Wednesday, June 6, 2012

32. Three ways to make readers identify with your protagonist

What is the number one thing we novelists want readers to do? (I mean, of course, in addition to actually buy our books.) If you think about it, the answer is that we want them to identify with our main character or characters.

Note that I didn’t say we want them to LIKE our main characters. They may dislike a character, or disapprove of his or her actions, but if you, the writer, can get your readers to root for your characters, they will keep reading.

Here are three surefire ways to get the reader on your character’s side.  

1. Start the character off with a big problem. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is quickly whisked off to the Land of Oz by a cyclone. She’s alone, in a strange land, and has no idea how to get home.As readers, we can’t help but cheer her on.

In the first chapter of Pandora’s Genes, we learn that Zach is faced with a moral dilemma--to do something he knows is wrong (buy a young girl from her family), but feels he must do out of loyalty to his leader. Anyone who has ever faced a conflicting set of choices will root for Zach to resolve his problem one way or another.

In The Ptorrigan Lode, my science fiction novella, Jay Irice, the protagonist, is immediately revealed to be a drug addict who will die if he does not get a fix. I was concerned when I wrote it that readers would find Jay’s situation so distasteful that they would not want to read about him, but apparently many readers became hooked on Jay just as he was hooked on chappa.


2.   Pile on the difficulties. As soon as she gets to Oz, Dorothy discovers she has a mortal enemy in the Wicked Witch of the East. The farther she goes down the yellow brick road, the more perils she and her friends face. In chapter two of Pandora’s Genes, Zach becomes paralyzed by a fly-borne illness, and after he recovers is assaulted and left for dead by robbers. Poor Jay Irice is confronted with one threat  and betrayal after another by a number of other characters, including two that he has deeply trusted. In each of these examples, we as readers want the characters to get out of trouble, and we want to see how they do it.

3. Make the character the agent. This is the most important of the three rules. After going through all the twists and turns of your plot, when the character finally reaches the denouement make sure that he or she SOLVES THE PROBLEMS THROUGH HIS OR HER OWN ACTIONS. Dorothy herself throws water onto the wicked witch. Though Glinda the Good tells Dorothy how to get home, she also points out that escape from Oz was always in Dorothy’s own power. In Pandora’s Genes, Zach undergoes many trials, always escaping from them through his own actions. Where he has help, it is help that he has initiated or earned. He resolves the moral dilemma that began the book through coming to a new self-understanding.

As for Jay Irice, he escapes his seemingly inescapable difficulties through his own efforts in a very surprising way that—for such a short tale-- I cannot give away here. (There is a link to The Ptorrigan Lode on Kindle in the column on the left.)

If there are any writing topics you would like to see in future posts, please either leave a comment here or email me. I will post every week on Wednesdays, and sometimes more often.


  1. One question: how do you, as an author, know when it's time to write "The End"? Not the end of the revising, but the end of the story, particularly in a long work, with a sequel looking possible?

  2. Good question, and thanks. Someone else asked that too. I will think about it and address it soon.