What is about that first encounter that pulls you in?
Is it his penetrating eyes, the way he looks over the side of his shoulder at you, his confidence? Is it how she runs her ring finger along the side of her lipstick, the way she takes dinner to the old man down the hall, her intelligence?
Why all this talk of love in a writing blog? Because being able to make your audience respond emotionally to your protagonist vests them in the story, and keeps them turning pages.
I took a sampling of some bestsellers to find out how the authors made us fall in love at first sight (or first chapter, or first prologue) with their protagonists. For the purposes of this post, the definition of love includes the obsessive, the maternal, the romantic and beyond. In all cases, however, the characters stir something in the belly. While love is highly individual, the widespread popularity of the following books shows that there are ways to appeal to the masses.
The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
This post-WW2, epistolary novel is about a writer, Juliet, who travels to the English Channel Island of Guernsey to meet a group who used books to help them through the German occupation. Juliet’s sense of humor, capriciousness, and ability to laugh at herself instantly endear her to the reader. In one of her opening letters she says, “I know that I am fortunate to have any place at all to live in London, but I much prefer whining to counting my blessings.” Such quips are frequent in the book, and add lightness to its serious themes.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
This Civil Rights era novel written from the point of view of an irresistible trio of strong, Southern voices was the runaway bestseller and most popular book club choice of 2009. It’s the little remarks about household chores, “She already got the blue dress on I ironed this morning, the one with sixty-five pleats on the waist…I don’t hate much in life, but me and that dress is not on good terms,” and employer judgment, “she is the laziest woman I’ve ever seen. Including my sister Doreena who never lifted a royal finger growing up because she had the heart defect that we later found out was a fly on the X-ray machine,” that reveal the personalities of the narrators, and earn our esteem.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
This murder mystery novel, narrated by an autistic 15-year old boy, has one of the most endearing protagonists of recent years. From the onset of the book the reader feels protective of Christopher who knows “every prime number to 7,057” and likes dogs because they are “faithful and they do not tell lies because they cannot talk.” After being wrongly accused of the murder of his neighbor’s dog, Christopher attempts to acquit himself by solving the mystery. The author is able to maintain the narrator’s voice, without exploiting him, and what results is a compulsively readable book with a truly loveable narrator.
How about you? Can you think of any characters you’ve loved at first read? How do you make your own characters appealing?
*Photo courtesy of Deviant Art’s Olino.