Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wordcraft -- Character: The likeability factor

I''ve lost the likeable character lottery -- again, after being turned down for the Sword & Sorceress anthology with a rejection letter from editor Elisabeth Waters that said, "This is a perfectly good story, but. . . "

Hey, wait!  She didn't actually say the characters were unlikeable, did she?  But I'd better turn to those who can write with more authority on the magic that makes a character -- specifically the main character, the protagonist -- someone readers (and that includes editors) will want to spend their valuable time with.

One of my favorite books adddressing this subject is the late Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat!"  Not least because it makes me laugh.  Although it's aimed at screenwriters, his discussion of story structure and character can apply to other forms of writing.  As he describes the concept, the "save the cat" scene is "the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something -- like saving a cat -- that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him. . . . You must take the time to frame the hero's situation in a way that makes us root for him, no matter who he is or what he does."

Or as writer and agent Donald Maass puts it in his "Fire in Fiction," our job as writers is to create a bond between our readers and our protagonist.  And that's an immediate bond, on the first page if possible, not the last page or hidden in the depths of the story.  To do this, he said, we must give the readers a reason to care.

I love and care about all my characters, as you love and care for yours.  They're the children of our imagination.  And like good parents, we love our children no matter how weird or naughtly or -- let's be frank -- how unloveable they can sometimes be.  But passing out snapshots of our kids at their unloveable moments isn't going to make random strangers care about them.  We need to show pictures of the kids at their best, remembering that their best may be when they're soaked in sweat and mud.

Show the picture of her standing up for a bullied friend.  Or the one of him hugging his brother instead of hitting him.

In Maass's words, "Demonstrating a character trait that is inspiring does cause readers to open their hearts."

(While pondering editor Waters's words, I read fellow blogger Deborah Walker's wickedly funny post "Rejectomancy," about finding meaning in rejections.  See her post at  Next Wednesday:  "The Passage" author Justin Cronin tells us what it's like to get a multimillion dollar advance for a novel -- and what happens next.)

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