What makes you care about a character?

05/02/2017 Discussions, Reading 31

What makes you care about a character?Have you ever read a book that had an incredible plot, perfect pacing and epic world-building, but somehow it just wasn’t doing it for you? Most of the time when that happens to me, it comes down to one thing: I just don’t care about the main character.

Caring about the main character in a book is so important, because after all, why are you going to waste your time reading hundreds of pages when you ultimately don’t care about the outcome? If you have no feelings whatsoever towards a character, then there’s nothing driving you to follow their story, however good the plotting or world-building is.

But what exactly is it that makes you care about a character? In a lot of ways I think it differs from reader to reader, but here’s a few common ways I’ve found, and I’d be interested to get your thoughts!

  • Are they likeable?

I don’t necessarily think a character has to be likeable for you to care about them (see my next point for an example!), but it certainly helps! If you like a character then presumably you want them to stick around so you can read more about them, and would be pretty annoyed/upset if they were killed off. In other words, you care about them!

  • Are they sympathetic?

Emotions are at the heart of our reactions to characters, so emoting sympathy is another way to make us as readers care about a character and what happens to them. If we’re capable of feeling sorry for a character, or bad about the situation they’ve found themselves in, then presumably we want to see their situation improve, and are invested in their story.

A great example of this is Rachel from The Girl On The TrainWhilst she’s far from a likeable character, it’s easy to feel sorry for her, and so you find yourself really hoping she manages to get herself together and figure out what exactly is going on before it’s too late. Therefore, we care about her (or I did anyway!).

  • Are they complex?

It’s virtually impossible to become emotionally invested in perfect, flawless heroes and cardboard cut out characters, because they just aren’t realistic. Therefore, for me to care about a character they have to seem as if they could be a living, breathing human being, even if they come from the planet Zog, and they’re a space cowboy. That means they have to be complex, and complete with all the flaws and quirks and insecurities that come along with being a person!

  • Are they active?

By this I’m not referring to the character’s level of fitness – I mean, ‘are they an active participant in their own story?’ Characters who have a lot of stuff happen to them, but don’t really do anything about it can easily come across as dull and weak: they’re passive. However, a character who doesn’t just sit back and let things happen is not only more interesting, but is much easier to root for than the one who just sits back and complains about the unfairness of it all.

  • Are they relatable?

Characters don’t necessarily have to be 100% relatable to you personally for you to care (as in, they don’t have to be your exact age/gender/ethnicity etc.), they just have to have convincing human emotions that you can understand. For example, a lot of people can relate to ‘underdog’ type characters, because most of us have felt like the underdog at some point in our lives, or can at least understand the feeling of inferiority.

So what makes you care about a character? And do you agree that it’s vital to care about the main character to enjoy a book?

31 Responses to “What makes you care about a character?”

  1. Melissa @ Quill Pen Writer

    Great list! All the points you listed make me care about characters, especially the sympathetic and complex ones. It’s always really interesting to identify what makes a reader like an anti-hero, and personally I’ve found that if I’m shown their soft spot, that I will instantly root for them. I love reading about complex people. XD

    • Laura

      Yeah, I think anti-heroes are really interesting to look at it terms of caring about characters, because often they’re the kind of characters you in theory shouldn’t care about, but you do. And usually I think it does come down to how complex they are (do they have good motivations for the bad things they do, for example?) and how sympathetic (is there a reason for the way they are?) the character is.

  2. Pamela

    I also agree with all your points, but I think for me, what really does it is relatability. Even in most sci fi of scenarios, if a character shows some sort of human emotion, or is in a situation I can relate to, it makes me care. That plus all the other characteristics you listed make a wonderful character we can’t help but root for.

    • Laura

      Relatability is so important! I like when I feel as if I can put myself in the character’s shoes, and if I can relate to the character then I can do that so much better, and I feel so much more connected with the story.

