A Deeper Look at Character

 I know this guy.  Everybody in our circle of friends knows him.  They go back years (not me, I’m the newbie in the group, which makes me analogous to the reader of a story… I just sit back and watch the pages unfold).  Everybody, in context to this group dynamic, seems to like him.

But do they really

Sometimes the more you know about a person, the harder they are to like.  This fellow, for example, has been cheating on his wife off and on for decades.  Everybody in the room knows it – except, perhaps, his wife. 

Who, incidentally, everybody not only likes, but also empathizes with.  And the only person in the room who doesn’t realize that is the cheating bastard himself.

The guy is funny and often charming, the first one with an amusing story and an entertaining way to tell it.  He’s warm, he hides his agenda well.  Doesn’t want to ruffle feathers.  Let’s just have a good time, get this evening over with without incident.

Such is the stuff of our stories. 

Because our characters have secrets to hide, stories to tell, facades and illusions to maintain.  But in our stories, it’s not that simple to walk away from at the end of the evening.

Because unlike reality, our readers are distanced from a childhood investment that allows for forgiveness.  Readers have only one criteria for sticking around, and it’s simple – are they hooked?

If not, they’ll walk for good.

And it takes more than a smokin’ & jokin’ good time protagonist to hook a reader.

So what does hook a reader in terms of character? 

Certainly, our heroes and villains, even our bit-players, should be complex and imperfect.   But in fiction, the art of crafting a compelling character isn’t their likeability.   Not even close. 

Whoever told you that was probably your high school creative writing teacher.  We need to like our protagonist echoes through halls of time, often distorting what the evolved writer needs to really understand.

Maybe we like them, maybe we don’t.  That’s not the issue.

Because when it comes to a protagonist, we must root for them.  Remember, the essence of storytelling holds that we have placed that character on a path, with something at stake, with something to do, to achieve, to learn and to change.  And we have placed obstacles – some external, some from within their deepest psyches – to make the journey interesting.

Not so much for them, but for us – the readers.

 The trick, then, becomes the balancing of character imperfections that might otherwise put us off with the empathy we need to muster for our hero as they proceed on their quest.

Here’s the key to doing that: readers love a vulnerable hero who realizes her or his own weaknesses and temptations, and conquers them in favor of a higher calling.  They come to realize that they’re sorry, they repent, they heed a  more noble calling, at least in the context of the story at hand.

That, we can empathize with.  We can get behind such a hero, root for her or him, even if it’s temporary.  Because we’ve all been there, we’re all human.

It is the writer’s manipulation of reader empathy, rather than the nature of faults and gold stars, that results in effective character dynamics that infuse the story with stakes and vicarious emotion. 

Which are absolutely required to get it published.

If your hero thinks nobody else in the room knows about his wandering ways, or worse, if they know he’ll back cruising the bars the next night in the naïve assumption that nobody knows, or worse, that nobody minds… that’s the antithesis of a hero.

Even if we seem to like him over a beer or two.   That’s real life, perhaps, but it’s not enough to make your story work.  In fiction, the term hero needs to be taken literally.


Filed under Characterization Series

9 Responses to A Deeper Look at Character

  1. Nathan Hangen

    Great advice, so would you recommend giving exceptional qualities to a hero or just trying to make them as human as possible by showing their strengths and weaknesses in full form?

  2. @Nathan — don’t need to make ’em superhuman, just make them easy to root for and empathize within whatever situation or quest you’ve given them. Human is always better than superhuman, and if they are exceptional, give them weak spots that we can empathize with (like, an athlete who is too shy with the press, or has a cheating wife, etc.). Nothing makes someone easier to root for than if there are huge stakes and the hero recognizes the need to step up, and into the challenge at hand, despite their past, their inner demons, etc. Asking for forgiveness, even when it comes from one’s self, is a huge empathy tool.

    I’m not a George Bush fan, but he brought a dark past to the White House. And we rooted for him, despite his faults (at least at first), because he’d moved on, forgiven himself, and was pursuing a higher calling.

    Hope this helps. L.

  3. I don’t think we hold characters in books to the same level of people in real life. I wasn’t rooting for Bill Clinton to change his philandering ways. I thought he was irresponsible in his personal life. Had he been a character in a book, I would have been there for him, following every trial and tribulation.

  4. Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant a dislikable character yet I found myself backing him through The First and Second Chronicles (6 books in all). Despite all his negligent and offensive actions, I wanted – no – I needed him to succeed in his endeavours and hopefully become the hero that all the characters around him needed him to be.

  5. Andrew — thanks, a great example of what I was going for here. The more we see it in good books, the better we’ll understand how subtle this is.

  6. Hope this isn’t lowering the tone, but again, movies and good TV shows are a wonderful place to see this in action.

    I found the latest Pixar film strangely moving, with its grumpy old anti-hero.

    Another grump was Toby, in the West Wing – pompous and arrogant on the surface but irrestibly interesting and hooking us with his conviction, intelligence, passion and humour.

    Joey in friends, who has sex with anything that moves.

    Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne, trained killers you root for, even though they’re hardly the cheeriest of chappies.

    The Talented Mr Ripley, who murders the only person he’s ever really loved and leaves us feeling sorry for him.

    House and the blurting surgeon Andy Brown in Everwood with their God complexes.

    We see the same in Austen with the meddling Emma and the judgemental Darcy and Lizzie. All flawed but recognisably human and tantalisingly redeemable. That’s why so many of us love A Wonderful Life and films based on a Christmas Carol; we want some kind of redemption, some second chances, and to feel that our lives and work have meant something. We want to see some of our own latent heroism in others. We want to know we can change our autobiographies. A good book, film or show can give us a taste of that.

  7. Pingback: Writing Memories for Your Characters | Daily (w)rite

  8. Derek

    “But in fiction, the art of crafting a compelling character isn’t their likeability. Not even close. ”

    This jumped out at me. Reminds me of the TV show Scrubs. Dr. Cox is a narssocistic arse. But through the main character’s eyes and through his own character arc, we start to root for him as he grows into a better person.

    Not sure if sitcoms are the best example. But this one came to mind when reading your entry.

    For an example that is more novel oriented, The Night Angel series by Brent Weeks has a mentor character for the protagonist, Kylar, named Durzo Blint. He abuses Kylar, an orphan who he fosters for apprenticeship as a wetboy (a magic using assassin), to train him and because Durzo is a general jack*** towards the beginning of the story.

    I tend to enjoy characters more who are disliked, almost hated, in the beginning of a story.

  9. Derek

    Question: Is it alright for us to have both a protagonist and an antagonist we root for in the end?

    I was thinking of a story where the chapters or scenes alternate between the protagonist and antagonist. Both striving for the same goal and then in the end they confront each other. But at that point, hopefully, the reader will invest in both and want both to win, though they know the protagonist should win and overcome the adversity. Will readers generally feel unsatisfied because they feel so strongly for the “bad guy”? Or will the reader feel as if they were shorted because the protagonist has resolution, yet the antagonist (half the story) doesn’t?