Using Signalling

How do you know someone likes you?

Of all the ways that establishing a relationship in the real world mirror paths to liking a fictional character, to me, signalling seemed like the biggest stretch in this series of blogs on emotional cultivation. Signalling works in most relationships as a way to let the other person know you like them. People relax and feel comfortable around you when they get a sense you like them. But how does a fictional character let the reader know he or she is liked? (I promise, I will tell you.)

The types of signals we give depend on our culture, experiences, and beliefs. In France, kissing someone on the cheek is more casual than in the U.S. In North America, holding hands with someone usually signals a romantic relationship, often a well-established one, but in much of South America, platonic friends will often hold hands in public.

There are subtle signals: Someone who likes you will likely maintain eye contact, smile when interacting with you, ask you for information or advice. They may stand a bit closer to you, uncross their legs and/or lean forward when sitting.


The very first signal may just be a glance in your direction. Especially if there are other people between you or in the immediate area, a single glance is pretty ambiguous. Even two or three glances could signal them thinking and dismissing that they recognized you. How many glances do most people exchange before they have signaled mutual attraction or interest?

Thirteen is the average, according to research. Evidently, still at the eleventh and twelfth glances, we are concerned they are a stalker or crazy person, or that they are indulging some morbid obsession with your hair or clothing in disarray.

The more obvious signals include someone making physical contact (even a handshake or pat on the shoulder), making an effort to remember your name, proposing a next meeting, and responding with enthusiasm and/or delight. It is one of the least intuitive things about personal dynamics that people like us better when we are clear that we like them.

So how can a fictional character signal he or she likes the reader? Your mind immediately goes to an extremely close first–person narrator who talks directly to the reader, doesn’t it? A theatre term — “breaking the fourth wall” — is often employed here. It is a risky choice, because it makes it harder to engage the reader in your fictional world. You can sometimes get away with it, if you make the “you” your character addresses another character in their story. Then every time your narrator says he or she likes “you,” the reader subconsciously projects him- or herself as the recipient of that declaration.

But if you are following the more common convention of an omniscient, distant, third-person narrator, how can your characters signal they like the reader? As discussed in my last blog, “Cultivating Recognition,” your character can show the reader shared interests, activities, and histories. In sharing something difficult or shameful, your character can signal they like the reader, because they’re willing to be vulnerable in front of them. Something as stagy as a character declaring that they love it when they have an audience can make the reader feel included in their affection.

Use your creativity to come up with other ways your characters can directly or indirectly signal they like your readers, and you will have another tool for emotionally manipulating your audience. (With their permission, of course.)

This is part four of a series of posts on evoking specific emotions in readers. Check back next week for my post on “Using Honesty.”


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