Getting the reader to care about your protagonist is important to the success of your novel or memoir. Yes, the action of the story is important, but if the reader doesn’t care what happens to your protagonist, the story falls flat.
People care about people or any thinking creature you create. But they need a reason to care. Lots of things can happen in a story. We as writers need to make the story personal by telling the tale of one specific person. The reader needs to see how what happens in the story affects one particular character. Make the story specific to someone the reader cares about.
But how do we do that? How do we get someone who doesn’t know our characters the way we do, care about what happens to them? Now I’m not saying that I have all the answers. Wouldn’t that be nice? I wouldn’t need to struggle to get my own stories down on paper if this were simple.
Let’s start by asking a few questions.
Who was this protagonist before the inciting incident, before the story present? There’s a broad question. Rein it in and try and think of answers, or scenes, that relate to your story situation or problem, both internal and external. What type of family or friend relationships did she have? Were these relationships important to her? Why?
Think about your protagonist’s profession before the story began. Why did she choose that profession? What were her beliefs at that time? Why did these things matter to her?
Whatever the internal problem is in the story, how did the protagonist come to deal with that problem? What happened in the first place to make her believe in this internal problem?
And most importantly, how did those around the protagonist feed that internal problem?
If we look at my college memoir, how did Victoria go from having trouble in third grade to not going to college?
Think in scenes or summary:
Victoria struggled throughout elementary school.
Victoria did better in middle school and wanted to sign up for college prep in high school.
Victoria’s father didn’t think she was capable of college work just because she was on the honor roll by middle school.
Victoria took secretarial courses in high school to be a secretary like Mom and friends.
Victoria’s siblings did not go to college either.
How did Victoria meet her husband? Where did she work after high school? Did she consider going to college after getting married?
No. She still believed she was that girl her father claimed was “not college material.”
How about after having a few children? Did she consider college then?
Nope! She was knee deep in babies and running the home to consider college.
Didn’t Victoria struggle with her inferiority before attending college as an adult?
All the time. She saw herself in her learning-disabled first born. Victoria struggled to help her daughter with her education and therefore her younger children as well. But she felt totally inferior to those college-educated people in the public education system.
There are more questions to ask to explain to the reader who Victoria was; how she got that way; and why it matters in her life. When I started writing my manuscript, I didn’t believe these questions were pertinent to my college journey, my memoir story. But they are!
As a writer, you are looking for personal information about your character to answer these questions. Readers are inquisitive. They want to know what makes your protagonist tick. Why she believes and acts the way she does in the story present. Good things, bad things. The reader wants to cheer for your protagonist as the story moves forward. We want readers to care what happens to her. Win or lose. Readers want to care about someone specific.
Please ask any questions about my college memoir and share any insight you may have in the comments section of Adventures in Writing about how you get readers to care about your characters. Thanks so much!
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