Thursday, May 17, 2012
Making A Character Likeable
Image courtesy: Brian Auer
Hi blogoverse, it's been a while. My children have a plan, a devious plan. They've been contracting new illnessnes in a staggered pattern to keep me busy. However, I'm sure this deluge of sniffles, sore throats, and ear infections now will ensure that no one gets so much as a hiccup on our upcoming beach vacation. Right?
Now on to task. What makes a character likeable? How do you create a character people will follow through 300+ pages? It's not enough to make them attractive and nice. In fact, if you make all your characters sound like supermodels who are perfectly pleasant every moment, the reader may hurl while hurling your book into the trash.
Here's one trick: have other characters in the book like them. If someone is loved and/or admired by other characters, the reader will notice. You see this in advertising. Actors tell you how wonderful a product is so that you'll believe it's wonderful as well and buy it.
Trick number two: go for the sympathy vote. I'm immediately sympathetic to a character that's lost a child. Other calamities might not be as extreme, but broken relationships, lost jobs, and physical injuries work to keep a reader's interest as the character struggles to adjust and recover.
Trick number three: given the character a surprising or formally unknown talent. In Anita Shreve's Body Surfing, the main character is hired to tutor a teenage girl who sounds like a D+/C- kind of student. When the tutor accidentally finds out the girl is an artist, it's fascinating to read how that talent is drawn out and what it leads to.
Trick number four: have the character want something. This idea comes from Stein's On Writing. The character's want drives the story. Ideally, the reader should be unable to put the book down because they need to know: does the character get what they want? What happens if they do? What happens if they don't?
As I work to make my characters likeable, I'm taking a hard look a characters I really like. Consider The Time Traveler's Wife with Henry and Clare. Henry travels through time, but he can't control it and, boy, does it put him into some awkward situations since his clothes don't travel with him. This makes him fascinating and sympathetic. Clare meets him as a young girl and falls in love with him as she gets older. The difficulties of maintaining a relationship and a marriage with a time traveler give the reader sympathy for Clare. Her desperate want for a child adds to the sympathy.
Another book full of likeable characters is The Help. It starts with black maid Aibileen taking care of her white employer's toddler. The child's natural mother is a cold fish, more likely to slap her little girl for the least infraction than to give her a moment's warmth. Yet Aibileen is patient and nurturing to this tiny person, even though she has lost her own child, even though her employer treats her as less than human, and even though the child is likely to grow up to be as intolerant as her mother. The opening chapter does more than make the reader sympathetic toward Aibileen. It makes this character noble on a heroic level.
What characters have you found likeable? Can you give me more 'tricks' to creating a likeable character? It's not easy. Just picking a picture for this blog was tricky, but who doesn't like kids who love animals?