Hello, writers. So I'm busy with the task I mentioned last week... rewriting the first 50,000 words of my so-far 42,000 word work-in-progress. Meanwhile, my mother is reading The Hunger Games.
THG trilogy is a textbook study in Raising the Stakes. If you want to learn to raise the stakes (and if you're writing fiction, you should) then read THG.
“What do you think?” I asked my mother.
“It's very gripping,” she said. “But I don't like the main character.”
That made me think. I don't really like the main character in THG either. Actually, I don't like the books. I did find them gripping, though. Stakes-building, y'know. Expert stakes-building.
But what about likable protagonists? Do we have to like protagonists?
Not necessarily. We have to identify with them, which means there has to be something about them that we recognize as part of our human experience.
In the case of Katniss, the protag of The Hunger Games, we begin by identifying with her desire to help her family. Of course she'll break the rules to feed her family; we'd do the same. Then she risks everything to save her sister. We like that; it's a good thing to do. Later, she's fighting for her life. These are major concerns that we can all identify with at a pretty basic level. Her back's to the wall and she's not giving up. This is what makes us “like”-- or at least strongly identify with-- a character.
(In the final book, she's fighting for her country, which is harder to get excited about. Not because it's not a worthwhile cause but because the protagonist herself doesn't really seem to care about it.)
There are books in which we're supposed to dislike the protagonist; in which the protagonist is more or less a villain. (Nobody likes Humbert Humbert, do they?) But if that's the case, we should still recognize him/her in some way as part of our human experience. And we should still be able to identify with, or like, somebody in the book.
There are quite a few lists online of what makes people likable. People, not characters. Some of the traits that show up on these lists a lot:
Likable people, according to the list-makers, apparently...
...really like other people. This is useless to a writer. Plenty of likable protagonists aren't people-people.
...are genuine and honest. Meh. Not going to work for our protagonist. Everyone loves a trickster, a bad boy, a rogue. In a book, anyway.
...have no insecurities. Waitaminute, I'm starting not to like these likable people. But anyway, a protagonist without insecurities is going to be a two-dimensional protagonist indeed. And not very easy for readers to identify with.
Are not competitive. Uh oh. It's a good thing these likable people are not protagonists in most genre fiction, or they'd be dead.
Touch people a lot. Oh lordy no. Look, if I don't know you, and you touch me, I may bite. Anyway, useless info for a protagonist. If you continually describe your protagonist as touching the other characters, your readers most likely won't even notice. If they do notice, they're unlikely to be emotionally moved by the information.
And emotion is what it's all about. We don't have to like a protagonist, but we do have to feel something-- sympathy for what s/he's up against, horrified fascination at his/her evil deeds, something. And in most cases, I think, we have to actually like them.
So what do likable protagonists do? I think it's quite a different list from the above. Likable protagonists...
...are first seen doing something that evokes our sympathy. Running for their lives, confronting a difficult situation, performing an act of kindness.
...are usually intelligent. This isn't 100%, since there are some good books with likable protagonists of below-normal intelligence. But it's easy to lose patience with a character who never sees the twist coming, never expects the betrayal. (Especially if the author keep insisting the protag is smart.)
...keep fighting no matter what. They can have a moment of despair-- two maybe if it's a really long book-- but they'd better get over it quickly.
...don't go with the flow. They're heroes, usually, and heroes want to change the existing order.
...ave flaws. Because we all have flaws. And we can't identify with a character who isn't just as flawed as we are. Or, better: even more flawed.
Those are just a few things that come to mind. What do you think makes a character likable and/or identifiable?
Write the beginning of an opening scene. (No backstory. None. In any opening scene. Ever. Setting, yes. Backstory, no.) Show us one of your protagonists for the first time. S/he can be a protagonist in something you're writing, or hope to write in the future. Or s/he can be a protagonist you've used in the weekly Write On! challenges.Show the character doing one of the following:
- going against the flow (literally or figuratively)
- exhibiting a character flaw
- running/fighting for his/her life (or some other worthwhile object)
- performing an act of kindness
- performing an act of larceny
Try to limit yourself to 150 words.
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