Beyond the Hook: What Makes Your Reader Care?

Any book lover who’s made the hobby of reading a lifelong habit can name stories that kept him reading well past anything else – dinner, chores, bedtime…

What makes this happen?

The Problem

Sympathetic characters can help as a start, but while they serve to draw in a reader, the story’s dilemma itself keeps the reader engaged. The reader can’t put the book down until the characters solve the problem.

First, though, the conundrum has to be intriguing. The stakes must be high. The characters must have everything to lose if the problem isn’t solved. For example:

  • If I marry the wrong man, my life will be miserable forever.
  • If we don’t solve this murder, more innocents will die.
  • We must keep the villain from ruining all our lives.

The sympathetic character causes the reader to care. When the reader stops caring about the characters, then the reader no longer cares if, when, or how the problem is solved. Hence, all things work together for the most successful book.

Granted, flat characters serving as a conduit for solving a problem can work, but will the reader remember those characters and their solutions once the book is closed? One of my vivid memories of characters is literally dreaming about them as I slept, so engrossed was I in a Susan Howatch book. The ability to combine memorable characters solving problems readers care about separates a good writer from an astounding talent.

Your turn:

 Can you name an author who combines sympathetic characters with intriguing problems to solve?

What work of fiction stuck with you long after you read it?

What character did you think about long after you read a book?

15 Responses to Beyond the Hook: What Makes Your Reader Care?

  1. Damon J. Gray November 2, 2017 at 5:34 am #

    The most engrossing fiction I have ever read was the seven book set, “The Chronicles of Narnia.” My sister gave me a beautiful boxed set when I graduated from high school and left for college. For the first time in my life, I quite literally could not stop turning pages. I found myself staying up till two or three in the morning – just one more chapter – okay, this time I mean it. Just one more.

    Unfortunately, I loaned that set to someone and never got it back.

  2. Loretta Eidson November 2, 2017 at 6:42 am #

    Jungle Fire by Dana Mentink kept me turning the pages. I just had to know how Nina would get through her dilemma. It is full of constant action. It kept me devouring the story and caring about Nina.

  3. Carol Ashby November 2, 2017 at 6:55 am #

    I have yet to read anything by Roseanna White that doesn’t keep me from what I should be doing or keep me reading past 2 a.m. I guess the latter is only a variation of the first since I should be sleeping then or maybe writing on my own novel if I’m in the flow.

  4. Melissa Ferguson November 2, 2017 at 7:27 am #

    Once in middle school I went to Lifeway and bought a book (I believe it was a whopping $3). I fell in love with the historical romance about a young woman in a crimson gown who married the suitor of her older sister for propriety sake and then over the course of the book falls in love with him. I still recall so many details of the story and the sweetness of her character.
    The book was misplaced shortly after, and for years I would wonder and search the stores for the cover of the woman in a crimson dress. I only realized after my first ACFW conference that the book was most certainly a Love Inspired Historical! However, the two-decade-long search continues…

    • Carol Ashby November 2, 2017 at 9:25 am #

      Melissa, try this to find it. Search Amazon with ” love inspired historical,” scan down the search results to the year you bought it, and you should find it, maybe even as a new copy.

      • Melissa Ferguson November 2, 2017 at 12:46 pm #

        I just tried. Went through 20 pages, the oldest dating to 2011 before it ended. Thanks though, Carol, for trying to help! Perhaps it’ll be the quest that’ll follow me through life.

        • Carol Ashby November 2, 2017 at 1:56 pm #

          I think there is a way to get it to display more than 20 pages of search results. I’ve seen as many as 400, but I’m not sure how I got that. If you want to leave me your email address thru my webpage contact, I’ll try to figure it out and let you know how if I do.

  5. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser November 2, 2017 at 7:36 am #

    Which howatch book was it, Tamela? And which character?

    For me there are so many…but perhaps the most memorable is actually a minor character, Peter McKenzie’s Masai gunbearer Lathela in Robert Ruark’s “Something of Value”.

    Lathela gets the most memorable line in the book, when after returning to camp following a raid on a group of Mau Mau, he’s carrying something large stuck on the end of his spear and gleefully says, “Mimi nataka headpiece, bwana!”

    Obviously, this is not a book that is much-read today, and would never be published in the current cultural climate, but it does accurately reflect the attitudes and mores of the time, and should be read in that light, without modern preconceptions.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray November 2, 2017 at 12:20 pm #

      I dreamed about all of them, but particularly first along. — The Wheel of Fortune.

      • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser November 2, 2017 at 12:27 pm #

        Tamela, I remember Wheel of Fortune so well! And I did dream about Vanna…

        Kidding; coudn’t resist! But I really do remember Wheel of Fortune very well, and am still upset about the bad end that Harry (I think) the ex-soldier found. I had really liked him, and seeing his dissolution of character was hard.

        I really liked Jon the monk in Glamorous Powers, especially since I myself had to make the transition from warrior monk to suburban domestic…and what a mess THAT was.

        Loved the image, in that book, of the Light from the North.

  6. Maggie McKenzie November 2, 2017 at 8:57 am #

    I read mostly Historical Romance now and there are many great authors of this genre. I hate to mention my favorites because I don’t want to forget any.

    I still have in my library, most of Gene Stratton-Porter’s books which I devoured as a kid. Freckles, Girl of the Limberlost , The Keeper of the Bees and more. I actually have bees myself now, and I’m sure that love began when I read about them in her book.

  7. Judi Clarke November 2, 2017 at 9:24 am #

    One of my favorite books is “The Last Sin Eater” by Francine Rivers. I watched the DVD first, and I was so taken in by the story and Cadi’s character that the next day, I ran out and bought the book. As soon as I finished it, I watched the movie again. All of that took place within one week – and I’m a slow reader (I savor every word). I could not put that one down.

    I also love Jennifer Chiaverini’s Elm Creek Quilt series. I’ve spent many a night reminding myself “you said that was the last chapter tonight,” as I turned the page to “just peek” at the first sentence of the next one, and then get completely pulled in again.

  8. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D November 2, 2017 at 11:18 am #

    I found the Fifth Wave series particularly riveting, even though it is YA fiction. The character of Cassie really touched me- a young woman who is stuck in a new world that she didn’t create, having watched her parents die and then being thrust into caring for her little brother Sammy.

  9. Tamela Hancock Murray November 2, 2017 at 12:21 pm #

    I love learning about books from my blog readers!!!!

  10. Natalie Monk November 3, 2017 at 10:57 am #

    Oooh! Great post!
    The book that still has me caring about the characters (a year later) is Joanne Bischof’s The Lady and the Lionheart. Such wonderful character developement. I’m working on developing deeper characters right now, so this post comes at a perfect time. Thanks, Tamela.

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