  3. Aj @ Read All The Things!

    I totally agree with all of this. For me, characters have to be believable. I want to forget that I’m reading fiction and believe that these characters are real. If they feel like real people, I’ll care about them.

    • Laura

      That’s exactly the same for me! I want to just lose myself in the story and forget that the people I’m reading about are fictional.

  4. Becky @ A Fool's Ingenuity

    I had this dilemma reading a book lately, I couldn’t stand the main character and I debated carrying on reading because I knew the probably redeemed themselves and grew as a person but in the end DNF because I couldn’t hang around to like them. For me, they complained too much and didn’t accept the consequences of their actions and that annoyed me. I don’t need to like a main character, but I need to get what motivated them and if they are a bit of a terrible person I at least want them to realise that fact and grow as a person. I think you need to connect with them in some way. Either emotionally or at least be able to connect with what motivates them. And they need to have some kind of personality to make them memorable, at least for a while anyway.

    • Laura

      I totally agree with you. You definitely have to be able to connect with the character in some way, otherwise you just aren’t invested in their story.
      I’ve definitely had that dilemma myself, and being unable to like or care about the main character has been the reason why I’ve found myself not enjoying some books that I probably would have enjoyed otherwise.

  5. Kristen @ Metaphors and Moonlight

    Oh, yes you nailed it. A character doesn’t necessarily have to be likeable, but they have to be complex and realistic, and I think I have to understand why they are the way they are, why they’re making the decisions they’re making. It’s a difficult balance though because I say this, and I have loved some characters weren’t likeable or good people, but I’ve also been annoyed by and not cared about others. But I don’t necessarily have to care about the MC to love a book. It’s rare, but I have loved books w/ MCs I didn’t like. It really just depends on how good the rest of the characters are and how good everything else is.

    • Laura

      Yeah, complexity and realism is definitely so important, and I think you do have to understand how the character came to be the way they are, and they need to have convincing motivations.
      I think there can be the odd occasion where I don’t need to care about the MC to enjoy a book, but I think for me it has to have been done on purpose for some specific reason. If the author has tried to make the character likeable, but it just hasn’t worked for me, then I probably won’t like the book. However, if the MC is just meant to be completely unlikable, or someone you aren’t meant to care about for some stylistic reason or something, then I can maybe get behind it! 🙂

  6. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    This is so true for me. I find that plot can only pull me along so far—even if it’s fantastic. If I can’t connect to the MC, I have a hard time enjoying the book. I agree with all of your reasons—especially for characters where the plot just happens to them and they aren’t active.

  7. Tiziana

    Great post, like always! I find it difficult to explain what attracts me from a character, though I certainly know that they don’t need to be likeable and that there should be a certain degree of complexity and relatability. I especially dislike a character (or I just can’t care) when I don’t have enough info on what’s going on in their mind, their feelings, their motives. Sometimes I read stories in which characters just act without any psychological insight and that stops me from caring.

    • Laura

      It can be so hard sometimes to pin down what it is that makes us like or care about a character!
      I hate that too though where you don’t get much insight into their mind, because if they don’t have convincing motivations for what they’re doing then they just aren’t believable, and then it’s hard to care about them.

  8. Greg

    I think characters are so important, and especially your #2. Even if they’re not likeable if the writer can make them sympathetic then that is enough to make us care. Or want them to improve. And #3- my big thing is one dimensional villains, I hate those- I need nuance and some shades of grey. A one note villain bores me to tears.

    • Laura

      Making a character sympathetic can definitely make all the difference!
      And I totally agree with you about villains. If anything I think villains have the potential to be the most interesting characters, but for me they have to be as well-developed and well rounded as the hero/heroine, and that means having both good and bad attributes.

  9. Sam @ Sharing Inspired Kreations

    Oh, for sure! Caring about the main character is soooo important. Otherwise, what’s the point of reading the story? If there’s no one worth rooting for, why bother? I agree with your points. A relatable character (in some way) I think is very important. I mean, there just has to be something for the reader to cling to that puts them in that spot where it could be them going through the character’s story. I also have a much better opinion of a book if the main character is likable. That was something that really bothered me about The Girl on the Train. And I can’t stand when the main character is annoying. It drives me crazy.

