Imagine you’re playing your first game of Scrabble with a friend. You haven’t been taught the rules of the game, but you know the general idea is to make words and place them on the game board. Your friend gives you letter tiles and tells you to take your turn. Looking at your letters, you might make the word you think of first or search for a word you find pleasing, but you’re unlikely to choose the word and placement with the highest score. Perhaps you’ll have a great afternoon, but you can’t expect to win the game.
Storytelling is like this. Of course, winning in storytelling is very subjective, but most fiction writers want their stories to be well received by readers. That’s their win condition. To help writers get a win, I created the ANTS framework. Instead of focusing on what goes into a story (like characters, plots, and settings), ANTS is a model for what should result from it. While no one can calculate exactly how a story will score, using this framework is like knowing that in Scrabble, longer words score higher, less frequent letters score higher, and words placed on colored squares score higher. With ANTS, you can strategize.
The acronym stands for the combined factors that typically result in a reader-approved story: Attachment, Novelty, Tension, and Satisfaction. I’ll be discussing each one in a four-part series of posts at Writers Helping Writers, starting today with the first one.
Attachment represents how much your readers care about the elements in a story. If they hang on to every word because they desperately want to see the main character succeed or the love birds get together, you’ve created high attachment. While any element of the story could earn attachment, characters are by far the biggest source. That’s why the vast majority of stories have one or more main characters for readers to bond with.
On its own, attachment improves readers’ enjoyment and gives them a reason to continue. However, it’s also a prerequisite for another ANTS effect I’ll describe later: tension. If you’re reading a book and you think the protagonist should die in a garbage fire, you won’t care that they might lose their job. Until your story earns attachment, you can’t expect readers to sit on the edge of their seats. Conversely, the more attachment readers have to elements of your story, the more emotionally powerful your story becomes.
Just with those basics, your strategy when storytelling might change. Instructional text on characterization usually emphasizes creating complex characters with deep motivations, what we call a “well-developed character.” While this is great advice, it can obscure what’s most critical from a goal-oriented standpoint: that your protagonist is liked. After reading conventional writing instruction, many new writers become so focused on creating character flaws and characters arcs that their protagonists put off readers. This deprives the whole story of a solid foundation.
For our purposes, a likable character is one that readers latch onto. If your main character is a jerk, but readers laugh at their quips and want to see them become a better person, you’ve created a likable character. Now let’s say you want to make your protagonist well-liked by a general audience. Here’s what you might give your character to help meet that goal:
- Selflessness: Moral values play a big role in likability. While what’s considered moral varies from culture to culture, it’s difficult to go wrong with a character who puts others’ needs before their own. This can come in many forms, from doing essential but thankless work, to giving up a meal for someone who needs it more.
- Sympathetic problems: It’s easy for readers to get attached to characters who deserve better in life than what they’re getting. When characters have hardships that feel genuine and are no fault of their own, they become the underdog everyone cheers for.
- Novelty: Portraying your characters as funny, fresh, or intriguing will make them more likable to readers. But be careful. If you put too much emphasis on a simple gimmick, you might end up with an annoying character.
- Strengths and flaws: In general, a character with no strengths is unpleasant, and a character with no flaws is insufferable. The safest bet for a new writer is to create a character with mostly positive traits but one noticeable flaw that can be addressed with a character arc.
If you’re aiming for readers of a specific group, such as school-aged black girls or middle-aged white men, you have another option. You can create a character they’ll identify with. When people read about characters with traits they associate with themselves, they project themselves onto that character. Attachment quickly follows. The basic technique is to create a character of the right demographic with relatable or admirable personality traits. These characters don’t need flaws to be liked by many members of the target demographic, but giving them flaws and other likable characteristics will still widen their appeal.
How do you know if you’ve succeeded? Thankfully, ANTS isn’t that difficult to measure. Ask your readers questions like these:
- Did you sympathize with the protagonist?
- Did you want the protagonist to succeed?
- Did the protagonist’s arc feel compelling?
Because interpretations of characters are so individual, I recommend asking at least three readers before making judgments based on the answers.
Overall, the biggest challenge of attachment is how long it takes. People need to get to know characters before caring about them. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get to know someone while they’re running for their life or fighting off an ambush. This is why so many story openings alternate between the action and the main character. The writer might have a prologue to introduce the big threat, then dedicate the first chapter to a personal moment for the main character, then go back to the big threat again. This dual plot structure offers many benefits, but if you can open your story with a compelling conflict that also helps readers understand your main character, that’s even better.
The good news is that with enough time, readers may not only care about the characters but also about the places in the story. Attachment is also the most enduring effect in ANTS. Once your story has earned attachment, it can carry readers through any boring or unpleasant patches your muddlesome middle might harbor.
Even though attachment takes time to build and tension isn’t as effective without attachment, you can still entertain your readers immediately. Next time I’ll describe the fastest ANTS effect: novelty.
Chris Winkle is the editor-in-chief of Mythcreants, an online magazine dedicated to fantasy and science fiction storytelling. You can read more of her articles on writing or listen to her talk about stories on The Mythcreant Podcast.