An American Editor

April 4, 2011

Characterization: How Important is Reader Emotional Involvement?

In past book reviews of fiction (my On Books series), I have noted whether the author’s characterizations, particularly of the lead character, have emotionally involved me as a reader. Did it really matter to me what happened to a character? Was I moved to react to a character’s fortune or misfortune?

Those who read my most recent review (On Books: Murder Down Under), will recall that I distinguished the 5-star ratings I gave to the murder mysteries written by Vicki Tyley from the historical fiction novels written by Shayne Parkinson by this very criterion. The result was that although both authors deserved a 5-star rating, Parkinson actually deserved a higher 5-star rating (what I called “plus a smidgen more”) because of how Parkinson got me (and my wife and friends of ours who read the books on our recommendation) emotionally involved.

Consequently, the questions are: How important is reader involvement, and if important, how do you rate for it or for the lack of it?

At a personal level, I think how well an author creates a link between the reader and the author’s characters is an indication of the craftsmanship of the author. An indifferent character leads to an indifferent book. It may still be a good read, but it won’t be a memorable read. If you are in my age bracket (old and getting older by the minute), you are likely to have read thousands of novels in your lifetime, and it is novels on which we are focused. Of those thousands, how many characters can you remember? How many can you identify by name, description, and traits?

Storylines and plots are much easier to remember, largely, I think, because there seems to be a finite number of storylines and plots. Authors simply recycle them using different environments. For example, how many novels, when stripped to their core, are really remakes of Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey? How many are variations on the theme of My Fair Lady? How many romance novels don’t have bodice ripping, girl meets boy and heart thumps, boy meets girl and becomes an Arthurian knight, and similar plots? How many murder mysteries don’t have at least one dead body and a nonpolice officer as the hero or a police officer as a hero but with a civilian sidekick? Familiarity with the broad scenario makes remembering a book on a broad basis relatively easy compared to remembering a character.

Think about characterization. How many of us remember Scout and Atticus Finch, but not the specifics of the plot of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird? How many of us remember the characters in Leon Uris’s Exodus or who the lawyer-heroes were in John Grisham’s The Firm?

To me, feeling empathy/sympathy for the lead characters is important – because it keeps my interest in future books and makes me remember the author. I see that as the single characteristic that distinguishes between an average writer and an exceptional writer. It is not that the average/mediocre book cannot be a great read; it is that the average/mediocre book is an enjoy-today-then-throwaway-and-forget book, whereas books that involve my emotions compel me to read every book written by the author, especially those that include the characters that have moved me. In contrast, when an author’s characters do not move me, I may well buy and read everything by the author that is currently available because they are good read-once-and-toss buys, but am likely to forget about the author when I have to wait a year or two for the author’s next book to come out.

Two good examples of why I think creation of a link between the reader and the author’s characters is important — especially for the author — are traditionally published David Weber’s science fiction books, which are built around the character Honor Harrington and her universe of family and friends, and indie author Richard S. Tuttle’s fantasy books.

My discovery of the first Harrington book (On Basilisk Station, free at the Baen Library) hooked me. Honor Harrington became a character I cared about. I not only have bought and read every book in the series (12 so far that directly involve Harrington and more than 6 others that are from her universe) and preordered those to come, but Weber got me to spend money on buying books that I have never bought before because I do not like the genre: short story anthologies. I studiously avoid short stories, whether as part of an anthology or standalone, except those that relate to the Harrington universe and Shayne Parkinson’s Promises to Keep world (she has one free short story available, All I Want). In addition, because of the Harrington books, I also bought and became hooked on Weber’s newer Safehold series (which began with Off Armageddon Reef).

Perhaps more important for authors in today’s indie age, is my experience with the fantasy books of Richard Tuttle. He has authored 27 ebooks and I have purchased and read every one because his characters involved me. (His Young Lord of Khadora, Book 1 of Forgotten Legacy is a free ebook.) I admit that the characterizations did not remain equally compelling over 27 books, but they remained compelling enough to induce me to look for and buy every fantasy ebook Tuttle has written. Isn’t this what every author wants — readers who make a special effort to look for and buy their books?

