Character Attachment in the Chocoverse by Amber Royer
by Blake Kimzey
A year ago
Character Attachment in the Chocoverse
Getting the reader attached to your characters is one of the most important jobs a writer has. You can have amazing plot twists – but nobody’s going to care, if they didn’t get attached enough to the protagonist to feel the shock she’s feeling. You can have the most intricate world building, but if readers didn’t want to follow the guy you gave them as guide into the world, they will have closed the book long before they got to find out about that.
In the first Chocoverse book, I knew I had given myself a challenge. I had set up a world where stealing viable cocoa beans was treason, punishable by death, because chocolate was the only resource her world had available to trade with a hungry galaxy. As a protagonist, Bo had to be both gullible and naive enough to believe that stealing the beans would bring balance back to her world, and prevent a galactic war, without having layers of fallout – and likely result in her execution. By the end of the trilogy, I wanted her to arc into a stronger, wiser person, capable of effecting true change throughout the galaxy because of her love and mercy. But how to keep readers with her long enough to get her there?
You need to make sure readers attach to the character the first time they meet her. It’s like we’re all baby birds, looking for someone to help us make sense of your big new story world. We either imprint on your protagonist immediately – or we likely never will. You get one chance for your character to make a first impression – and if it is not the impression you intended, you’ll spend the whole book working to overcome that.
Make sure that something significant happens in the first scene that connects us to your character’s inner life. Let the reader know at least one of these:
-- What does this character want desperately, at the moment or out of life?
I open Chapter 1 of Free Chocolate with Bo about to go on a double date with her mother, both of them bringing guys the other has never met – but who will be significant to the entire trilogy. Mamá is a celebrity chef, and Bo was on the road to being a telenovela star, before scandal derailed her career. Bo has fled Earth to go to a culinary academy on the other side of the galaxy, isolating herself from her past and the people she cares about. What she wants most is approval, from her mother, and from her world. This starts to become clear as the date goes badly and tensions rise.
At the moment: Bo wants Mamá to approve of her boyfriend, despite the fact that Brill is an alien whose people stripped Earth of commodities samples at Earth’s first First Contact.
Out of life: Bo wants the paparazzi to forget about her, and about the scandal, so she can graduate and teach at the culinary academy. She wants to disappear from public life – and yet, she can’t help FeedCasting her disapproval about HGB, the company that controls chocolate. Because as much as she believes on the surface that isolation is the answer, she’s hurting herself by denying herself connection. (In basic storytelling terms, her wound – the scandal – resulted in this lie defining her actions. The purpose of the entire trilogy, then, becomes to teach her that the lie is false – isolation is NOT the answer, she doesn’t need to care what the press says or what people think, she is still an amazing person whether there are haters or not.)
-- How badly in trouble is she, really?
I cheated a little on this one. Book 1 has a prologue. (I use these prologues – clearly marked as taking place some months or years before the current story – as a single chance to work in information Bo can’t know, but that the audience needs.) In it, Bo’s father is assassinated. Astute readers should be able to pick up on the fact that the man who killed Bo’s father is the same man who is now sitting next to Mamá at the table, on a date with the widow he created. Bo herself has no idea how badly in trouble she is. But the reader should, which helps garner sympathy for her.
-- What choice is she about to make, when none of them are good options?
Book 2 is all about the choices Bo has to make. So I started Pure Chocolate with her making a bad decision: She’s on Zant, and these shark-like aliens duel with their teeth. At dinner, she and her entourage notice a group of kids fighting outside, and one loses a hand. Brill wants to stop it, but everyone tells him he can’t. Horrified at the cruelty, Bo leaves on her own, and is captured by a drunk Zantite with a grudge against one of her friends. By the end of the first chapter, she’s unconscious and wakes up in a tree, and subsequently has to choose whether to identify her abductor, because on Zant, abducting a diplomat is a crime punishable by death.
-- What is about to be taken away from her?
