Capturing Your Readers with Character Hooks

When I was in college, I listened to a speaker who, at the podium, had a towel on his arm much like a waiter. When he began his speech, I kept waiting for him to make reference to the towel. Oh, I thought, the longer that he took to get to the point, this is going to be creative and good, and I’m going to be dazzled by the reasons why the towel is there. I watched him, waiting, hanging on every word. But he went through his entire 30-40 minute presentation a never mentioned the towel at all. 

I was baffled, but I had been hooked by his presence. I also wondered even more about the towel, and not necessarily in a good way. He had hooked me in with the town, but then let me down.

When we introduce characters in our novels we need to provide something to them, such as my speaker’s towel, that captures our attention, that makes us want to follow forward with the story, and to anticipate what will happen next. This is a hook. 

A hook is what we call an interesting feature or characteristic that sets characters apart from others. In a story, the character hook is clear, distinct, energetic, or memorable image that implants the character into the reader’s mind from the very beginning. A good hook is something the reader can “hang” on to throughout the book. 

Hooks to consider: 

1. A unique speech pattern. Only give your character a unique speech pattern if it is easy to read and understand, and if it is important to the region that they are in, and, it is somewhat accurate.

2. A physical feature that is unique to them. You can do eyes and hair all you want, but keep in mind that this is overdone in books. Try other things, like height, weight, scars, disfigurements, etc. But at the same time, be sensitive. 

3. A physical habit or quirk. This is where people watching is important. Pay attention to the way that people speak. Do they use their hands? Have trouble staying focused? Do they bite their lips or play with their hair? 

4. Give your characters defined relationships with others. Sidekicks and bffs can reflect each others idiosyncrasies. If this is distinct enough, your reader will be hooked. I would even suggest that exaggerating relationships is far more interesting than toning it down. You want your reader to be so intrigued that they continue reading. If this relationship reads and sounds like every other set of friends in other books, then you need to do more. 

5. Develop a three-dimensional main character. Consider using an archetype as a kind of blueprint and then expanding on their strengths and weaknesses in that role, adding in the unexpected or quirky. Consider their past traumas, their thinking style, their education and social-economic class. All of this will add up to who they are.

6. Make them very good at one thing. They might be a terrible companion with poor hygiene, dull looks, and have a general hatred for society — but what if they are the best muffin maker in the world? Then their negative quirks are all forgotten. Of course this “one good thing” that they excel in needs to be an important part of the plot, but just the fact that they are awesome at it or they are “the best” entices the reader to admire them and long to find out more about their story. 

What kinds of hooks that are the best for your character? I would say that the very best hooks are those that point to the ultimate purpose of the character, and the ultimate purpose of the book. If the hook is superfluous, silly, or distracting, then it may not be right. Like a towel, perhaps, on the arm of a speaker. If you’ve always wanted to write a character with a weird accent, for example, do that, but give it an organic reason why that accent is there, not to just puzzle the reader.

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.