Thursday, 7 February 2013

Forcing Readers To Like Characters: Admiration

No matter what kind of personality a character has, helping others will win approval. Batman and Superman have very different approaches to fighting crime, but both are regarded as admirable.

As long as you show the character being helpful, you can get away with all sorts of other questionable behaviour.

This is sometimes referred to as ‘save the cat’ or ‘pat the dog’. You see the character do something nice and you like them for it.

But this is the concept at its most basic, and most transparent.  A superhero who helps random people makes sense, it’s part of the job. An accountant who suddenly risks his life to get a cat out of a tree to make your character come across like a good guy, is going to feel like the obvious 80s movie device it is.



It will be far more effective (and more subtle) if what he does to demonstrate his goodness is related to who he is and what he does. And it also makes a difference depending on what his act of kindness costs him. Is it risky? Is he sacrificing something he values in order to do it? These things will modify the reader reaction.

There are also other personality traits that readers are drawn to as they are in real life. You can give characters these attributes and readers will think of them as cool and exciting 

Charisma

A character who others listen to and follow will indicate that they have something a bit special about them. Of course it could also mean they’re a creepy cult leader. Showing the readers why this person is in charge or so well respected is important if you want to avoid that. The problem then becomes how to do that. It’s obviously a lot easier to just take it for granted and have everyone treat that character like everything he says is brilliant.

But a leader gets chosen for a reason, sometimes for a bad reason, and it’s important to establish what that reason is.

Charisma can also come out of how a character speaks. If they speak up when others are too scared to say anything, or if they talk with authority, their bravado can make them likeable. Of course, it also requires some skill to write that kind of dialogue so that it hits home. 

Courage

This can be physical, mental or emotional.  The advantage you have is that as the writer you control the outcome of any event. So you can put characters into very precarious positions, and even though in real life people would most likely find ways to avoid getting into that sort of predicament, we want to see it in fiction. We want to see how the things we most want to avoid might turn out.

Bear in mind that courage isn’t just about what you do, but why you do it. A guy who runs into a burning building to save a child is a hero. A guy who runs into a burning building on a dare is a jack ass. 

Attractiveness

Good looks, athleticism, energy, style, all these sorts of things can make us like a character. It might seem shallow, but that’s only because it is. It might also generate resentment. Women in particular are often portrayed as ‘all right’ looking. Slightly above average.  And yet in movies every teacher, lawyer and crack whore looks like a supermodel, so I have no idea what’s going on there.

The advantage you have in writing fiction is that you can leave stuff to the reader’s imagination and they’ll put in what they think looks good. It’s worth making use of this advantage. Mostly, the attractiveness of a character is conveyed through how other characters react to them. 

Skills

Being good at something, as in real life, is an easy way to impress people. Of course, in fiction, it’s easy to make someone a great marksman or fantastic dancer. But when you make a character an expert at something, you need to do your research. They’ll be expected to not only do the business, but also do it in a way that feels authentic.  You need to tell the reader things they didn’t know and make them believe it.

It isn’t enough to just show what they can do, you have to add showmanship.  You have to add a dash of pizzazz. Well, not necessarily sequins and feather boas, but how you demonstrate the skill is as important as what the skill is. 

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a guy at a card game accuses Sundance of cheating and threatens him, but when Butch says, “Come on, Sundance...” and the guy hears the name of the man he just called out, he immediately backs down and starts apologising. That’s an example of showing how good a gunfighter he is without using any guns. Then as Sundance walks away the guy asks him, “Are you as fast as they say?” and Sundance spins, draws, shoots the guys gone off his hip and shoots it across the floor.  That’s an example of showing it with guns. 

Smarts

Characters who are thoughtful, witty, wise or clever will win reader admiration, but only when they demonstrate those attributes. A wise man who sits quietly and never answers any questions may or may not be filled with the wisdom of Solomon, but no one is going to find his doing nothing very interesting.

The difficulty here is that in order to write clever stuff, you need to know clever stuff.  Can’t really help you with that. 

Attitude

Characters who don’t give up, whether from principle or just stubbornness, will appeal to readers. The lower their chances of success, the more readers will root for the underdog.

In real life, people tend to be inconsistent in this regard. Some days you don’t feel like being a bad ass. In fiction it helps to keep the attitude honed. Usually this is achieved through the plot forcing the character to keep going, providing reminders and upping the stakes.

You can also add mavericks to this group. People who go against the norm, rebels, eccentrics and free spirits. These guys say the things we’d like to say and do the things we’d like to do, if we weren’t too scared of what other people might think or getting into trouble.  Not caring about what other people think is an attitude that appeals because it clearly matters so much (even though a lot of people try to pretend it doesn’t). 

Caring

Kindness, caring, generosity. We all have our moments, but the kind of caring that makes an impact on a reader is the kind that goes to the extreme. Living with lepers in Calcutta extreme. There is a cost to this sort of behaviour that goes beyond dropping change into a homeless guy’s cup. We also up the admiration if there is no obvious reward or recognition. Anonymous help is the kind we think of as the most cool. Even being taken advantage of, or suffering for being overly generous towards others are seen as positive things (if a little foolish) as far as admiring a character goes.

