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Why do people read stories? What causes them to put everything in their day aside to stare at a paper with little black scribbles on it? Why do you read?
Because it’s interesting? Okay, sure enough. But usually, it’s because deep inside, an emotion has been triggered that causes you to keep going. This is why people spend hundreds of dollars to read fifteen book series and spend thousands of hours consuming movies and tv shows. It’s not just interesting. It’s emotionally engaging.
Think about your favorite characters. If something bad happens to them, do you feel it? If they finally reach their goals, do you rejoice with them? Do you ever put the book down because you just can’t deal with the emotions anymore? I do. So, how does one generate such a visceral reaction in your readers? Here are some tips and tricks to make your hero an interesting and sympathetic person.
Have Them Rescue the Puppy
Why do we like Katniss Everdeen? What was our first encounter with this sixteen-year-old that made us fall in love? Was it not when she volunteered as tribute for her little sister? Even the people of the capital mention this to Katniss during her interview with Caesar. It's a touching story and one that invokes an immediate visceral reaction in readers as well as views.
Suzanne Collins plays up this trope as well in the scenes before the 'Reaping.' She starts out with Katniss bringing home food from her hunting, showing her to be a resourceful and self-sufficient person. Then come Prim, who's sporting a 'duck-tail' on her shirt because she did not reach around far enough to tuck it in. In other words, she's adorable and not self-sufficient. Like a puppy. So when she's called for the 'Reaping,' it's clear that this is going to be a death sentence for her. Until Big Sister steps up.
Now, Katniss, while deadly, is still just a girl. She's scared and from the perspective of her mentor, Haymitch, she's the puppy. But, even though she is afraid, she still steps up to protect her little sister.
Let's consider another story, a classic this time: The Wizard of Oz. Now in this story Dorothy literally does save a puppy. When the evil neighbor tries to turn Todo into the authorities, Dorothy plans on running away. For the first several minutes of the story we spend time on the dog saving mission rather than in Oz. It's an unusual choice, until you realize what the writer is doing. Besides establishing the desire to return home for the rest of the story, they are also creating a sense of 'likeableness' in Dorothy's character. Now we know who to root for, because she helped someone weaker than herself.
Often, your reader needs a reason to fall in love with your character. They need to be worthy of the next several hours of their attention. A common troupe is to give the character someone or something to rescue. Katniss sacrifices everything to save Prim. Dorothy runs away to save Todo. How does your character earn the love and respect of your audience?
Have Someone Love Your Character
Another way to make your character sympathetic is to have someone else love them. Even your villains and anti-heroes can benefit from this troupe. Have your villain come home to a happy golden retriever that he pets and grooms and feeds before taking off his coat and shoes. Give your young protagonist a family that she can embrace and show love for in return. If you have a team of people rooting for your protagonist, it will encourage your readers to root for them too.
Consider Gru in Despicable Me. First, the writers introduced Gru as evil and funny, but then when he returns home, we see all his minions fawn over him. He has his own little group of fanatics doing his bidding (and they're cute fanatics too!) These minions and their respect for their boss sell the plausibility of the rest of the story. If everybody hated Gru, including his subordinates, we would not be able to suspend our disbelief of a villain adopting and falling in love with three sweet orphan children.
Consider also the Mandalorian. The love is not as overt in this story. If anything, the Mandalorians are a class of people not prone to showing much emotion, but Mando is, in fact, loved, or at least respected, by his own people. Imagine for a moment if nobody stood in that role, if he was an unknown lone-wolf type. First off, it would bring his ability to bond into question. Why did he have no friends up to that point? But, secondly, his people make him more known and more likeable.
People are very social, and if there's someone out there that is disliked by everyone they meet, chances are, they will be unliked by your audience as well.
But what if my main character is a wandering orphan?
Well, did people love him? That still counts. They are still likeable. Tragedy destroyed that relationship, not anti-social behaviors.
Don't Make Them Perfect
How annoying is a perfect person? Their hair is always just right. They know the perfect thing to say. Everybody loves them. Blah, how boring. Give your character flaws—and lots of them. Now, don’t make them unloveable or unforgivable (see my previous posts), but give them something they have to struggle for.
Katniss doesn’t realize how likeable she is. She doesn’t naturally love Peeta. She’s ornery and harsh to those around her. Now, all of this is due to the fact that she’s had to fight and claw in order to survive her whole life. They are the flip side to the characteristics that helps her survive. But they don’t always make life easy, and they are things she has to overcome.
Bonus points if their flaws are fatal. Think Hercules’ strength—well—then again. Maybe not. Read my previous post for more information regarding how that went!
I hope this post has helped you think about ways to improve your character development. For my next post, I’ll be talking about the importance of developing your character’s personality and how it can be used to create traits as well as negative.
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RW Hague is a registered nurse with over eight years of experience within the medical field. Using her medical expertise, she writes stories that are gritty and compelling.