Not everyone can be enemies
Rebecca Mikkelson, Editor-in-Chief Authors 4 Authors Publishing
Not only is it important for the reader to bond with your characters, but it’s also important for your characters to actually bond with each other, not just be thrown together and say, “We’re best friends, you better believe it!” So how do you accomplish both at the same time?
This World is On Fire
I hope you sang that, because I did. Oh, look—we bonded, but we’ll get to that kind of bonding in the next section.
It’s perhaps not the best thing to admit, but my favorite thing to do to my characters is to make their world fall apart. Or, as others will say, set their world on fire. Putting your characters through hardships will help them bond with each other because they have no one to rely on but each other. It’s an easy way to force bonding that can last an entire series.
So what kind of situations can you put your characters in to make them bond? The easiest would be a cataclysmic downfall of the world or a tyrannical government take over and a descent into fascism. But if these are not in the genre you’re currently writing, your characters can have their family fall apart either through dissent or death. There are plenty of options for shitting on being an asshole to making your characters suffer.
There’s chemical psychology and sociology to it as well. People are social beings (even introverts), and oxytocin, the same hormone that creates love and attachment, also counteracts cortisol, the stress hormone. So, on instinct, when faced with adversity, people will naturally attach to those nearest to them to reduce that stress. Though it's hard to determine the cause and effect for certain, a prominent theory is that it's an evolutionary trait that passed on because humans are safer in groups, and those who weren't naturally soothed by bonding would've failed to pass on genes because they'd charge into danger alone instead of retreating to the nearest group.
So how does this make the reader and the characters bond with each other? In the case of the earlier examples, all of your characters are now in an awful situation together and have to overcome the adversity that faces them. For us as the reader, however, we’re now invested in their wellbeing and wanting to see them succeed through their trials, creating the same reaction as if we’re going through it with them as well.
Just like in the previous section where we both sang the section title, shared experiences can form near-instantaneous bonds.
Anything can be shared to make your characters and your readers bond. It can be anything from the same creepy guy hitting on them (much like my best friend and myself having the same older man stalk us at the mall in our hometown), growing up in the military, or being bullied in school. But shared interests can also work if they're uncommon—and even work better in my opinion. "You like French mimes too? I thought I was a freak!" Sure, you're still a little odd, but now you're a little odd with company, and you have something that separates you from everyone else. This is a super important distinction. As lovely as the idea of unity is, that is not how people form social groups. Who is not in a group is just as important as who is because an all-encompassing definition of anything is useless.
Often you’ll see people making fun of YA characters always having a quirky interest. However, those quirky interests are an excellent way to quickly establish a friendship, especially with kids and teenagers. With adults, it's easier to use the other bonding experiences or time. It's more believable that an adult has known someone for ages or gone through some tough situations with them. With teens, they usually haven't yet gone through the kind of bonding trauma or lived long enough to have decades of friendship with someone, so you're left with common interests. The quirkier the interest, the more believable it is that a bond will form. Trying to avoid the trope is how you end up with odd friendships that make you wonder what two characters are doing together.
Unless you have circumstances forcing people together (like all the other types mentioned in this blog post), opposites do not attract; birds of a feather flock together. There is such a thing as complementary traits, but it almost always requires an outside force for two people to discover that.
Shared experience bonding is going to be most valuable for bonding the readers to the characters. These are the characters that help us work through our past traumas, teach us things moving forward, and stick with us for years and years to come.
What the *&^$ was that?
Ah, the joys of putting your characters in imminent danger. Much like putting your characters through prolonged hardships, this is going to bond characters together by having them overcome and obstacle together. Unlike hardships, though, the stakes need to be much higher.
Yes, the examples I gave were high in the hardships section, but they need to be even higher. Such as someone trying to murder or assault your character, or your character might be in a fight for his or her life. We need to feel our adrenaline surge and fear for the characters’ lives. That surge of adrenaline is going to attach us to the character, and ideally, your surrounding characters are going to feel the same way that the reader does and bond them for the journey of your book.
As mentioned above in the section on hardships, there’s a chemical reaction in our brains that make us bond with those around us. This is why a lot of popular dating and courtship rituals involve stress or fear (dinner and a horror movie, anyone?).
This is also the original point of "Blood is thicker than water." Blood was supposed to be about battlefields, and water was supposed to represent family (as in her water broke). The point was that the bonds forged by warriors experiencing stress and fear side by side were so strong that they could supersede those formed by birth. So your characters who are thrown in imminent danger together are going to be bonded very easily.
Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!
Everyone loves an underdog. There’s a reason that certain contestants on reality television shows (looking at you America’s Got Talent) or movies and books tend to be so popular with audiences. Without too much trouble, we can think of examples of storylines that make our hearts melt when they succeed. For example, we root for Cinderella to snag the prince when she goes to the ball because she’s been thrown down into the ashes (see what I did there?), her stepmother and stepsisters treat her awfully, and her entire life that she’s known before the aforementioned relations came into the picture. How can we not root for someone whose lost everything and now has the chance to get much, much more than she ever had before?
Another example for our more fantasy inclined readers would be Frodo in Lord of the Rings. He’s one of the least likely creatures in Middle Earth to travel to Mordor, overcome the enticing power of the one ring to rule them all (unlike many before him), and throws it into the fiery depths to destroy it. We root for this unlikely character to succeed because he’s the unlikely character. If it was an expected character to save the day, like Jon Snow always managing to get things done, we might be left saying, “Well, of course, he did,” and be disappointed.
Everyone wants to see someone pick themselves up from the ground and succeed further than anyone ever imagined. Not only that, but the underdogs of the story are a subset of the classic hero character, and we can’t help ourselves when it comes to rooting for the hero. Interestingly, though, underdogs don’t have to be more moral than the villain of the book. The more adversity a character faces, the less perfect we need them to be. That's why Robin Hood can get away with being a thief. Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham are so despicable and powerful that, by virtue of going against them, we can overlook the hero's vices. This is what makes the whole anti-hero concept viable at all. Making the protagonist the underdog allows them to be more flawed without losing the support of the reader, even if they have enough similarities to normally relate to them.
This might feel like it’s more for your reader bonding with the character than the characters, but characters and readers bond for the same reasons. Your characters are fictional, but they’re people if you do it right. That’s what makes stories throughout the ages relatable.
Join us next week for our latest installment in our Misused Advice series when we talk about to be verbs!