Characters We Care About . . .or Not

What makes us care? And equally as important, what makes us NOT care? I’m reading a novel–I’m not going to identify it because I hate panning another writer’s book–and I just don’t care. The book sold very well. The premise is wonderful, the writing far better than mine, but I. . . don’t. . .care about these people. Have you read books like that?
In a teeny nutshell, here’s what I tell writers in my workshops to help them write characters that readers will care about: Make them love someone else deeply. Make them vulnerable. Make them moral, or if not moral, make them ultimately pay for their immorality with guilt and shame. See, hear, smell, taste and feel every scene through their senses. The writer of this novel has done those things, and it doesn’t feel like enough. The characters love and are vulnerable. I’m hoping the immoral choices a couple of characters are making will be set right eventually. And there is one character who is incredibly noble. And yet I don’t even care about her. So what is it? I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me or the mood I’m in. I’m going to finish it because I’m curious to see where the story’s going, but I could exchange the letters A, B, C and D for the characters and not miss them. 
I’d like to hear your thoughts on this, and I’m going to try to figure out why I’m having this (non)reaction to these poor little fictional people. I’ll let you know my conclusions when I’m done.    


  1. Lorene on September 26, 2006 at 7:46 am

    I’m fairly certain I just read the same book 🙂

  2. Lorene on September 26, 2006 at 7:53 am

    By the way, assuming it is the same book, the end will not offer any reason to feel differently. It just ends.

  3. Margo on September 26, 2006 at 8:55 am

    Diane, I recently read a book by an author I like but I’ve found lately in her books that I simply don’t like any of the people )-: I don’t really know what the problem is but I don’t care about them and when I finish the book, as Lorene said best, ‘it just ends’…I don’t think about them or even remember their names…SO UNLIKE YOUR BOOKS!…everyone of yours grab me and years later I can still remember the characters names because they made such an impact on me!…I still remember ‘Shelley’ being my favorite character in ‘Summers Child’ and I remember everything about her!…that is the difference between a ‘gifted’ writer like yourself and an ordinary author…you really know how to get to the heart and soul of your characters and they feel like my friends…I know it must sound strange but I really, really miss them after I read the last page of your books…it’s very hard to find other authors that grab me in the same way…

  4. Lorene on September 26, 2006 at 9:26 am

    “See, hear, smell, taste and feel every scene through their senses.”
    This is why Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD was so good. Also the reason I enjoyed THE KITE RUNNER.

  5. Diane Chamberlain on September 26, 2006 at 2:40 pm

    LOL lorene. is it the book that covers many years? i’ll be really annoyed if it “just ends.” can you figure out why you didn’t care about the characters? i wonder if it’s because time is so compressed. or because the people themselves simply aren’t very likeable?

  6. Diane Chamberlain on September 26, 2006 at 2:51 pm

    >>I know it must sound strange but I really, really miss them after I read the last page of your books…it’s very hard to find other authors that grab me in the same way…

  7. Margo on September 26, 2006 at 2:59 pm

    I wonder what this book is…hmmmmmmm…anyway, it occurred to me why I like your characters so much, Diane…because they are so REAL…they live, love, hope and dream, but also make mistakes…the good ones forgive and they also try to forgive themselves…I ‘feel’ your characters pain and passion and some authors just don’t know how to convey this.

  8. Lorene on September 26, 2006 at 3:26 pm

    I just didn’t care about the people at all. They weren’t likable to me but I am so in the minority with this one.

  9. Brenda on September 26, 2006 at 5:11 pm

    I don’t think that this writer could be Better than you, Diane, if you don’t care about the characters…that is an oxymoron…if the writing was good enough, you would CARE about the characters…
    I read your books-take away so much-and always remember the characters…who could forget them???
    That’s WRITING!!!!1

  10. Lorene on September 26, 2006 at 5:18 pm

    I agree, Brenda. I cared about CeeCee especially. I felt the desperation and fear. I just gotta feel like I am a part of the story .

  11. Cheryl on September 26, 2006 at 6:49 pm

    I read a book that I just didn’t care about the charachters earlier this summer. I just didn’t find anything I could relate to and I don’t think the author did a good job of explaining the charachters and how they really feel.
    Diane, you do a great job with charachterization and I too miss the charachters in your books. I just finished Bay at Midnight and really liked Lucy. She was one of my favorite charachters in the book and one I would love to read more about and know more about.

  12. Margo on September 27, 2006 at 9:15 am

    I mentioned earlier that I cared SO much about Shelley from SUMMER’S CHILD…I’ve never forgotten her and I wish she could appear in another story because I miss her…’ditto’ Brenda and Lorene…I never forget Diane’s characters who become my friends!

  13. Diane Chamberlain on September 27, 2006 at 11:00 am

    thanks for all the compliments on my characters. that’s the most important and enjoyable part of writing to me, which is why i spend so long on it. i’m still trying to figure out the people in LOVING ANDY. i laugh now when i think about that “first draft in thirty days” book in which the author suggested doing your character sketches in a day. ha!
    actually, margo, andy reminds me of shelley a bit. he has that simple innocence. he’s going to be a character people root for (i hope).
    speaking of characters, i’m going to have to change Allie’s name. i keep getting her and andy’s names confused, and if I’m doing that as the writer, the reader’s going to have a problem, too. I’ve always had a rule that I don’t give two characters in a book names that are similar, or even beginning with the same first letter. This is why. So I need a new name for Allie and it has to fit her character, of course. A little mystical, extremely empathic, 18, about to graduate from high school, wants to study psychology, longing for a father since she lost hers years ago–and of course, carrying a secret. I’m thinking of Meg or Megan, Simmee (the name of an old high school friend of mine–always loved that name, but not sure it fits her), Kara, and a few others.

