Sunday, August 22, 2010

Mulling character appeal-- always dangerous

Been mulling over this hero thing, and that made me think of how the character arc arcs and all that.

I really think that the characters have to change in the course of the book, so the way they are in the opening scenes is kind of a "before" picture-- how they are before they change because of the plot events. But the problem with that is... the character might not be instantly attractive if those opening scenes showcase the "opportunity for growth," those unevolved parts that must be changed. So how can we get the reader to hang on in those opening scenes-- make the character identifiable/sympathetic/interesting enough that the reader is willing to wait to see how he/she changes?

That is, how do we keep readers hanging on, if the "hero" isn't "heroic" in the first scenes?

Examples? I'm thinking of Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. He's dismissive, snobbish, unpleasant in his first scene. Why do we hang on and hope he wins Lizzie's heart? What did Austen put in there to get us interested in him?

"Ten thousand a year and a house in town." Well, wealth does appeal. :)

He also spars well with Lizzie, which is a useful ability in a hero-- he shows right away that he can get her humor and knows when she's zinged him.

He's a good friend to Bingley and shows that quickly, and that does indicate that he's able to love.

We're never in his POV, so we don't get all that backstory about him being orphaned early that might make for easy sympathy. (I don't think our sympathy ought to be engendered primarily by backstory anyway-- often miserable backstory is invented just to make this character more understandable, and that gets us quite away from the present of the story, and the organic development of characters. Remind me I want to write about "layering on" character and why that's bad.) We have to see him through Lizzie's eyes, and she doesn't like him... so do we? And if so, why?

Other examples? I think Rhett in Gone with the Wind is appealing in the first scene because he's irreverent-- he doesn't take the war or Scarlett too seriously. Also he is the only one who "knows" her, who knows that she's more than the debutante everyone else sees in her.

Okay, so look to your own work or favorite books. How -in the opening scenes- do we introduce a more problematic character and show the "room to change" without putting off the reader?



Anonymous said...

"identifiable/sympathetic/interesting enough"

The last one is the key. Identification and sympathy aren't neccessary. Emotional engagement is.

Give the readers a bad guy, they'll hope either for his fall or for his redemption, for his changing into a good (or at least acceptable) guy... which, in fact, equals his being taught a lesson, the fall of the "bad guy" part of his self.

Readers want the vile to be punished.

Also, most readers do know they're reading a book. They know and expect repulsive characters to change. (Denying them that change but in excellent prose can also work. It has, for some.)

Erastes said...

Excellent post. I love to see real character development, and that often means that the characters I love most to read (and to write!) have to be real gits at the beginning. But if they have something that, spark, that makes them sympathetic in some way--even if I don't like them much, then that's the key.

Jami Gold said...

Boy, have I struggled with this for my heroes (and heroines and secondary characters and...). Here are the main techniques I've found/used:
- If a character is bad at the beginning, show another character connected to them who's even worse (opens the reader to seeing character A as "not as bad" and possibly blaming character B as a bad influence).
- Show the character wanting something good/noble/sympathetic (lets reader get "in their corner" for something, even if the character doesn't know how to get what they want in a good way).
- If a character must do something bad at the beginning, show the reasons why the character is stuck into making that choice.

You'll notice that all of those have show, and I think that's the key here. Just telling the reader "Yeah, but last week, the hero rescued some kittens" isn't going to cut it. Telling doesn't allow for the reader to internalize their sympathy. And for the sympathy to stick through their bad actions, I think it has to be internalized (maybe not even consciously) by the reader.

Edittorrent said...

I also think a slight hesitation or reluctance to do bad goes a long way, esp if his comrades don't hesitate.

elfarmy17 said...

I write this comment as a Nerdfighter.
In Will Grayson, Will Grayson, Lowercase Will isn't a very appealing character. In fact, he isn't appealing at all. However , he's sandwiched in between two chapters of John's Will- a character we love before the end of the first page. Add in the average nerdfighter's devotion to John and his work, David's Will is tolerated due to the other Will, and by the time the other one is starting his development, we like Lowercase Will better. It's well balanced.

