Monday, April 20, 2015

Is your character someone to root for?

As I've mentioned before, effective character development is something I constantly strive toward. This was especially apparent last Friday, when my story was up for critique in my MFA class. 

During the workshop, people said they didn't really like the main character--and some of them even sympathized with characters who were supposed to be adversaries. 

One classmate hit the nail on the head as to why. She said, "She wasn't really someone I could root for."

This really struck a chord with me. Because we all want our characters to be relatable. Likable. Someone our readers will want to stick with for several pages. 

But if I'm rooting for a character, I'm with them all the way, even after the wheels fall off. 

So I asked myself the following:

Which characters make me feel like this: ("Rick 'em, rack em!")

From Tumblr: "A Girl Worth Fighting For"

Instead of this: ("If he can't do it, GREAT!")
From Tumblr: "Darling You'll be Okay"

Here are a few examples I came up with:

Matilda Wormwood (Matilda, by Roald Dahl): Matilda grows up in a family that doesn't appreciate her. But what really keeps us with her the whole way is she doesn't let this get her down, nor does she act superior (even though she is). As an agent of chaos, she fights back by playing subtle pranks on her family and other adversaries.

What Matilda teaches us: Protagonists need to see the humor in their situations, no matter how bleak they are.

Claire Beauchamp (Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon): In contrast with Matilda, Claire is an inherently strong-willed person. But what keeps us for the long haul is her vulnerability as well as her strength. Like Matilda, she's cunning, and willing to be an agent of chaos to get what she needs. Steal a horse to return to the standing stones that brought her to eighteenth century Scotland. Or defy a priest to save the life of a young boy.  But in both those situations, Claire is also inherently vulnerable. 

What Claire teaches us: Protagonists' actions need a distinct purpose in concordance with the chaos they create, and strong characters need to show their softer sides.

Tally Youngblood (Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld): Tally, like Matilda, is put in a weak position from the onset, especially after she loses her best friend Peris to the "pretties." Although Tally considers herself an "ugly," she doesn't wallow in that. And through her journey to dismantle what's been created, she figures out that being "pretty" isn't all that important anyway. 

What Tally teaches us: Protagonists need enough flexibility to grow and change. 

Notice that all three characters have something in common: a willingness to be an agent of chaos. To turn their external worlds upside down. What makes the difference is how that change relates to them as human beings.

So in this short story I wrote (it's probably going to turn into a book chapter), I've decided to make my character a little wiser (like Claire), more stoic (like Matilda) and more flexible (like Tally). And, like all three, a true agent of chaos.

What about you? Which characters do you root for most? And in turn, what do you think makes readers root for the characters you've written?


  1. I like my characters to be real--not Pollyanna--and I can't stand a whiny or sullen character. And yep, if the MC is a whiner, I quite reading. But if the MC is funny and laughs at himself/herself, I'll pretty much follow anywhere. :-)

    1. Know what you mean about characters that are whiners! I think my short story character was a bit like that--I'll have to make her laugh at herself more and give her a bit more humility. Great advice!

  2. Thought-provoking post. (Loved the Aladdin gifs, btw.) I hope people root for my characters. I think what I look for is a believable character with a plight I can sympathize with, and no whining or self-pity. I think characters that put on a "woe is me" attitude really turn me off. Thanks for making me think!

    1. Sure thing, Beth! And I totally agree--the "woe is me" thing gets old pretty fast. I'm always interested in the specifics of what makes characters sympathetic to people--or whether this varies depending on the person who's reading the story.

      I'm glad you liked the .gifs! Aladdin is one of my favorite movies.


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