At What Point Do Readers Feel Invested in Your Story?
As the author, it's easy for us to fall in love with our stories early on--maybe even before we've begun writing. We understand every idiosyncrasy of the character--all their hopes and fears. The setting is so familiar, we can picture every mountain range and every neon storefront sign behind closed eyelids.
But when do readers start feeling like that?
This is a question I've been pondering this week amidst reading five books at once. Yes, I became that person--a reading fiend--and I'm quite proud of it! Anyway, three of them are fiction, and I find myself invested in two of them so far. I identify that feeling as a pull. An irresistible urge to find out what happens next because I care about the characters. The more I thought about it, the more I realized what gave these stories that special something.
The essence of the character
This one's a little abstract, but it's just the vibe you get when you read about the character on the page. It's based on their personality, their demeanor, their mannerisms, and the way they talk. It's kind of like dreaming about someone. Maybe they're blurry or out of sight, but you just know they're there. That's what I mean by essence.
In Clover Blue, a literary fiction novel by Eldonna Edwards, the protagonist Blue is quiet, sensitive, inquisitive, and intuitive. He also lacks a little bit of assertiveness and bravery. I know these things not because the author told me so, but because I was able to observe through his actions and decisions.
Now, early on, I didn't particularly care about Blue yet, but I was at least intrigued by him. That being said, you can't expect your readers to care about what happens to your characters just yet, but they should be tilting their read to the side as they read and say, "Hmm...that's interesting."
I love books with distinct settings. The setting of Clover Blue is unique because it takes place in a California commune in the 1970s. Edwards provides vivid details of the woods surrounding their home, the kind of food they grow in their garden, their morning and evening rituals, and the clothes they wear. All these details sprinkled throughout the narrative through the eyes of Blue make me feel like I'm right there with them, shopping for clothes at the thrift store or closing my eyes as one of the elders guides us through a meditative yoga session in the morning. In other words, the culture is established.
Some Kind of Animal, a dark YA by Maria Romasco Moore is atmospheric in its own way. The protagonist, Jo, is growing up in a remote town in Ohio, where gossipy people turn up their noses at her. Some are religious and judgmental, others are crackheads and criminals. This spread of people creates the context in which Jo is growing up and influences her worldview in a way that informs her decisions throughout the novel.
Okay, I know this one doesn't seem like it belongs on this list, but hear me out. You need to make your readers feel like they're looking in on the dramatic events of dramatic people. Think about celebrities, for example. Why do we care about who's dating whom, who's pregnant, who just got dumped? Why do we google their birthdays and then end up spending twenty minutes reading through their Wikipedia page, and another forty minutes watching interviews on YouTube? Pretty soon we know weird things about them, the little anecdotes they share about their lives, the kind of gestures they make with their hands when they talk, and that little dimple that forms on their cheek when they laugh too hard.
I really hope I'm not the only one who does this because, uh... that's awkward.
This is the kind of feeling you need to evoke in readers. Make them curious. Have your characters do something unexpected. Steep them in some sort of conflict or drama that started occurring before the first page. And play your cards close to your chest. You don't need to give everything away or explain the whole context of the drama in the first few pages. Tease it out. Keep them guessing.
What starts out as voyeurism on the readers' part will turn into full-fledged involvement. At some point, probably without them even noticing, the readers care about what's happening to these people who are no longer strangers. They'll feel like they're right there with your protagonist, processing all her emotions and plowing through her adventure one page at a time.
But how do you get readers to cross that bridge from casual interest to investment? You need two things: character motivation and conflict. Your character must want something and there must be something standing in his way. You should also give a reason for why he wants it, and what the consequences are if he doesn't. All these elements combined are a window into his character.
Lastly, don't be afraid to let something bad happen to your characters. Something that attacks their identity, preys on their fears, or compromises their safety (either literally or psychologically). Pretty soon, your readers will feel that pull. You will elicit their empathy and support. They'll be cheering on the character who's about to kiss the girl of his dreams (or cussing him out because it's a terrible reaction). When the reader chucks the book out the window for any reason, you'll know you've written something special.