    • Laura

      Yeah, there has to be someone worth rooting for if you’re going to be invested in the book and the story. Otherwise, what’s the point?
      I do tend to find it easier to like books where I like the main character, but I think some books can get away with an unlikable main character if it’s done right. But annoying and/or whiney characters I can’t stand!

  10. Michelle @ FaerieFits

    DO THEIR MOTIVATIONS MAKE SENSE?! If I had to pick ONE thing that makes me NOT like a character, it’s when I have no idea WHY they’re doing the things that they’re doing. Drives me up a bloody wall! I guess that would fall under sympathetic/relatable on your list. Everything else matters a lot to me too, but this is probably my biggest pet peeve because it’s so tough to overlook when that’s what is DRIVING the plot, you know?

    Great post!

    • Laura

      I’m totally with you on this one! I hate when characters have really vague (or non-existent) motivations, because if I don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing, then how am I supposed to believe that it’s important, and therefore care?
      I’m glad you liked the post! 🙂

  11. Codex Regius

    As for likeable, I’d like to mention Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, from “The Perfume”. He is too ruthless to like him but cunning enough to keep your interest alive. What I rapidly lose interest in is when a character is an idiot too stupid to live.

    Active – absolutely. When we began translating our first novel, I thought that the prota girl was coming across as too passive and whining, therefore, for the English edition, we made her cheekier and more of a type that you don’t really want to offend when there is a kitchen knife within reach of her.

    • Laura

      Yeah, stupid characters are so frustrating!
      And yeah, I think having active characters is so important! I like the sound of this tougher, cheekier heroine! 🙂

  12. Zeee @ I Heart Romance & YA

    Characters actually make or break the book for me. If I don’t connect with the character, there is a good chance that I will DNF the book.

    One of the most frustrating things in me disliking a character is when they are TSTL and aren’t active at all! And they don’t do anything about their situation. aaccckkk!

    • Laura

      It’s pretty much the same for me. A book would have to be absolutely exceptional in some other way for me to get over terrible characters.
      And that is one of the worst things when a character doesn’t do anything about their situation. Especially when you can see so many things they could do, or so many opportunities they’re missing!

  13. CurlyGeek

    This is a great list, and something I’ve been thinking about recently. I tend to like prickly, difficult characters more than the ones that are good, nice, brave, etc. Because as you mention, complexity matters and no one is good all the time! Plus I feel prickly and difficult lots of the time, so I relate more to those characters. Also because they tend to develop more over the course of the story. I’ve been trying to figure out in my head what makes some characters likable, and you’ve defined it well here.

    • Laura

      Yeah, prickly difficult characters can be really interesting, and often they can end up being really likeable anyway because they’re more realistic (and definitely more relatable…I think we’ve all felt a little prickly at times!). It definitely gives more scope for development, as you say, and can also make for a more intriguing back story for you to discover, as you want to know why they are the way they are! 🙂

  14. Cilla

    Great post! I totally agree that it’s vital to care about the main character. Otherwise, why would you bother investing time and energy in reading about what happens to them? I agree with everything on your list, plus for me, I need to also know their driving motivation – what makes them tick and what they care about. If I get no sense about what’s important for them, I’m less inclined to follow their story.

    • Laura

      I totally agree with you! Motivation is so important, because otherwise you aren’t invested in what they’re doing because there’s no reason or explanation given for why they are doing what they’re doing.

  15. Jen @ Books That Hook

    Excellent points! I have read some books where I didn’t really like the MC, but I was able to feel for them anyway.

    I think the character has to have at least one redeeming trait, though. I would probably put down a book that had a main character I totally hated.

    • Laura

      Yeah, I agree. A character has to have at least one redeeming trait, because if I hate everything about them then there’s no way I’d get through an entire book about them! 🙂

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