Toolbox 16: Engaging the Reader

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I don’t know about you but I’ve been asking myself this for some time. What engages a reader? That fell flat on its face, so I move on to why do I read.

  • Biggest reason is I’m looking for the next big story.

While I’m looking I’m okay with:

  • visiting to another world (fantasy or not)
  • enjoying a good laugh, surprises, crazy antics
  • solving mysteries

I thought long and hard about what makes up a great story. The Five (TV Series) comes to mind. It blew my mind, but I’m not talking. You’ll have to watch it yourself.

And The Magicians + the Wayward series (the books) were definitely good.

I Googled it. Online says its all about the characters. I’m not sure it is only the characters, but I have to start somewhere.


My problem is don’t necessarily connect with the characters immediately but I do accept them. I’m like that with the people I meet as well. Be warned: it’s a personal thing that may slant my point of view.

Online suggests to write a compelling story, we must start with a compelling character.

Some traits to include:

  • well-rounded and random characteristics from all walks of life
  • aΒ driving need, desire, ambition or goal
  • a deeply hidden, possibly shameful, secret
  • coping/not coping with a contradiction and vulnerability (ex. bravery = deep need vs fear)
  • showing vulnerabilities beneath a tough exterior (to the reader at least)
  • the constant pressure of the consequences of success and failure
  • the drive to face an opponent that has a better chance of succeeding than they do

What’s a hero without a villain

Something I love to see the protagonist and antagonist are both sympathetic characters. I love understanding and even agreeing with both sides. It makes for an undetermined outcome. (Rarely found in a mystery.)

Lets say we’ve done all this and the readers are still not connecting. What then?

Characters carry the reader with them throughout; but occasionally, it takes time to get to know them. Stalling for time….

The world

We might have a very strong woman on a vestroid in the Asteroid Belt. We don’t know why she’s there.

Why do we care?

We might not. But hey! we are experiencing the Asteroid Belt. Hopefully that’s cool enough until the reader gets into the murder,Β industrial espionage and characters.

I’m thinking of the Magicians and Wayward. Sometimes the world can draw a reader in.

The Stakes

It isn’t the actor as much as what they face that brings out the egads in us.

Our actor faces an incident that could shatter their outer world as well as their inner reality, leaving them changed forever. The consequences leading to something more unimaginable. And will not only destroy the protagonist, but everyone else in their world.

For example check out an episode of Manifest.

Whether or not we used the stakes as a draw, we need to express them as early as possible.


All of us need to find a way to engage our readers. They’ve checked out our cover, and read the blurb. They’ve scanned the first few pages. Lets not lose them now.

Anything you’d like to add? I’m all ears.

Gleaned from:

47 responses to “Toolbox 16: Engaging the Reader

  1. I agree showing the character’s vulnerability, secrets, and even good traits develop a character into someone a reader gets. I never like a really, really sweet protagonist or a really, really evil antagonist because they come out as cartoon characters instead of believable, identifiable people. Yes, I have to have an interesting character to follow to enjoy the story.

  2. I agree the protagonists and antagonists should be equally compelling. Over-weighting either way, makes it hard to keep the reader’s interest. Oddly, I enjoy developing the evil more than the good. Great post!

  3. Really good points. Me (as a thriller lover), I especially like a character that may experience fear but I see how he works through it.

    • The battle with being afraid and doing it anyway is a big thing for me too. I don’t feel that brave, but I stick my neck out anyway.

      I always blamed lack of forethought. hehehe

  4. Every single part in a story and in the creation of the story seems important. And then, all those well-crafted pieces, preparations and marketing ideas have to merge into a successful book, to present, to sell, to read. Phew!

    I keep reading that characters make up the most compelling part, but the setting needs to be attractive as well, I think. Basically, as I mentioned before: you need all the pieces of the puzzle well-thought out and created to write and publish a book… And all of it needs total concentration, determination, and skill.

  5. I love a good character. I admit I can get lost in creating character profiles. Great post.

  6. It’s such a combination, but I think the characters do strike people first. Those come alive off the page are the ones we remember. Not every author can do that though.

