Creating Characters We Care About

James Scott Bell

Today’s post is brought to you by:

I mention the book today because it’s the story of the bond between two brothers. Chuck Samson, an ex-Navy chaplain who served with a Marine unit in Afghanistan; and his adult, autistic brother, Stan, who has a heart as big as the Pacific. And what happens when killers come after them both.
This bond is something I call the Care Package, a story element that greatly enhances reader connection to the Lead.
The Care Package is a relationship the Lead has with someone else, in which he shows his concern, through word or deed, for that character’s well being.
This humanizes the Lead and engenders sympathy in the reader, even if the Lead happens to be a louse.
Let me give you a few examples.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is not just some lone rogue. She is the protector of and provider for her mother and sister, Prim. What she does in taking Prim’s place in the Games is the ultimate sacrifice of love. When she makes it, we are so much on her side that we will follow her anywhere, rooting for her all the way.
In Star Wars, the only reason Luke will not leave with Obi-Wan Kenobe is that his aunt and uncle need him on the farm. Here’s a boy who dreams of becoming a knight, but he can’t just leave his family. We like that in him. It shows nobility. Shortly thereafter, of course, his aunt and uncle are murdered…and Luke is off to fight the evil Empire.
Dorothy Gale cares about Toto in The Wizard of Oz. She’ll do anything to protect her innocent dog from the clutches of Miss Gulch.
Having a Care Package relationship keeps a character from being completely selfish. We don’t like such folk. We hope that we are not that way.
Scarlett O’Hara, for all her dithering selfishness, cares about her mother and father.
Mike Hammer, not the softest of PIs, cares about Velma.
Even the bitter and bigoted Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) in Gran Torino cares…about his dead wife. It is only because of her final wishes that he even tolerates the young priest who keeps showing up to check on him.
The Care Package is one of the reasons we watched Breaking Bad. Walter White engages in a truly despicable act — cooking super crystal meth for sale on the street. Yet he holds some degree of sympathy. He gets into the trade

because he’s dying of cancer and wants to provide for his wife and handicapped son.

But as the story progresses, Walt becomes more ruthless and drags his former student, Jesse, into this dark world.
And yet…and yet…whenever Jesse gets in real trouble, Walt tries to get him out of it. He cares about Jesse in spite of all that happens. And Jesse cares about Mr. White. They forget about this caring at various times when they want to kill each other, but it always comes back when the chips are down.
Now that is good writing, and a great lesson. You can have a criminal as your Lead, and if you give him a Care Package, you’ll still hook the reader. 
In short, the Care Package shows that even the worst characters have some shred of humanity in them which gives the readers hope they might, if circumstances are just so, be redeemed.
In my workshops on structure I stress the difference between the Care Package and a later beat called Pet the Dog. The latter is something that happens in Act 2, when the Lead takes a moment out of her own troubles to help someone weaker than herself. In The Hunger Games, for instance, Katniss helps the weakest of the players in the Games, little Rue.
The Care Package, by contrast, is a relationship the Lead has before the story begins. Thus, sometime early in Act 1, we are given a glimpse of this bond.
A word to you plotters/outliners. Consider using a Care Package as the emotional starting point for your developing story. That’s what I did with Don’t Leave Me. I got the initial idea of writing about a former military chaplain. I started to think about his backstory, and almost immediately came up with the idea of his having an autistic brother he has protected all of their lives, and now must do again when killers arrive on the scene.
It was such a strong emotional tie for me that it incentivized my wanting to write the entire novel, just to vindicate this relationship.
And now you pantsers, as you are writing along, maybe 10,000 words into that wonderful mess you love, why not pause for a moment and consider the lead character who is starting to come to life? You don’t have to worry about structure here, just ask yourself what kind of relationship can this Lead have with someone else that shows a caring spirit?
Heck, you’re a panster! Go ahead and write a scene like that. The benefit to you is the greater emotional connection you’ll have with your Lead. And that’s going to make for a better book.
And just to complete today’s commercial, please note that Don’t Leave Me is currently on sale at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.

So what character in recent fiction have you been drawn to, and why? 

29 thoughts on “Creating Characters We Care About

  1. Game of Thrones is another good example. There are some terrible people in that world, but they’re desperate and driven and deeply love members of their family. Jamie Lannister tosses a kid out of a window opening act, but his devotion to his brother and sister redeems him slightly, as well as when he helps out his former enemy.

    Does a romantic subplot count as a Care Package (great name)? Or does that muddy things up?

    • GOT is a great example, Elizabeth.

      As far as romantic subplot go, that’s something that develops after the story is underway. Boy meets girl, etc. The Care Package is not a romantic relationship and it is already in place when the story begins.

