Readers demand a protagonist that they can care about. Not necessarily “like,” but care about. Uber-fiction-agent Donald Maass, in his Writing the Breakout Novel book and workbook, tells us that one key characteristic of the 100 bestselling novels that he analyzed is that the authors created protagonists that readers cared about.
Thus it comes to pass that acquisition editors at publishing houses demand that your manuscript and mine have that characteristic. But how do you make it happen?
Lou Aronica, an editor and the publisher of scores of best-selling novels, told me that the number one way to create caring for a character is to show the character in a relationship. This is not, he stressed, to make a reader like a character, but to create a person-to-person connection that can cause a reader to care about what happens to a character, even one that is otherwise not appealing. We all have relationships, and experiencing one on the page makes the character more “like us.” I read a novel in which the protagonist was a pedophile and killer, and while the character was disgusting in many ways, there were sides of him with which I empathized.
Here’s just such a character: Born-Again Bobby Strunk, when you meet him, is an obese, slovenly, crude, arrogant, corrupt religious leader—I guarantee that you would not like him. Yet, by the end of the novel, you will care about him. The caring begins with this:
The wrought-iron gate at the Shady Farms entrance hung open. Residents were unlikely to run away. The Farms was their haven; they had no desire to leave, except on field trips into town for a movie or an ice cream treat. Bobby drove between rows of tall oaks with overarching branches that formed a leafy roof over the driveway.
He parked in front of the converted plantation mansion. Six three-story pillars graced the white Greek Revival structure. A thirty-foot magnolia tree littered the lawn with fallen pink blossoms. Bobby regretted leaving the air-conditioned comfort of his black Lincoln to crunch across the gravel parking lot to the main entrance.
Inside, ceiling fans moved the humidity around but created no relief. He wrinkled his nose at the aromas of mold and the ammonia the janitor used to try to get rid of it.
Sister Mary Agnes, stout in her black habit, came down a sweeping double staircase to greet him. Her somber clothing contrasted sharply with the mansion’s high-ceilinged elegance, but the nun always seemed at home. Smile lines crinkling the corners of her blue eyes, she said, “Reverend Strunk, so good to see you. Sadie will be delighted.”
Bobby thought Catholics had a crazy religion, what with their Latin nobody could understand and a mutilated Christ pinned to the cross. But integrity and devotion radiated from this woman, and that was what he wanted for his little sister. “How is she?”
“Just as healthy and happy as ever. I think she’s out on the shuffleboard court with a couple of our teenagers.”
Bobby found Sadie crowing and clapping her chubby hands at knocking her opponent’s puck off the ten-spot.
He called out, “Little sister.”
She spun, and when she saw him a huge smile glowed. She ran to him, her clumsy gait typical of the short-legged, heavy body of Down Syndrome. Sadie threw herself at Bobby with arms open for a huge hug. He returned it with equal vigor. Comforted and rewarded by her unconditional love, his troubles left him.
Bobby forgot about being the man liberals labeled “the leader of the nation’s most volatile right-wing Christian sect.” He was a big brother, happily spending the next five hours with his twenty-year-old little sister, pushing her in the swung, laughing on the teeter-totter, dancing, and playing go fish.
They danced the Twist to 50s rock and roll in the rec room. They ate hot dogs and potato salad on the lawn, and talked about her world, a safe place with caregivers always at hand, classes to help her learn, and activities to engage her.
Even dead people count
A story opens with the protagonist deep in an emotional fugue—he doesn’t really feel anything. And he’s a gun for hire, a killer. The reasons for his fugue are mysterious, and they need to stay that way for at least half of the novel.
So how can a reader feel empathy for a character that feels nothing? Through a relationship that both establishes the mystery and tugs at the reader just enough to understand the troubled nature of the man. From the chapter that introduces him:
Jake Black pulled the trigger again.
Again the woman staggered. Then she dove off the flat rooftop after the little girl, her muffled laughter falling away.
A nasty mechanical buzz blasted him—his alarm clock yelling at him. He groped and turned it off, then realized that he was holding his breath, his jaws clenched and aching.
As he did every morning, he turned to a snapshot in a plain black frame on his nightstand—Amy, forever five years old, in her favorite, flowery party dress. He touched the tiny silver crucifix hanging by its chain from a corner of the frame. Amy wore it in the picture.
Why could he see her face in the photo but not in his memory? The crucifix glittered, and then he couldn’t look at it any more.
When he swung his legs out of bed, a foot came down on an empty wine bottle. God, his head hurt—the price of self-medication. He scowled at all the damn sunshine coming in the picture window that faced east.
Outside, fat clouds drifted towards Lake Michigan in a sepia sky. On the water, white triangles of sails leaned before the wind. Sunlight flared from ant trails of cars thirty stories below on Lake Shore Drive. The view cost extra, but it was a waste.
In the bathroom, his red, puffy eyes stared at him from the medicine-cabinet mirror. He wondered about the moisture on his cheeks. More and more, he found it there when he woke. He touched it with a fingertip, then tasted. Salty.
Another care factor: passion
Aronica told me that a second trait that can create a caring connection with a character is passion for achieving something. People driven to achieve, or fighting for a cause bigger than themselves, is something we can admire, and that brings the character closer to us.
In the film Rocky, his passion for making the best of himself for the big fight takes him and the audience through rigorous training. The audience works with him every bit of the way, and then celebrates with him when he makes his triumphal run up the steps.
In Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Howard Roark’s passion for his design, and for his vision of what it could be even in the face of what would be crushing opposition, create a huge “rooting factor” for him.
This is one that can work with both protagonists and antagonists. In the film, Spider-Man 2, Doctor Octopus has a goal of achieving a new energy source, which is admirable. Unfortunately, he goes a little nuts about it and does bad things to get there, but his fundamental passion is positive, and that keep a human core alive inside him, and we can care when he sacrifices his life to save the city.
Lastly, caring about others
Showing a character caring is perhaps a form of having a relationship, but I think it’s distinct enough to point out. Here’s an example of putting that to work for an antagonist.
Wait, an antagonist? The bad guy? Caring? You bet. Sure, you can have a purely evil villain, and readers can enjoy the ride. But a novel has more depth and dimension when the antagonist is also seen as human by the reader. If a reader has just a little bit of connection with the opposition, then the lessons of how not to be a human being are more valid, and valuable.
After all, a good bad guy (good from a storytelling point of view) doesn’t see himself as a bad guy. Nor does he see his actions as “evil.” Nope, he’s just trying to do what he thinks is right. Sometimes bad guys do evil in support of positive outcomes.
So if you can create connections between your reader and your antagonist, the story has set another hook, and the reader is drawn more deeply.
Here’s an illustration of caring. When we first meet Drago, we don’t have a clue that he will eventually do very bad things. It would be nice for the reader to be on his side, even if only a little bit, so his arc into evil will be greater and more meaningful. Here’s how we meet Drago:
The percussive whup-whup-whup of a helicopter drew Drago to a porthole in his galleon’s quarterdeck cabin. In the forest clearing where his ship and two others of his clan rested, a half-dozen clan children, teens to toddlers, built a snowman. The tall curved hulls of the sixteenth-century Spanish vessels, all grace when they sailed through the air, now seemed awkward, supports angling out like spider legs to hold them upright. The daylight was dim under the gray January sky, but that didn’t seem to matter to the children.
Helicopter noise smothered their giggles, and the galleons vanished behind glaméres of snow-clad forest, the illusions broadcast by alert sentries.
All save one of the children disappeared as well, disguised as young trees. Little Alexandra, her skills not yet awakened, burst into tears. Drago swung the porthole open to help her with a concealing glamére, but then a sapling scooped up the child. In the flicker of a thought, a fat squirrel appeared in her place. Satisfied, he closed the port against the chill.
The helicopter sound faded, the ships and children blinked back into view, and a snowball fight developed. Intrusions by lessi–and the danger they brought–were normal to clan children, but for Drago they were a long-endured infestation that he would soon eliminate.
This man’s instinctive move to protect a child, and then his desire to protect all of his clan’s children, says something about his values. Only later will the reader learn how distorted his way of achieving his goals have been by a murderous desire for vengeance. And it took very little narrative space to add this grace note to his character.
This is a chapter from my forthcoming book, Jump-start Your Novel with Kitty-cats in Action.
For what it’s worth.