How do writers get their readers to identify with their characters?
One method is to make the character as basic as possible. This way the reader can fill them with their own details. Have you ever played a role playing game where you get to select your character’s class, hair, and armor? This is taking the default option: the bland blonde fair skinned male human, the rice cake of warrior classes. This option keeps the character so empty, the audience has no choice but to fill him with their own back story.
The very first line in Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places is, “I have a meanness inside me, as real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out…”
Right out of the gate, I knew I was going to like this book. It spit in the face of everything my screenwriting background had taught me. Libby Day, Dark Place’s narrator, doesn’t care what the reader thinks of her and that’s one of her most endearing qualities. She doesn’t pet a dog to win us over. She doesn’t compensate with a sense of humor. If she’s an ice queen with a heart of gold, she doesn’t wear it on her sleeve.
Libby wins our affection almost by accident. She’s the lone survivor of a murder spree that claimed her mother and two sisters. The moment this personal tragedy could get our sympathy, we learn she’s been exploiting it for money, living off of donations, even having a self help book on recovery ghost written for her. Now she’s down to her last few dollars. She’s a loser who strives to be as unlovable as possible.
Libby testified that her teenage brother sacrificed her siblings in the name of Satan, but didn’t actually see the event go down. When a group of true crime junkies hire her to investigate her past, Libby starts to wonder if the killer is still out there.
Libby’s call to action forces her to grow fast. Since she starts from such a low place, she has nowhere to go but up. Even though, she set out to rub us the wrong way in chapter 1, we find ourselves rooting for her when the book is done. Her no bullshit attitude proves beneficial. She doesn’t come with a strong moral code, but she finds one on the way.
These are the types of stories I love the most: likability long cons. If Libby had started as a grown up girl scout, she wouldn’t have commanded my attention.
Ask yourself, if Tony Stark was a gentleman from frame one, how compelling would you have found his transformation into Iron Man? If Han Solo never cared about Galactic Credits, how much would you have cared when he helped the rebellion at the last minute? If Catwoman hadn’t stollen Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints, would you have cared as much when she decided to help him save Gotham?
Unlike those lovable rogues, Libby Day doesn’t even bother being charming, but she goes through a similar karmic transition.
Average Characters are Overdone
A trap early writers fall into is trying to make their characters likable from the get go. Treating character introductions like job interviews, they go out of their way to make a good first impression.
A lot of writers think the key to making characters relatable is to make them as average as possible. This is why sitting through movie trailers feels like watching a parade of Joe Everymen. I’ve already written about how much I hate that feeling. I don’t find regular Joe’s very compelling. Designing your lead to appear hyper normal, is a cheap way to make them accessible. A smarter investment, would be to give them a goal your audience can relate to.
Maybe we’re not all blue collar slobs, but we all want a reason to get up in the morning. Maybe we’re not all Joe-sixpacks, but we all want to be happier than we are. Maybe we’re not all average Americans, but we all want to be loved by someone.
Your character doesn’t need to be someone the audience wants to have a beer with. They’re not running for president. You don’t need to file down their jagged edges. Well developed characters are just as likable as characters that are just like us. It’s more important for your hero to feel like a human being than a delegate for all of humanity.
Don’t Avoid Every Extreme
Writing a believable character is a lot like trying to seduce someone; if you’re too calculated in your approach, your target audience is going to feel it. They might not be able to explain why it’s not working, but they’ll have a very strong hunch. If you use manipulative language on a first date, your date has every right to walk out on you. If pander to what you think your audience wants, they have every right to put your book down.
Readers have read enough stories to subconsciously recognize writers’ tricks. Character formulas are not love potions.
If you write with an imaginary audience in the room, you’ll sacrifice your honesty in the name of broadening your appeal. You’ll avoid extremes. You’ll struggle to make your character vulnerable, without seeming too whiny. You’ll make them an underdog, with an unnatural resilience. You’ll waste too much time trying to make them seem smart, but not too clever. One sarcastic quip too many and you’ll fear you’re losing your reader.
If you write with your audience in the room, you’re setting yourself up for writer’s block. How can your story move forward, when you’re so afraid your reader will turn on you?
There’s something freeing about writing nasty characters, then unleashing them on the total squares that occupy their universe. We all spend so much time saving face, it’s fun to watch someone cast off social mores with reckless abandon. Audiences might find your hero repellant in the prologue, only to root for them later on.
Sarcastic, cynical, arrogant people are not without their appeal, so long as they’re three dimensional. Defects give your characters room to grow. Don’t rob them of a deep emotional change by making them too likable from the get go.