  7. There’s definitely a “little bit of this and that” to a good character: ways in which they are strong, ways in which they are weak, talents, skills, and a certain “bigger/better than life” mixed in with comparably more intense wounds and tendencies towards some form of bad behavior.
    In a lot of ways the character has to be a kind of kaleidoscope, presenting enough things for most to find something to latch onto, without feeling like a full blown case of multiple personalities.
    Lately I’ve been really fond of trying to give characters a wound that prompts the character to have an extreme to them that is sometimes very useful and sometimes very troublesome. For example, a character who struggles with how many losses they’ve suffered, and covers it up by embracing levity and a certain cartoonish silliness.

  8. What really engages me is something that hasn’t been done before. Or there has to be something new about an old idea. I’m in it for the twists, too. Surprise me!

  9. Ronel Janse van Vuuren

    Great post. Characters have to be engaging in some way for me to stick with it (the plot has to be good, too).

    Ronel visiting on Author Toolbox day Things Every #Authorpreneur Should Know for 2019 #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

  10. I will sometimes push through a flat plot or a slower paced story if I really enjoy the characters. I will rarely – although it does happen occasionally – spend time with boring, flat characters if the plot and pacing is amazing. It depends on my mood. πŸ™‚

  11. I love sympathetic villains (Gotham really has me hooked for that!) but I know I need to get better at writing them myself. With TV, it’s so easy to connect with characters quickly. I find a lot of books don’t establish that connection fast enough, and for me I need to care about the characters early on or I lose interest.
    Great checklist for creating awesome characters πŸ™‚

  12. I like Steven James’ assertion: “There’s a long-running debate among those who teach writing and storytelling about whether stories are ‘plot-driven’ or ‘character-driven’ . . . . In truth, there’s no such thing as either a plot-driven or a character-driven story. All stories are tension driven.”

    I would put tension at the heart of reader engagement, but empathy and vicarious experience are also important draws.

  13. I think both great character development and settings are so important.

  14. Victoria Marie Lees

    Great information here, Anna. I was thinking. Sometimes the antagonist can be inanimate as in nature, weather, or time. What do you think? Characters are essential for a good story. And they all need a compelling backstory so the reader knows why they are like they are.

    Thanks so much for assisting your fellow writer. All best to you this year!

  15. I have to have characters I care about (at least partly!) or I won’t keep reading. Like you, I love it when I can sympathize with both the hero and the villain. Villains who might be right are one of my favorite things! As for setting, it must be vivid and set the mood. I like your example with The Magicians. Also the Harry Potter world. That stands out so strongly for many people.

  16. I think for me as a reader, it is all about the characters. I like there to be some mystery about them that is slowly revealed. The same when I watch tV or movies. I can’t read something where I don’t care about the main characters.

    Susan Says

  17. Characterization is so important and well-crafted characters pull me into a story immediately. I know it when I read it, so why can’t I write it myself? :-O

    I do think that all characters have traits of good and evil, troubles and toil, and that makes for a compelling, complex character a reader can care about.

  18. I’m definitely a character driven reader. I must connect with the voice in the first page or so. I want to believe in them and I want to believe in their worlds. Great post today Anna πŸ™‚

  19. One thing I’ve found, I don’t always respond to the same thing, it depends on the piece. Sometimes it’s the character(s), sometimes it’s the setting, sometimes it’s just a core idea. But I do think you covered all the bases with this post. Thanks

    • I’m a bit of that too. I want entertainment, something new and to find it I don’t have to click with the MC right away.

      I thought I was an odd duck though. πŸ˜‰

  20. Great post! Always looking for ways to make my stories more engaging. Thanks for sharing! πŸ™‚

  21. I’m glad you mentioned Manifest – I’m totally engaged with that show, and there are definitely a bunch of compelling characters and plenty of stakes! (I’m just hoping it doesn’t turn out like Lost.)

  22. I agree that it’s all about the characters. If your readers don’t care what happens to them, they won’t be engaged in the story. However, they don’t have to like the characters…just find them interesting enough to want to know what happens next.

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