Reader Identification with Characters in Fiction Writing
One of the most important things that a writer can achieve early in a short story or novel is the sense of identification with the main character. This occurs when the reader is both in sympathy with the main character, but also wants them to achieve their goals and objectives.
The first step is to make the reader sympathize with the character. To do this you must first of all put the character in pain... physical, emotional, cultural, it doesn’t matter which. But they must be in pain, and the cause of the pain must not be because of their own action.
Identification, however, isn’t just caused by sympathizing with a character. It is important that the reader can’t blame the character for their own pain, and that the character is attempting in some way to solve their own problems.
For example, a reader isn’t likely to identify with a character in prison. But, say, he was put in prison for attempting to steal the money to save his son’s life, and he is being attacked by a member of a racist organization and has to find a way to survive while turning a new leaf... then they are likely to identify.
The key here is making the antagonist worse than the protagonist, and making the protagonist try to change his own life for the better.
A technique that goes further than this is to make sure the character feels multiple levels of pain. For example, a character might feel hungry and his only choice to get food might be something reprehensible to himself such as stealing. The reader will identify with him as long as he is trying to do right... and will pull for him to win!
One aspect that is very important in obtaining reader identification is that at all stages there must be a goal that is out of reach of the protagonist. It must cost the protagonist something to try to obtain that goal... whether it is hard effort, a friendship, a fathers love, or whatever other cost there is.
The emotional struggle between what someone wants, and the price they have to pay to get it, is a source of fascination to most readers. It forces us to care what happens next in the story.
When we establish the pain of the main character it is important not just to tell the reader about it. We must use pertinent details and description, and show other characters reactions too. These details make us feel and imagine that we are in the story. We feel the pain of the character as he is forced to choose whether to lie to his best friend or tell him that his girl friend is sleeping with his father... knowing his friend will never believe him!
To summaries, we can make a reader identify with the main character by putting the main character in pain, giving him a way to attempt to solve the problem that will cost him something important, and by making it feel real by using pertinent details and descriptions to force the reader into the fictive dream.
What brings the reader out of identification with the protagonist?
The first thing that brings the reader out of the fictive dream is when you make a protagonist act with less capability than he should do. For example, if you make him or her walk up the stairs alone in a creepy haunted house when he has just heard a piercing scream...
Your reader doesn’t want to identify with stupid people.
Making goals that are too small, or that the reader doesn’t approve of is the second main way to lose the readers interest. Reading about someones heroic struggle to quench their thirst when their is a tap in the kitchen isn’t exciting.
Finally, making the character act in a way the reader doesn’t approve of is death to identification. If you want a character to behave badly the reader must be convinced they are trying to act well, that they are making a mistake the reader would make in the same circumstances.
It is easy to force a reader to lose interest in a character. If they are not working at full speed, doing their best with the resources they have available, the reader will throw your story against the wall with great force. But if you make the reader care about the character by putting him in pain and making him strive for good things against great odds...
well, then you will be fulfilling your contract with the reader.
You will have started to tell a great story.
There is another aspect of reader identification that isn’t often talked about. When someone picks up a book of a particular genre, they are looking for characters that are similar to them, solving problems that are important to them. For example, people around ten to fifteen years of age tend to read science fiction... they are most likely to want to read about conflicts that interest them (growing up, relationships, exploring the world) rather than relationships, or a boss that they don’t like.
All genre’s of fiction have a target audience, and knowing what that audience likes, and what conflicts are most important to that audience allows you to write stories that resonate with them.
This is one of the reasons novels tend not to have only three people... the more people that a novel contains (within reason) the more likely that readers will find someone they can identify with, someone who is like them and who has similar problems to them.
So, I suggest that when writing you look at your intended audience and try to include at least one character who is typical of that audience.