Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Falling in love (with a character)

As a reader (and a writer), I'd say that probably the single greatest feat to accomplish at the start of a book is to make your reader fall in love with the main character. If a reader can feel what that character feels, can live through his/her dreams and pain and joy, then that reader will be hooked on the rest of the story. As I've been rereading Harry Potter (not unlike the rest of the Muggle world!), I've been taking particular notice of this, and I think there are two main questions that every writer needs to ask him/herself:

Why do I like this character?

Why am I invested in his/her struggle?

I think one thing that makes us fall in love is a mix of heroic qualities and everyday weaknesses. We see both ourselves as we really are, but also as we yearn to be. Take Harry in the beginning of The Order of the Phoenix. He's just lived through the worst experience of any wizard's life, and as a reward, he's gotten to go back to the Dursleys, who treat him like dung. Not only that, but instead of talking to him like an initiated adult, the wizards he trusts are now keeping him in the dark regarding Voldemort's activities. When he and Dudley meet up in the park, it all comes to a boil, and it's all he can do not to stun Dudley into smithereens with magic. We feel his very human temptations, especially since we know how justified he is in wanting Dudley to finally get his due. And yet, he fights it. That's the heroic part. He fights as hard as he can to keep himself from hurting Dudley, even rescues him from the dementors. His positive choice, mixed with the very real and justifiable temptation makes him believable, yet heroic. When he saves Dudley, it isn't because it's a "duty," it's because it's the decent thing to do--and Harry is a decent person.

That fighting against oneself or one's instincts works in other books, too. Take Edward Cullen, trying very hard not to eat his girlfriend Bella in the vampire book Twilight. Or Catherine in Rules, who has that glorious moment running through the parking lot with Jason, yet is too afraid to mention Jason's handicaps to the girl next door, in case the girl won't want to be her friend. The gap between weakness and potential makes our characters vulnerable and likeable.

Another thing that makes us fall in love is how a character consciously works to meet his/her challenges. Take Bobby in Things Not Seen, who wakes up one morning to find he's gone invisible. He's scared, but despite his fear, he forms a plan and goes to work to solve his problem. No reader wants a character who just sits around and wrings their hands. Like Bobby, Gen in The Thief has a plan, too. The other characters treat him rotten, and he plays along with them--but no one that crass would have the beauty of storytelling like Gen does, and with this the author clues us in that Gen acts the way he does on purpose, and even enjoys it.

A third thing that makes us fall in love is seeing what's inside a character, even if no one else has figured it out yet. Levin in Anna Karenina is too shy to talk to Kitty, but when she's not around, we see what a wonderful person he is! We cross our fingers and hold our breath, hoping he'll finally find a way to tell her how he feels. DJ Schwenk in Dairy Queen thinks and feels so much, and yet, true to Schwenk form, can't manage to say any of the things that would raise her above the herd she feels so trapped inside.

Falling in love with the character is a huge part of the book, but not all of it. To keep a reader reading, the tension needs to rise, and the reader needs to stay invested in the character's struggle. This happens as the character's desires grow in tandem with his or her opposition. Going back to Phoenix, we know Harry is telling the truth because we saw what happened to him. Rowling didn't just tell us, she showed us. And just when Harry thinks he'll be getting support, he gets called a liar, instead. The greater his need for support, the less he gets, which makes his case seem more and more just. By the time he gets detention from Umbridge, the reader is burning for justice. If you think of what your character wants most, and then throw the worst thing to prevent that, you've got tension, you've got action--and you've got a reader glued to the pages, wanting to fight for your character.


Write a scene to make the reader feel indignant on your character's behalf. Do this by showing what the character really wants, and prevent them from getting it. Give them a taste of a dream, then rip it away. Show the reader the truth, and then have no one believe what really happened.

Write a scene that makes you feel sympathetic for the character even though he may be making a bad choice or may be doing something that others will look down on.

Write a scene in which your character shows positive attributes in the midst of an otherwise bleak situation. They have a plan, they see the silver lining, they go out of their way to be nice to someone when they could justifiably wallow, instead.


JK said...

great advice & good insights! thanks!

Rose Green said...

Thanks, I'm glad it was helpful!