I focused on this approach more in the opening of Book 3. Chapter One of Fake Chocolate starts with Bo on board a starship about to be attacked by space pirates. She could lose either her freedom or her life. I wanted something startling, that would make a reader who was picking up this book without having read the other two feel instant sympathy for her – even as I had to go through the tricky business of re-introducing plot lines and characters. I also brought in her goals and desires: her romantic relationship, the fact that she’s re-connecting with Mamá, the way she’s poised as the only one who can keep her planet from being invaded – to give weight to her potential death. (In storytelling, it is never enough for your character’s life to be the biggest thing at stake. Someone else’s life, yes. But the character has to want more from the story than just to survive it.)
No matter what approach you choose, just make sure your opening doesn’t allow your character to be boring.
Character attachment, by its very nature, is progressive. This is why starting with backstory is a bad idea. We’re not ready for it. We need to get attached to the character first, to feel he has become a friend of ours, before we’re ready to fond out how he got dumped back in college, which has fed into his current inability to commit.
You can’t expect as much attachment from the reader at the beginning of the book as you can later on, so don’t waste highly emotional scenes that require complex understanding of who the character is in Chapter 1. We’re not going to get it, not on a visceral level. Not yet.
I could have started Free Chocolate three chapters in, where Mamá’s boyfriend Frank – who Bo is starting to suspect may be an assassin – decides to take Bo’s boyfriend Brill “fishing.” Bo’s worried that Brill won’t be coming back. But had I used this as the opening, there would have been an awful lot to explain. The reader wouldn’t have gotten to see both Brill and Frank have a heroic moment back in Chapter 1, or to experience Bo’s growing distrust of Frank. They wouldn’t have been ready to experience Bo’s emotion.
Similarly, the reader has to become progressively attached to Bo over the course of the series in order to be startled as she uncovers revelations about secrets that affect her world and several other planets in her galaxy.
You have to keep the reader attached by keeping them clued in to the protagonist’s mental state as she starts to arc. Otherwise, the character’s behavior starts to feel erratic and readers feel that they are experiencing errors in the way you wrote her. A sort of, “The person I attached to would never do that,” mentality.
By Book 3, Bo has a very different relationship with some of the characters from Book 1. Without the development of those relationships because of the events in Book 2, readers would likely feel that Bo had sold out her principles (as presented in Book 1) when she gets a microdot that has information on her father’s death – along with other crimes HGB has committed – and she doesn’t immediately turn it over to the Galactic Court. Readers have to be attached enough to reason things through with her from that point on, when she is making decisions that are different from those we’ve been trained to expect by dystopian novels.
Consider how you’re keeping readers connected to your protagonist throughout the book. That will let you know where to drop in backstory (when we know him well enough to be curious WHY he’s unable to commit, when obviously he should be able to see that would be good for him) and where to put highly emotional scenes.
Fake Chocolate is available now, which means the trilogy is complete. You can see Bo’s arc, and these points on Character Attachment in action.
Amber Royer is the author of the high-energy comic space opera Chocoverse Trilogy. Book 3, Fake Chocolate, was just released April 14. Binge the whole trilogy, starting with a dose of Free Chocolate now!
Already caught up? Here’s the synopsis for Fake Chocolate: When disease ravages Earth's cacao plantations, Bo Benitez returns home to help with the media spin to hide that chocolate is in danger of being lost forever. HGB has come up with a new product - one which doesn't appease the cocoa-addicted murderous, shark-toothed aliens threatening to invade the planet. Someone has to smooth things out. Just when Bo starts to make headway, someone tries to kidnap her. While trying to avoid more would-be-kidnappers, Bo finds out that HGB is developing a cure for withdrawal from the Invincible Heart. Will she let her need to be physically whole again tie her to HGB and its enigmatic CEO? When she gets a key piece of evidence that would unravel secrets from three different planets, she has tough choices to make about the future of her world and its place in the galaxy.