Monday, 23 March 2015

Tricks of the Trade 4: Hero Upgrade



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Making sure readers actually care what happens to your main character is integral to any story. You can’t just take it for granted that just because your story has stuff happen to a guy that the reader will automatically be interested.

If your story happens to be about a noble main character who has exciting adventures this is less of a worry since this is the basic story archetype from fairy tales and myths, but not all stories follow this template.

While the simplest way to endear your MC to the reader is to demonstrate their general decency, what’s sometimes referred to as a pat the dog or save the cat moment—the MC goes out of their way to be helpful to some innocent in trouble and their good guy credentials are confirmed—not all main characters are straight out of a Disney family movie.

Fortunately there are a number of other ways to boost your hero’s general appeal.

The Superhero
Some characters are just good at everything. They have exactly the right set of skills for the problems they face and are able to overcome obstacles with ease.

The most common way to counteract any resentment of a know-it-all clever clogs is to make the stakes incredibly high. James Bond is saving the world, he needs to be expert at everything.

You can also use details. If our hero takes down twelve ninjas single-handed, how did he do it? The more unexpected his moves, the less focus on his ridiculous abilities. So grabbing an iron poker from the fireplace is perfectly plausible; using a pencil from his kid’s schoolbag is more interesting.

Unnecessary but cool details can also add something, like Indiana Jones taking an extra risk to grab his hat. Our hero using a pencil sharpener before stabbing his attacker is unlikely but more entertaining.

The Downtrodden
In many cases a hero will start out in difficult circumstances. No money, horrible family, never lucky. It’s more than likely someone with this kind of background would be angry, bitter and self-pitying. Realistic as it may be, these kinds of emotions don’t translate well.

They are far more engrossing for the person feeling them than the ones hearing about them and it would be a mistake to think it’s okay because later on things turn around. Readers who get irritated by a character now don’t generally hang around to see if the misery continues or not.

You can get round this by making the character upbeat rather than defeated. Cinderella, Harry Potter, Charlie (of Chocolate Factory fame) all had plenty to be mad about, but handled their troubles with good grace, and then took their opportunities when they could.

The Lovely and the Beautiful
The pretty girl who gets all the boys is not going to impress much if your target audience is mostly female. Even if she’s really nice and helps old people across the street, she’s already won the lottery, now she wants to be the centre of attention too?

There are two popular ways to approach this. Either she’s in a world of other gorgeous people who are horrible to her because of something that’s not her fault (e.g. she’s poor and they’re all blinged up), which makes her more likeable by default.

Or, alternatively, she (somehow) gets all the advantages of being super-hot while only being slightly above average in the looks department. Simply downgrading her attractiveness not only doesn’t stop the two hottest guys in town fighting over her, it actually fits very well into most women’s insecurities about their own looks.

Both of the above approaches are horribly overused and yet perfectly viable. There is an appetite for stories about moderately attractive women who find love with hot and/or rich guys, and for stories about hot girls who are treated unfairly by even hotter girls.

Another approach, though, is to give the girl something she cares about more than finding Mr Right. So prosecuting a murderer, finding a lost artefact, solving the Middle East crisis—anything that isn’t based on her looks will help.

She can still have relationship issues, but if that’s her priority her physical appearance will have more influence than you might want.

The Blowhard
Characters who have lots of opinions and observations about life—usually a way for the writer to express their own insights—can become overbearing and preachy, even when it’s meant to be humorous.

The obvious way to prevent this is to have a lot going on in the character’s life. If they’re busy doing stuff, then their views can add to the story, providing voice, tone, mood, etc. Balance is important though.

Something else you can do to make it feel integral to the story, rather than tacked on, is to have the story directly challenge the character’s viewpoint. This requires the character to have a somewhat focused set of ideas (i.e. they're obsessed with one thing in particular).

So, a character who thinks women are just interested in guys with money meets a woman who makes him rethink his beliefs. Or a guy who believes aliens control the government finds himself embroiled in a plot to stop a galactic war.

The sooner you can establish his worldview, the sooner you can make life dismantle them, which is when the fun starts.

The Scaredy Cat
Some characters are defined by a fear they have. This fear will play a major role in the story ahead, but at the start of the story it can just be about showing the fear an d they're inability to overcome it.

Establishing this fear is necessary, but if you show this through inaction (they’re so scared they can’t act) it isn’t particularly interesting an d the character can come across as weak and feeble.

For example, if our main character is deathly scared of heights and later in the story she has to climb up a cliff face to save her child, then earlier in the story you might have a scene where the same character has to climb a ladder to get a toy stuck in a tree and just can’t do it.

By showing how extreme her fear is, her eventual overcoming it to save her daughter becomes that much more tense and engaging.

But a woman stuck on the first rung of a ladder unable to move isn’t the most dynamic of scenes.

Rather than have a character paralysed by an irrational fear, you can actually have them show a little bravery in that first scene and for it to go horribly wrong. This failure will not only reinforce their fear, making it even harder for them to accomplish their eventual goal, but it also gives the reader pause for thought when they realise the fear isn’t quite so irrational.

You like someone more if they at least try, and you have more concern for them when the fear is real and they’ve already failed once, especially if it cost them something.
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10 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Don't think I've used any of those characters to that extreme, but I have used the save the cat moment. That's really important when you have a cocky character who might come off as unlikeable.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I love the idea of sharpening the pencil before using it! It is extremely interesting and a great way to personalize a hero. :)

Elise Fallson said...

Conan. You got me with the Conan pic. Damn. ;) The hero in my story is full of flaws, but I'm afriad I've gone overboard and it's making it hard to like her. She's going to have to pet a lot of dogs...

Patricia Lynne said...

I have a downtrodden character in my upcoming NA novella series and so far, my beta readers and editor are in love with that character. lol

Cynthia said...

I think my current protagonist might fit into the "downtrodden" category. She's not bitter, but hopeful about what she can do to get out of that situation.

Misha Gericke said...

Sometimes, the main thing is to ensure there's more to a character than just one thing (like self pity for a sucky life, looks, opinions etc.)

Rachna Chhabria said...

I have used the Superhero and Downtrodden characters in a few stories and plan to use a few more in my next lot of books.

mooderino said...

@Alex - it's certainly a useful tool, but it's often the only one mentioned when there are other options.

@Elise - I believe it's from the story 'Conan changes a lightbulb'.

@Patricia - there are plenty of popular downtrodden characters in fiction, it's when they don't seem to click with readers that these sorts of tips might help. You seem to be doing okay :)

@Cynthia - the strength of being downtrodden is that you get to rise against adversity, which tends to make good reading.

@Misha - very true, but at the start of a story it might be difficult getting all that across, and the first side of them you present to the reader might be off-putting.

@Rachna - glad to hear it. Onwards!

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