Saturday, March 12, 2011

Making a Relatable Character

Sometimes we writers struggle to make "relatable" characters.  How do we shape and present characters that readers can identify and sympathize with?  A dreadful fear some writers may have is that after pouring all their work and energy into a story, no one will care very much about reading it because all the characters are too dull and lifeless to get attached to.  "Who cares if Susie the protagonist falls into a pit of vipers and dies a terrible death?" the reader might say.  "I never cared too much about her."

I once read some tips in an old book that really helped me with this dilemma.  The title is Writing Screenplays That Sell by Michale Hauge (my copy of the book is from 1991, but I think there might be a newer edition).  Although the book was written with movie characters in mind, I think it applies perfectly to book characters.

Talking about "identifying" with a character, the book says: "Identification with a character means that the audience, or reader, experiences emotion through that character.  In other words, the audience puts itself inside the character emotionally to experience the story: if the character is in danger, the audience feels frightened; if the character suffers loss, the audience feels sad." (Page 44.)

The book then lists nine methods for establishing identification,  in order of priority: (the words in bold are from the book; the commentary afterwards is my own summary of what the author says)

1. Create Sympathy for the Character.  If the viewer, or reader, feels sorry for the character, it's almost guaranteed that they will identify with and relate to him.

2. Put the Character in Jeopardy.  Get your readers to worry about the character.

3. Make the Character Likable.  We're much more likely to identify with a character that we like and care about.  

4. Introduce the Character as Soon as Possible.  If the main protagonist isn't introduced until half-way through the story, we probably won't care about him as much as if he had been the first person we read about (or saw).

5. Show the Character in Touch with His Own Power.  The author lists three forms of power that a character can have: (1) Power over other people.  (2) Power to do whatever needs to be done, without hesitation.  (3) Power to express one's feelings regardless of other's opinions.

6. Place the Character in a Familiar Setting.  Think about it: would it be easier to relate to a character living in Medieval Scandinavia or the modern suburbs of North Carolina?  Not that you can't create relatable characters in foreign or fantastical settings; it's just that it's easier to connect with what's familiar. 

7. Give the Character Familiar Flaws and Foibles.  Humans aren't perfect; characters shouldn't be perfect, either.  We instantly identify with a character who has some of the mistakes and imperfections we see in ourselves.  (This can help add humor to a story, too.)

8. The Superhero.  Here the author talks about heroes like Superman, Indiana Jones, or James Bond, who may be nothing like ourselves; but we admire them, and somewhere deep in our subconsciousness, we want to be like them, too.

Now, I said there were nine, didn't I?  Well, I think the ninth method relates more to screenplays than novels, and since it isn't nearly as important as the other eight (just in my opinion), we won't touch on it.

What about you?  Do you agree with Michael Hauge's methods for making a relatable character?  Do you identify with characters in books and movies that have these traits?  And finally, would you add anything to this list?