In my first drafts, I often have a problem in making my characters likeable within the first page or two. Since your reader will probably only give you a page or two in the bookstore, you need to capture their interest fast.
I wrote this article, which originally appeared on Suite101, with a few tips on how to do that.
Create a Relatable Character
Use Tips and Tricks to Create Character Empathy in the First Five Pages
In the first five pages of a novel, use actions or traits that psychologically cause readers to relate to or like a character very quickly.
Most readers—including editors and agents—look at the first few pages to determine if the characters are worth reading about.
Writers can utilize certain actions and traits that cause the reader to like the character or relate to him on a psychological level, without knowing anything else about him, and sometimes even showing him doing unsavory things a few pages later.
Utilize for Both Sympathetic and Empathetic Characters
The character does not necessarily have to be “sympathetic” or likable, but a writer wants the reader to at least relate to the character on some level (“empathetic”) and want to continue reading the story.
For certain genres such as romance, the character does need to be sympathetic or likable. So also think about the requirements of a novel’s genre or category.
Utilize One or Two Traits to Create Instant Character Appeal
Of the following list, a writer only needs to use one or two of them in the first five pages to make the character appealing enough for the reader to continue. These things act on a deeper psychological level to draw the reader to the character.
Victim of an injustice: Many times, a character has some event in his past where he was wronged unfairly or abused. This might have also caused long-term hardships or handicaps, whether physical, financial, or emotional.
Abandoned, neglected, or rejected: This especially works with children, but this event in a character’s past can make her likeable. Loneliness is an emotion most readers can intensely sympathize with.
Kindness: A character performing a kindness to another human being, a child, or an animal, usually creates instant likeability. Any action of love in the first five pages will show the reader the character is worth reading about because they have the capacity to love another.
Extraordinary abilities: A character with exceptional abilities, whether intellectual, physical, social, or supernatural, naturally appeals to most readers. This also includes a good sense of humor or wit. Showing this ability in the first five pages in a small way will make the character intriguing.
Utilize Action and Interaction With Characters or Setting
When using any of the above traits, show the trait in action. Try not to “tell” the reader what the character is like. Instead, “show” the reader the character’s trait through her interaction with another character or in how she responds to external events.
Utilize the setting of the story to both set the stage and show the character’s empathetic trait to the reader at the same time. Have the character interact with the setting or with events happening within the specific setting.
If a novel can show one of these empathetic types of traits to the reader within the first five pages, the reader will be more likely to be intrigued or interested enough to keep reader.