I have a bad habit of creating characters that are, um, unlikeable. Or, in the parlance of the publishing industry–unrelatable.
(As a brief aside, I do worry about what this says about me. People seem to like me when they meet me in person, and I do try hard to be nice and positive. But you never know. I could be horrible and people just aren't telling me.)
This happened with Emma Jean, as I have written about a lot here. People start out wanting to shake some sense into her (as a fellow blogger said) and end up loving her. And it happened recently again–I was toiling away on another novel and when I took it into my writing group, everyone told me how much they didn't like the main character. Which was actually a huge relief, because I didn't like her either. She really had no redeeming features. (At least Emma Jean was funny.)
So I set that novel aside, and now I'm working on another one. The heroine of this novel is a character who has been with me a long time. I wrote a mystery novel with her as the protagonist years ago (I recently found this novel and its actually not half bad, I just didn't have the fortitude to market it back then), and I've written short stories about her as well.
I think she's likeable. And relatable. But I want to make sure. And somewhere in the dim recesses of my mind, I remembered reading a screenwriting book that had a section on making characters likeable. So I went to my bookshelf and found Writing Screenplays That Sell by Michael Hauge, which sure enough, has a whole wonderful section on creating characters, one part of it called Establishing Character Identification. I found his tips very helpful, and I paraphrase them here:
1. Create sympathy for the character. "This is by far the most effective and widely used method of creating reader identification with the hero," Hauge says. One way to do this is to make your protaganist the victim of some undeserved misfortune. For instance, in the novel I'm writing, my heroine gets laid off. It could be a family member's death, a child being bullied, racism or sexism–you get the idea.
2. Put the character in jeopardy. Thrillers and adventure tales do this well. I see it used a lot in women's fiction when say, the protagonist's husband runs off with all the money, or she faces some other "soft" threat (as opposed to a situation in which she faces bodily harm or death).
3. Make the character likeable. Would that this were easy! Hauge says that the more we like the character, the more we will identify with her and root for her throughout the story, and he names three ways to make it happen:
–Make the character a good or nice person
–Make the character funny (too bad this didn't work better for Emma Jean–though it was her saving grace)
–Make the character good at what he or she does.
Hauge emphasizes that writers must use one of these methods to be sure you establish character identification. And, he says, you have to do this right away! No meandering warm-ups–let us know who your character is and why we should care about him immediately. Here are the rest of his ways to establish identification:
4. Introduce your protagonist as soon as possible. Sometimes I read manuscripts that confuse me because I can't tell who I'm supposed to be rooting for. Often writers put auxiliary characters in first. Uh-uh. Get your hero onstage first.
5. Show the character in touch with his own power. Love this one. It can be power over other people, power to do what needs to be done, or power to express one's feelings despite what others think. We are fascinated with power–because so many of us don't have it.
6. Put the character in a familiar setting. Time, place, home, and family all create a sense of familiarity. Maybe you've never lived in or visited New York City, for instance, but you have a basic familiarity with it because you've seen it on TV and movies a gazillion times.
7. Give the character familiar flaws. Addiction is a perennial favorite because we all know someone who has struggled with it–or perhaps you yourself have (it is a writer thing, after all). Or, Hauge says it can be less serious, like social awkwardness or clumsiness (correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't that a trait of Bella in the Twilight series?).
8. Make your character a superhero. But only if you're writing fantasy or adventure. There's something primal about these larger-than-life figures that resonate with readers.
9. The eyes of the reader. Hauge says that reader identification is strengthened when we find out information at the same time as the hero. This works great in mysteries, for example. (And does it drive you as crazy as it drives me when we see the detective figuring out the key to the whole crime but aren't privy to it?)
That's it–the nine ways to create character identification.
News flash: a 20th anniversary edition of the afore mentioned book, Writing Screenplays That Sell, was recently published. Hit Michael's website for more info. (I have the old version, so don't yell at me if the new one you buy isn't exactly the same.)
Also: yes I know that most of you who read this blog don't write screenplays. But for my money, the screenplay guys (and gals) are the absolute best when it comes to structure and story. So read them and apply it to novel or memoir writing.
Have you used any of these methods to create character identification? What are your favorite ways to make your character relatable?