Sacrifice

If a character is willing to die for a cause or his beliefs, that is pretty much the most they can give and it’s hard not to be impressed by that level of commitment, even if the cause in question isn’t one you think much of.

But there are also other things that can be sacrificed and as long as they hold value for the character, giving them up shows the character in a positive light.

That’s the end of this series on how to make readers like characters. Hopefully you can see that there’s more to it than just making the hero a nice guy, or showing him doing a nice thing.

And it’s worth remembering that it’s not just the main character who can benefit from these attributes. 

***

If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Other posts in the series can be found here:

Sympathetic Characters Part 1: Danger

Sympathetic Characters Part 2: Suffering

Sympathetic Characters Part 3: Noble Souls 

Sympathetic Characters Part 4: Outcasts

Sympathetic Characters Part 5: Betrayal

Sympathetic Characters Part 6: Unfairness

Forcing Readers To Like Character: Recognition

And don't forget to check out the latest posts from other top bloggers at The Funnily Enough


23 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Skill, attitude, and sacrifice - my main character has that part down pat.
And I've never put a lot of description into the looks of my characters for just that reason. Every reader has a different idea of what looks good, so they can use their imagination to fill in the blanks.

mooderino said...

@Alex - The Hollywood actor never looks how you imagined the character either.

Michael Offutt, Speculative Fiction Author said...

I made my character really smart and attractive. I suppose I admire him for both of those characteristics. Great post as usual, Moody.

Elise Fallson said...

Thinking about my mc, I realize there is a little bit of all these elements that make up her character. Well, except for the skill and courage part. Those are elements she develops throughout the book. Nice break down Moody.

mooderino said...

@Michael - Cheers.

@Elise - As important as it is to get readers to connect with a character, it's just as important that the character develop and change through the story.

Donna Hole said...

Good series Moody. I'll go back and read through them; I've not been keeping up with blogs for a while. Its great to have these to refer back to when I need the guidance though.

........dhole

Al Diaz said...

A lot of information here to work on and digest. Great! Thanks.

Christine Rains said...

Fantastic post. I've seen the horrible "save the cat" thing used several times. And excellent addition at the end of the post about having other characters benefit from these things. Sometimes I really like a protagonist, but the secondary characters fall flat.

mooderino said...

@Donna - I'll be here whenever you need me.

@Al Diaz - you're welcome.

@Christine - Save the cat can work fine if it's used subtly, but just plonking it into a story isn't a good idea.

CS Severe said...

Just wanted to let you know I've been following your character series and I find it so incredibly helpful in shaping my characters! Thanks a bunch!!

Murees Dupé said...

Brilliantly helpful post, as always, thank you.

mooderino said...

@CS - Glad to be of help. Cheers.

@Murees - YVW.

The Golden Eagle said...

Great list of traits!

mooderino said...

@Golden - Cheers.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Like Alex, even my main character has Skill, attitude and sacrifice. To make one of the characters in my short story more appealing (my CP said he was coming across as not likeable) I made him helpful. Had to deliberately add that trait.

Esther said...

Hey Moody,

I'm struggling with a character who has difficulty pronouncing scientific words. This is true of a lot of people in real life, but when it is a character in a book, readers tend to think she's a ditzy idiot because she can't say mitochondria or whatever.

How can I make her intelligence understood without losing that pronunciation quirk?

mooderino said...

@Rachna - you can make a character appealing without being likeable too.

@Esther - as long as she acts clever her mispronunciation will be seen as a quirk. If she behaves neutral (not smart of dumb) then the mispronunciation will take centre stage. You have to actively push the personality you want to promote.

Kay @ Short Story Ideas said...

Great post!
I don't like characters who are too good though. For me, the best characters are those who are good in spite of their flaws.

Daphnée Kwong Waye said...

These are really great tips. I've been trying to compare the list with my characters as I read the post. Very helpful!

mooderino said...

@Kay - some terrible characters can have admirable qualities. Hannibal Lecter was a great cook.

@Daphnee - Glad to be of service.

Margo Berendsen said...

Lately ever time I come here I end up going back to scrutinize my manuscript and fit in an extra few sentences to convey or flesh out some aspect I realize is missing.

And I love that you give me some concrete choices from which to pick from like courage or charisma and so forth.

Rusty Webb said...

I don't think I've ever paid much attention to how any of my main characters look, unless it's how they have an issue with it. I think Stephen King said something about keeping it vague and I've taken that advice to heart. Regardless, this is a great breakdown of admirable traits. Thanks so much.

mooderino said...

@Margo - Thank you. Mostly it stems from me trying to work out how to fix my own manuscripts.

@Rusty - I try to keep the hero's appearance quite vague too. I think it makes a difference what genre you write in, too.

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