Importantly, unlike the average/mediocre books that are good reads but not compelling enough to remember, for those authors who entwine me with their characters, every couple of months I search to see if there is another book scheduled for publication that I can preorder. If I can’t preorder it, I make a note in my calendar to remind me to check again for preorder availability. Shayne Parkinson’s Promises to Keep series is a good example. Parkinson was supposed to have another book available in her Promises to Keep series but it is still being worked on. Yet I keep looking for it, a good year after I finished the quartet and the short story. Similarly, it took 1.5 years before I found new ebooks by Richard Tuttle, but I kept looking, and I have calendared to preorder forthcoming Weber books. 

Even more importantly to the authors, these are the books that I keep recommending to other readers. Which novels that you have read do you keep recommending months, if not years, after you have read them? Think about why.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that crafting characters that make readers react to them, to events that occur in their fictional lives, and to the world around them is profoundly important to both readers and authors. I am also increasingly convinced that the ability to craft such characters and worlds is what distinguishes the memorable author from the average/mediocre author. And, finally, with the single exception of editorial quality (i.e., few grammar and spelling errors to distract the reader), whether the author crafted characters and worlds that involve the reader at the emotional level is the most important criterion a reader can apply when evaluating and rating a novel.

What do you think?


  1. What do I think? I think you’re absolutely right and did a great job expressing it!


    Comment by Carolyn — April 4, 2011 @ 6:08 am | Reply

  2. Fascinating discussion and one I’ll be following with much interest.

    It struck me the other night while I was watching TV that in series like Spooks and NCIS, I remember (and love) the characters, but not the stories. In movies, it’s the storyline that stays with me, never the character. The difference between plot-driven and character-driven perhaps?

    I learn well from example. Does anyone have any recommendations for standalone (versus series) mysteries where the characters get inside the reader’s head and stay there long after the book is finished?


    Comment by Vicki — April 4, 2011 @ 4:53 pm | Reply

  3. Yes, a fascinating discussion. My characters feel very real to me; I do care about them, and am delighted when others do.

    I’m a slow writer, unfortunately, but I really am working on the next book!


    Comment by Shayne Parkinson — April 4, 2011 @ 10:04 pm | Reply

    • Slow is good, Shayne. Quality is better than quantity. 🙂


      Comment by Vicki — April 6, 2011 @ 5:03 pm | Reply

  4. Fascinating topic…I’ve found that character and plot go hand in hand. The story doesn’t move, one without the other. Whether it’s in books or movies. Series, per say, lets the readers develop with the protagonist/antagonist. Single main stream can and should as well. Example: To Kill A Mockingbird, Gone With The Wind. Both aren’t series, but the storyline as well as the main characters live on long after closing the book and/or leaving the theater. Also, I’ve read many a book where the city or town (New York,New York), the house (Haunted House), or even the room (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)can become a main character. Plot drives the story along–without it, I would gander to think few people would ever finish the novel at all. As far as emotional binding, I’ve experienced that men are more prone to the action aspect, where as women are more prone to the heart. Just my take on things as a reader and a writer.

    Cherri Galbiati, author


    Comment by Cherri Galbiati — April 6, 2011 @ 6:06 am | Reply

  5. […] broached this topic in an earlier article, Characterization: How Important is Reader Emotional Involvement? Perhaps it is time to take a closer look at the […]


    Pingback by On Books: Plot-Driven, Character-Driven, Hybrid? « An American Editor — June 2, 2011 @ 5:08 am | Reply

  6. I love well written characters. I can tell you there names everything about them and sometimes the plot.I’m going to enjoy reading about Honor, reading Shayne’s and Richard’s and the others mentioned in the article. I’m trying to get my character to be ‘unforgetable’ and I’m trying to figure out how to dissect a writer’s style to make their characters so loved. Can anyone tell me how do I dissect a book? I treasure all writing and can’t get my self to mar or maime at book. Help? Ehat do I look for, How do I go aobut dissecting a book?


    Comment by Kat Hinkson — November 30, 2011 @ 12:04 am | Reply

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