  2. The presence of a defining relationship (Care Package) really works for me as a reader. I’ve not seen it identified before. Congrats on recognizing/formulating this powerful writing tool.

    James Lee Burke’s protagonist in “Wayfaring Stranger” loves and protects his wife (Jewish victim of Nazi concentration camp) and WWII comrade (brave yet achingly vulnerable).

    Drake Cody’s ( “Nerve Damage”) formative relationship is his caring and protective role of his funny, cerebral palsy-challenged younger brother. In a twist, when harm befalls the brother Drake feels he betrayed and failed the person he loved most.

    In both examples the “care package” demonstrates selflessness and the nobility of caring for others more than one’s self.
    Jim – The “Care Package” deserves to become a widely recognized tool. I’d like to symbolically bash a bottle of champagne on the bow of the JSB “Care Package” as she launches into the waters of writing craft.

  3. Then there’s Pat Conroy’s _Beach Music_, while not a killer/thriller, keeps the reader somewhat engaged through all the family bickering and backbiting and Holocaust backstory by Jack’s raising his motherless (by way of suicide), daughter, Leah.
    Great post, BTW… I’ll hafta start paying more attention… both in my reading AND my writing…:-)

  4. More excellent analysis, insights, and advice from my favorite craft-of-writing author and teacher! I love your “care package” and “pet the dog” techniques. Thanks for this, James – I’ll be sending my clients here to read it. And I just bought Don’t Leave Me! 🙂

  5. I’m having trouble naming a contemporary book. I can think of Conway Sax in the Ulfelder series and a couple of others. In many new ones that I read, I want the protag dead ASAP and am actually glad when the wheels come off. Too many stories depend on TSTL (too stupid to live) as a trope.

    Now, in a couple of weeks, reviewers may be saying the same about me. I tried to capture her sense of loyalty – first to her father and then to the hero. It leads her into some very deep water when she could have just walked away.

    I will say, the bad guys are pretty bad. Even I was happy to see what happened to them in the end. No childhood trauma, no dead puppies. They’re depraved money-driven scum.

    I have to dig back to characters like Tom Joad and Dwayne in the McMurtry series to get to characters I was willing to follow anywhere.

    And I agree, never waste champagne. *holds out flute*


  6. Wanted to stop by with an unsolicited testimonial about Jim’s book. I’ve had the privilege of reading Don’t Leave Me, and once again this teacher/author practices what he preaches–creating characters and situations about which the reader cares.

  7. I LOVE this post. I have a lot of main characters with this “Care Package” thing and it really makes the characters stand out that much more. Suddenly we CARE about them because we see they care about others. Great post. I’ve been reconsidering how to start my current WIP and I think this is giving me some ideas.

  8. Another one for my Quote Box:
    When they came for him
    it was time to run.
    When they came for his brother
    it was time to fight.

    — James Scott Bell, Don’t Leave Me 2014

    What do you call that “slogan” thingy on the front cover? At any rate, it was enough for me to download the book on the spot. Of course it’s “the hook,” but I am sure there is another name for it. It also reminds me of a song lyric. Maybe I’ll think of it.

    • I call it a “tag line,” Adam. I think of it like those short lines you see on movie posters. Remember Alien? “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

      Coming up with a killer tag isn’t easy, but it’s a good thing to try for…it helps clarify for you and the browser, too.

      Thanks for downloading the book!

  9. Jim, another great post. DON’T LEAVE ME was the first of your novels that I read. Loved it. Chuck’s care and protection of his brother Stan certainly made for a lead with which the reader developed an emotional bond.

    With my WIP I plan to tie that “care package” into the inciting incident to make both stronger.

    Thanks for another great teaching moment.

  10. This is something I really working at to try and make my antagonist likeable in my current series. It was fairly easy to do with the protagonists (Father, Mother, Sons split apart by an invasion…kind of easy to care for them as each of them cares/fears for the others). But I really want the reader to begin to like the Chinese commanding general as well, even though he is the enemy, and a ruthless one at that.

    Got some ideas I am working out to deepen that connection in book 2, and we’ll see how it goes. I really hope to tear into the reader’s emotions by the time this is over.

    Oh, and by the way JSB, we need to get your non-audiobookified books into audiobook format. I know a guy who can help with that.

    • Personally, as a reader, I don’t want the antagonist to have likeable qualities, so I wouldn’t be encouraging my clients to do that. I love to hate the antagonist!

  11. Great advice, as usual. If these characters we’re trying to breathe life into are going to feel real, they need to have life, love, relationships *before* the story starts, and (assuming they survive) continue afterwards. They can’t live in a world circumscribed by “page 1” and “the end.”

    • Sorry John, but when I first read your comment I thought you’d said “They can’t live in a world circumcised by “page 1” and “the end.””

      Had a hard time wrapping my head around the imagery there.

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