Continuing the “Do Not Do” list of January 10th, number 6 says, “Develop a sympathetic character readers can identify with,” which implies Do Not create horrid lead characters. Why? Because creating a nasty lead character that keeps a reader’s interest is extremely difficult to accomplish.
I can think of a few despicable protagonists though I am sure many others exist: Scrooge, Stephen R. Donaldson’s protagonist in the “Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever” series, Doro in “The Wild Seed” by Octavia Butler.
First and foremost, characters make a story. Without a protagonist the reader can relate to, a well-plotted and otherwise amazing tale can fall flat. Think of the novels you have read and the “people” populating those stories; likely, the characters are what you remember most.
Pip in Great Expectations, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn (and thousands more) are sympathetic characters readers are drawn to because of their human frailties. The fact they live in a time and place unfamiliar to us is part of the joy that comes from reading, but it’s the people, their flaws and their difficulties that draw us to re-read stories told so well.
What, exactly, do readers relate to? Emotions, pain, struggles. Emotions drive a character toward action, and those emotions fuel reader interest. Although our lives may be quite pedestrian compared to the characters in novels, each of us has felt ridicule, witnessed injustices, doubted our abilities, and been overwhelmed with desperation.
If necessity is the mother of invention, desperation is the father of action.
A desperate, sympathetic protagonist gains support and causes readers to become nervous for the character’s future, which catapults them toward the climax—exactly what we want.
Simply, it is easier to care about someone we like, and that is true for story characters as well. Of course, it is too simplistic to write a character that does not surprise the reader, who does not on occasion act or behave a bit off-kilter. Whether a character is thoughtful and resigned does not mean he or she cannot respond passionately or angrily in certain situations; in the same vein, an impulsive character—one who has no filter on what they say and seems uncaring about anything other than themselves—can and should show compassion outside their own myopia.
To be a whole and three-dimensional character, characters must act in a way that is consistent with humanity, and that means occasionally doing something surprising or different than their norm.
When you begin to create a character, think of those little things, the traits that make them an individual, and weave them into their interactions with others populating your story. Sometimes it can be a gesture—a young girl brushing at her hair when nervous, or an old woman petting an imaginary cat on her lap—or an attitude, or a prejudice, or any number of things that make them unique. Give us a reason to care for them, and just as important, an understanding of who they are. All people are different, an amalgamation of experiences, thoughts, and actions; the sympathetic character is no different.
See you on the next page,