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.