Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Pulling for the main character

Wes said: Many books state that writers should cause readers to pull for the MC. Well, duh......but few books if any discuss how to do it. I can see some obvious ones such as being an underdog, having a noble cause, being a likable guy/gal, having a lot to lose, but what are some other specific techniques?

I wrote a long article about this-- Sympathy Without Saintliness.

Okay, so I'm going to be difficult, which is, I know, a really sympathetic trait. I actually think nobility is NOT a sympathetic trait, and I don't think sympathy is very much connected to motivation. (It can be. And new writers should start there, maybe, so that they don't accidentally create unsympathetic characters. But let's let others address the newer writers and let's discuss this for more advanced writers, who already know that the character probably needs a past and a motivation. I say "probably" because I bet some of you could write a great character without either. :)

So what works? Well, many things do-- as I say in the article, I think "struggle" is the key-- readers sympathize with struggle more than success. This makes sense, because struggle implies conflict, and we all know: Conflict is the fuel for the plot, and for characterization too. It's also more interesting psychologically. You want a recipe for sympathy? Remember this: "I learned more from failing hard than I ever learned from succeeding easy."

I'm going to pose a question here. Can you come up with the same basic scenario of character action, but in the first:
Character does the wrong thing for the right reason (noble/sympathetic motivation).
Character does the right thing for the wrong reason (selfish motivation).

Choose one (or both). Can you quickly sketch a sequence of events/actions that will make a character sympathetic with either of those, your choice?

And think about whether one process is more appropriate for a particular type of book (for example, right thing for wrong reason is a great set-up for comedy-- can you make that work for a non-comedy?).

So you try it. Maybe take a character of your own and speculate about some action or reaction you're thinking about happening. How will this play out differently if it's wrong thing/right reason vs. right thing/wrong reason? Does this help with sympathy?



Jordan McCollum said...

I can second that Alicia's article is GREAT about this! I also really found How to Write a Damn Good Novel II helpful on this. And a couple months ago I had a whole blog series on creating sympathetic characters:

I'm going to ponder your scenarios while running, and I hope I'll have an answer when I get back!

Amanda Borenstadt said...

I think (but maybe I'm being simple) that a bad-guy character who does the right thing for the wrong reason, (like saving a girl from zombies because he's lonely in this post apocolyptic zombie world)will gain the reader's sympathy if he's either vulnerable, funny or both. Maybe he makes pithy comments while deep down inside he's sad that his mother never loved him.