This first part of this series on creating emotional attachment between readers and characters is going to look at engendering sympathy, and in this particular post, by putting characters in risky situations. If you want the reader to feel concern for the characters in your story, putting them in danger is a simple way to do it.
Any time something of value is on the line, how the situation plays out will be of interest, and that is true for all the parties involved. But if you can communicate what’s at stake and make the reader as keen to avoid that outcome as the character, then it will amplify the level of interest in what happens next.
A life and death situation is obviously going to grab the attention quickest and probably keep it until at least that particular situation is resolved. But it’s not always enough to just set up the situation and leave the reader to gauge the threat level for themselves. You might consider it clear that a guy going into a burning building is risking his life and no more needs to be said, but not all situations are going to be as clear cut.
If you are sure the danger is clear, that’s fine, but you should bear in mind that often the most obvious things are obvious because of familiarity and cliché. One way to avoid that kind of generic representation of a situation is to make it personal to the character experiencing it.
You want the reader to feel the danger of this particular situation, specifically for this particular person. How the character acts is going to have an effect on the reader. If they happen to be a superhero impervious to fire, that’s going to produce a different response from the reader than if they have a lifelong fear of flames.
It’s probably the easiest thing to overlook with moments of extreme danger, that the writer assumes the danger doesn’t require more than outlining and everyone will get it. But understanding intellectually what the risks are, and feeling it emotionally aren’t necessarily the same thing.
Even if the character is hanging out of a helicopter, their grip slipping and death waiting below, a visceral depiction of what the character is feeling and experiencing, what the ground looks like from up there, what thoughts pass through the character’s mind, the strain in their muscles, all these things can make a difference.
There are, of course, other types of danger. Any risk of unpleasantness, whether serious injury, loss of a person’s livelihood, their self-respect or losing their pants in a public place, can create sympathy for the character if the reader can relate to how the character feels about it.
As well as the potential loss a character is subjecting himself to, there are also two other areas you need to take into consideration.
Firstly, why is he doing this thing? That will have a big effect on how the reader feels about him. If he runs into a burning building to save a child that will create a different kind of response from him running in because his buddies dared him. The physical danger is the same in both cases, but in one he’s a hero and in the other he’s a jackass.
In order to make sure you engage reader sympathy (assuming you aren’t writing about a jackass) you need to make it clear what the motivation is. That doesn’t mean you have to be blunt or too on the nose about it, but you can use this information to intensify the reader’s level of engagement.
The other thing to bear in mind is how the character reacts after the danger has passed. If he acts like it’s no big deal, then the effect on the reader can be lessened. If he acts like a big shot and starts showing off about it, that can also change the reader’s attitude towards him.
The point is danger will put the reader in a certain frame of mind. They are susceptible to becoming emotionally attached to the character, but how deeply you draw them in is going to depend on how well you establish what’s at stake, what it means to the character, and how they handle themselves.
Of course, someone can come through a dangerous situation completely unscathed. Everything could go just right and the anticipation of something awful happening never materialises. This can be a great way to kill any tension and completely scupper all feelings of sympathy. The closer the character comes to disaster, the better.
If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Next in the series, we'll look at what happens when the thing the character most dreads comes to pass. While terrible for them, this is an even better opportunity to get the reader emotionally involved, as we’ll see in Thursday’s post—Sympathetic Characters Part 2: Suffering.