Riley Murphy said...

This can be a problem for some readers , especially the old cranky ones, like me. ;)

One thing I’ve done on occasion, it to tie the main character’s internal unevolved part of him/herself into his/her external goal. That way, the reader may not like it, but they can understand the underlying motivating factor that’s the driving force behind. A force that might not be controllable, noble or redeemable.

In my mind, (for the sake of clarity I’ll use the hero as an example) it’s easier for a hero, who is first introduced to the reader and heroine as a guy trying to single mindedly attain his external goal with little or no thought to how either (the reader of heroine view him) because we don’t know him - but we can understand what is motivating him - especially if the underlying reinforcement for this has something to do with his internal goal journey. Hey, if he runs over the heroine initially to do this? Well, how bad is that, seeing as how he doesn’t know her enough to care about her. In fact, that can be used later to highlight one aspect of how love has changed him.


Kelsey (Dominique) Ridge said...

I must say, the knowledge that Bingley seems to love Darcy is certainly a mark in his favor in my eyes. Then again, I don't think the audience begins to love Darcy until he hands Lizzy the note explaining why he was a jerk in the beginning of the novel. He's shelving his pride and being honest. These are admirable qualities. I don't think we like him until he's started to change. Lizzy, for me, is always the one you like right from the start.

Wes said...

Great post.

I totally agree with your statement "I don't think our sympathy ought to be engendered primarily by backstory anyway-- often miserable backstory is invented just to make this character more understandable, and that gets us quite away from the present of the story....."

I know I'm guilty of that, but I'm trying to avoid it.

And yes, Rhett is captivating because he sees thru Scarlett and he's the only man who keeps his head when the war breaks out, and he's the only one (with the possible exception of Ashley) who foresees the lost cause.

That said, if the charaacter is going to go thru a great arc, it's a challenge to make him/her actractive to the reader from the beginning. And Rhett definitely goes thru a great arc.

Wes said...


Did you really say "especially the old cranky ones, like me"??????

You must have had a brain-flat.

Jami Gold said...


"Old and cranky?" Yikes, I know it's not your birthday... :)

I think I see where you're going with your explanation, and I think your idea of the reader understanding their motivation is related to my thought of doing something noble even though they might not be going about it in a good way.

Let's say there's a hero whose external goal is to ruin the heroine. That should be BAD (with capital letters). And maybe his internal motivation is to get revenge on behalf of his brother. On the surface, that still sounds BAD - revenge and destruction, etc. However, there's a nugget of potential nobility there: caring for his brother. And that might be enough to get the reader to hang a bit of hope on him. ;)

Riley Murphy said...

I should have said:

Alicia says: How -in the opening scenes- do we introduce a more problematic character and show the "room to change" without putting off the reader?

Murphy says: This can be a problem for some readers , especially the old cranky ones, like me. ;)

Does that make more sense now?

And to clarify my muddy point. I meant - to tie a character’s external goal into his/her internal conflict. This gives the character an opportunity to grow through the experience and the reader the chance to (maybe not agree with), but at least understand the journey they've chosen.

@ Wes: A brain-flat? Um, no. These days I’m time traveling in someone else’s perception of reality. And you know? I always thought time travel would be more fun. So, I'm just glad I can kind think at all. :)

@ Jami: You’re right, it’s not my birthday, but sometimes age has little to do with feeling old and cranky. :) This state of mind used to happen to me when my kids were small - yet now it seems, I’ve come full circle, because my 84 year children are wearing me down and stealing all my coherent thoughts.



Wes said...

I hope you are right, Jami, because I'm betting the farm on it. My MC steals and kills, often when he has no choice, in an effort to help those he cares about and to right wrongs. My friends didn't like him when I started writing, so I softened him and had events make him hard.