate 3)for this one, it makes me think that sometimes "opposites attract" I'd read it because it was different from my life...sometimes that's why i pick up a leave my own life and "live vicariously" through somebody else. Christy

  15. This is an interesting post. I'll have to think about the books I read and what catches my interest. Sometimes though, I think rather than bonding, the MC or situation catches my imagination. Something I haven't experienced, but find interesting (princess and pegasus).

  16. Great analysis!! We have to bond with the MC over something relatable. So simple and true, yet not always understood. I like it. I'm going to go ask my own characters that..

    Oh and GET BACK TO WORK!!! Or else. Yeah that's right. I know lots of creepy paranormal characters...

  17. Great post! And I had noticed a few of those great openers, where the MC is immediately in a universal situation. I think this is even more dramatically important when your story is SF/F or some other very-different world from ours. We have to understand immediately what the tension is for the characters, and how they are like us. :)

  18. Nice post! I love the examples you use.

    My MC has to take care of his little sister who is ill. Pulls on fear of loss and the importance of family.

  19. Great post! I think you hit the nail on the head with making the *emotions* in our stories universal. Then even if readers haven't been through that particular experience, they can still bond with the main characters because they've likely had those same feelings.

  20. Universal emotions are definitely a key ingredient.

    I have an award for you at my blog.

  21. What a great post. As a reader I have to connect with the mc quickly or I'm gone. :)

    Nice to meet you! Fellow crusader and new follower.

  22. Wow, thanks for all the enthusiastic comments! This is the kind of feedback I CRAVE. You guys have made my week, plus giving me more ideas to ponder over.

  23. I won't kick you but will tell you when I saw your word count I wanted to say "way to go!!" you are almost done!!!
    Great examples of bonding with the character. I struggled with that in my first few books, and had to get the MC more likeable as well. My current WIP opens with a death and a my MC being thrown into serious debt by it.
    I loved all of yours--yes, I related!

  24. Very interesting post. The link on characters seems great! Thanks!

  25. Great post. I think I've sometimes worked too hard at making my character unique to the point of her becoming unrelatable. I love the you said about underlying universal experiences, even in unfamiliar environments (like cryogenesis in ATU). My gears are grinding now!

  26. Great post! I can definitely relate to the idea of being stood up on my 1st anniversary (fortunately it didn't happen), but I would have been furious!

  27. Universal emotions and experiences are definitely important. I also connect to a character's thoughts and voice. If she has lots of flaws and tough decisions even better. But even then it can be subjective!

  28. and then I looked and saw that you were only about 5k words away from the end! You go girl!

  29. Okay, I'm back after I saw your question. I don't think it's a have to, but creating the worst possible character for the role adds so much - conflict, humor.... Save the Cat talks about mostly adult films, so it's not just for MG. And it's not always obvious either. I've read many stories where it's not always the worst possible character for the story - and it works. Only you can decide. I'm planning a whole blog post on that next week, because I've thought about that too!

  30. Hmm. I see what you're saying, and in retrospect I look for things to make me identify with MC all the time but not consciously so.
    Probably I will pay more attention!

  31. Excellent post. It doesn't matter what genre I'm reading, but if a character is going through something we all go/went through, then I bond.

  32. Great observation on the Shared Experience! I'll have to keep that in mind. Most of us haven't had our parents arrested, but we've gotten lost at a mall/amusement park/airport.
    And tha Anniversary one has a Reality TV/train wreck appeal -- we all want to know what's gonna happen. If he isn't seriously injured, he will be!

  33. This was a wonderful post. I understand what you mean by how we relate to certain circumstances that others experience as we read. It is true that we do attach ourself to others whom we share common experiences with. Great post. Thanks.

  34. Hi there fellow crusader. I'm not sure if I've connected with you yet. Thanks for following me at my Pichets in Paris blog. I was lucky enough to win the BP Blogfest.

    Great post on characters. I read lots of books on this aspect of writing, but when I write the characters seem to lead me along as we go. Nice.


  35. Oh I agree; some experiences are universally bonding for characters and readers.

    No matter what the genre. I've never experienced cryogenic freeze, but I've experienced the feeling of complete isolation from everything and everyone I've known. Any military brat can relate to this. Or foster kid.

    So much in life is comparable if you look at it in the right context.

    Good post Margo. Profound.


  36. Awesome post! Great suggestions to think about as I revamp my opening. Thanks! :)



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