Writing: How to Make Readers Care

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, novels or memoir, your most important task is to make your readers care.

Writing Tip for Today: Here are a few tips to help you create writing that readers can care about.

Eyes of the Narrator

As I’ve said many times, as a writer you are your readers’ manager. You write so that readers will know what to pay attention to, what to ignore, what to be excited about and what to skip over. How do you do this?

First, consider the narrator of your work. Are you writing in the omniscient voice, or first/third person? The Point of View matters. As the narrator, you are shaping what readers know and forcing them to read more by building tension and giving them more action than narrative.

If the narrator or POV character isn’t willing to act upon his stated goals, how can you expect readers to care if those goals are met? To make readers care, get your character into active motion. Limit those soliloquies and sitting and thinking scenes. Prod your character into action at every possible turn.

Goals and Stakes

It’s fine to give readers a sense of the character’s goals, but if it’s too easy, readers can’t care. Build in obstacles that are worthy opponents. Make that character lose and then come back for more. Too much winning early on makes readers yawn.

One way to raise the stakes and shape the goal is by thinking about what happens if the character can’t meet the goal. This idea is also called the “So What?” test. If my character says she wants to win a person’s heart but then doesn’t do much to compete or it’s way too easy, readers may conclude, “So what?”

I often make these goals/stakes in concentric circles. The inner circle is what happens to the character and immediate surroundings if the goal isn’t met or changed. After that wider circles outline the effect upon community, nation, world, even galaxy. The more ripples of consequence you build into the story, the more the stakes will seem high to the readers.

The more ripples of consequence you build into the story, the more the stakes will seem high to the readers. 

A Likable Protag?

Some insist that your Main Character or protagonist must be likable. Not every character needs to be likable, but the character must be interesting enough to engage readers over a long story. If your Main Character isn’t likable, try to give at least a few “humanizing” characteristics or show the readers underlying and relatable reasons for the character’s behavior.

The character might be a murderer, yet is very loyal, generous or honest to a fault. Student writers almost always bring up Hannibal Lector as an unlikable yet fascinating character. But don’t forget that Clarice balances out Hannibal’s evil. Readers need to be willing to inhabit the imaginary skin of a character over the course of a story.

If your character has no redeeming qualities, it may be difficult for readers to tolerate “being” that person as they read. Either balance the story with a more sympathetic character or create a baddie who is so fascinating that readers can’t look away. Put your character’s best emotional qualities on display for readers to identify with and follow.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

2 comments on “Writing: How to Make Readers Care

  1. Hi Bill,
    Most writers are untrained–we all learn our craft by practicing, reading the best stuff we can find and by gleaning tips from more seasoned writers. Thanks for dropping by and please, KEEP WRITING!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *