Character Ethos: Three ways to make readers care about your characters

Writing engrossing characters can be some of the most fulfilling–and frustrating–parts of writing. When it works, the characters feel as though they are real people, not just constructs from our brain, contained by ink and white spaces.

But so often, one of the reasons agents give for rejecting a manuscript is that they just didn’t “connect” with the character. I’ve given up on books for the same reason: the premise was cool, the plot was fun, but I didn’t care what happened.

So how to create a character that people care about?

There are lots of other resources out there about characters. K. M. Weiland has a powerful series about welding a character’s internal arc to external plot. Becca Pugilisi and Angela Ackerman have a whole series of posts on out-of-the box character skills.

But I’m not going to talk about any of that.

Instead, I’m going to borrow a couple of tools from classical rhetoric.

When I teach my students about persuasive writing and speaking, we talk about Aristotle’s three rules for character, or ethos. Aristotle argued that no one will be persuaded by a speaker that they don’t trust. In the same way, readers won’t be persuaded by a character that they don’t believe in–so the way that the narrator presents the character (or how the character presents herself in first person) is critical to reader’s acceptance.

(Note, I’m not talking here about unlikeable characters, who are an entirely different kettle of fish).

According to Aristotle, we trust speakers (and by extension, characters), who demonstrate:

1. Good will

In life, and in fiction, we like people who show that they care about something beyond themselves. This idea drives the infamous “save the cat” motif–readers are more likely to care about a character who isn’t self-obsessed.

In the Hunger Games, we’re willing to forgive Katniss her arrogance the instance we see her willingness to sacrifice everything for her sister.

2. Good sense
Aristotle believed that audiences wouldn’t listen to–or trust–speakers who lacked common sense. For him, this meant that speakers needed to demonstrate a certain expertise on their topic. In writing, I think this means that characters need to make the best decisions they can, given the information at hand. Nothing frustrates me faster than a character who makes a stupid decision (horror movies are infamous for this: No! Don’t go into that abandoned house!) just to further the plot.

A few weeks ago, Entertainment Weekly ran an interview with Mindy Kaling (whom I love). In it, she discussed her rules for writers on the show, which I think all writers should follow. Among her rules: “No one is a moron.”

Good rule for writing, and for life.

3. Good character
Now, Aristotle isn’t interested in character or morality in the old-fashioned sense, because clearly we don’t always like characters who are overly virtuous. (Some of my favorite characters, in fact, are deeply flawed in this sense). For Aristotle, in fact, virtue comes from fitting in with your audience–demonstrating that you value what your audience values.

I think this takes on an interesting twist when we talk about writing. You have to know who you are writing for–identify that audience’s deepest values, and have your main character embody some form of that. Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy features a complicated heroine, Alina, who can be proud, moody, and power-hungry. But she’s saved by her intense loyalty to her friends and her devotion to her country and to justice. Because loyalty and justice are virtues her audience (primarily younger fantasy readers) also values, we perceive her as being strongly moral–even when she lies and kills in pursuit of her goals.

While these three principles can’t guarantee readers will connect with, or even like, your character, they can at least head off some of the most basic failings in characters.

What principles do you find helpful in developing characters that readers will love?