  14. Diane Chamberlain on September 28, 2006 at 12:43 am

    I finished reading the book I (and Lorene) were discussing. I actually liked the last few chapters best, and felt closer to the young man character than I had to any other character thus far. I was pleased with the ending, while Lorene found it lacking. But I still feel irritated with the characters and the short shrift some of them were given, and still a little mystified why the book didn’t work better for me. I’ll be thinking about that while I work on my own book.

  15. Brenda on September 28, 2006 at 5:03 pm

    You won’t believe this, Diane, before I read on, I thought of the name Margaret-and use a nickname (Of course my granddaughters are Katelyn Jessica, Sophie Olivia and Margaret Rose…I did a short novel once and the protagonist was Margaret (after the baby was born over a year ago-I threw it away-didn’t want to use her name…however, I was thinking for you “Maggie or Meg” I guess “GREAT NAMES TO THINK ALIKE” 🙂
    The S name is too confusing…too much to THINK ABOUT…I often tell my students that I will NEVER understand why unusual names are used on ACT test, etc…because names should not be something we think about when we are thinking of other things…thus they should be good, simplistic…
    When my students write, I encourage them to use ORDINARY (not mundane) names…In my Vietnam book-I think the mother has to be changed–but that is on the burner until after graduation in May.
    Megan–I have tonss of them in school-nothing unearthly about them. (Teacher talking here…)

  16. Diane Chamberlain on September 28, 2006 at 6:55 pm

    one of the important things with names is to think about what the popular names were in the era the character was born. . . and whether his or her parents were the type to give a common name or uncommon name. or perhaps a family name. my generation has tons of diane’s, but who names their daughter diane these days?
    that’s an interesting point about simmee not being a good choice because it gives the reader too much to think about. i remember decades ago reading a margaret atwood book in which the main character had such a weird and hard to pronounce name that atwood had to make a note about it at the start of the book. i never got past that character’s name, stumbling over it every time it came up. so i think you have a good argument.

  17. Brenda on October 1, 2006 at 8:04 am

    In Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and Crime and Punishment-what GREAT books if readers could get over worrying about pronouncing the names. At the high school I taught in Kanawha County-I challenged my seniors to read ONE OF THOSE-for extra points–that was their problem and I knew IT WOULD BE…I told them to call the characters John and Mary…They did and finished a book-something MOST students don’t do (where I teach) today…

  18. Brenda on October 1, 2006 at 12:18 pm

    Bad news-rejections-YUCK
    Before I joined this blog–I mailed a short review/premise of my Vietnam novel.
    BECAUSE of teaching, grad school, travels, and health problems right now (it is all I can do to get to Master’s Degree by May 3rd-with the roadblocks the powers that be put in my way)…I don’t have time to write more than my little column, and study for my COMPS (NOT YET), and work on projects…however, I sent a few pages…
    My rejection was that I did a great job with the history of the l960’s but because the man dies in my novel—they can’t publish it in Harlequin’s EVERLASTING LOVES…that is my first time to submit anything for rejection-but my firstime for the novel.
    I PLAN TO FINISH the novel NEXT Summer and start submitting….
    P.S. I plan next year to join the Writer’s group about l hour from me (ASHLAND, KY.) and perhaps begin one here…
    Plans of men…and women…

  19. Brenda on October 1, 2006 at 12:20 pm

    The person who rejected me-called my characters by name…that impressed me, Diane… “While your story illustrates life in the l960’s convincingly, the central relationship between Sandy and Jimmy doesn’t have the intensity or longevity we require for an Everlasting romance…doesn’t fit the paraeters of our series…
    Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider THE MARTIN FAMILY (Not the title of my book….)
    Diane-I used names from that time period…and part of the book is written in letter form from Jimmy to Sandy and vice versa (he was in Vietnam).

  20. Diane Chamberlain on October 1, 2006 at 6:35 pm

    brenda, that is a VERY impressive rejection! it’s weird how writers start categorizing their rejections as good or bad. lol. the editor told you what needs to be different. . . for that particular line. it may be that what you’re writing is more appropriate as a “single title” book that for a line.

  21. kate on October 2, 2006 at 12:29 am

    it’s just my opinion, based upon books i’ve read over the years, but i think a lot of authors “tell” us too much about their characters and don’t allow the storyline to “SHOW” us who these characters are and why. an author engages the reader’s emotions by showing the reader, as opposed to the author engaging just the reader’s head, by telling the reader. to me, that’s what evokes a reader’s internal connection to the character; and it is that connection that makes the reader care about the character. and showing is what you do best. yeppers.

  22. Diane Chamberlain on October 2, 2006 at 11:51 am

    welcome kate, and thanks for the compliment. you’re so right. one of the exercises i teach is to think of a character and think of an emotion and come up with a way to SHOW the character having that emotion, then having the rest of the class guess what the emotion is. telling is much easier, but it really does create a distance between the character and the reader.

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