Some people have the knack. They’re easy to meet. We like them right away. Trust is instant. Talk flows without effort. They’re open. We feel like we know them after just a short while. Our kind of folks.
Then there’s the other kind. They’re closed. Cool. Stand-offish. Reluctant to reveal themselves. We don’t quite trust them. Conversation is strained. After meeting them several times, we still may feel that we don’t know them much at all. Cold fish.
The same is true of protagonists. When they’re warmly portrayed we attach to them easily. When they’re cool and mysterious we don’t quite trust them. It’s not about being nice, gregarious or glad-handers. It’s about being open to the reader.
You can really see the difference in dark protagonists. All are tormented. We should turn away from their misery, yet some we warm up to quickly while others leave us cold.
This matters because readers either like our characters quickly or not at all. They know them or they don’t. They walk in their skin or observe them from a distance. They care or they shrug. Which set of responses would you prefer?
Portraying characters with warmth starts with warming up to them yourself. Most novelists will tell you it’s hard to write about characters you don’t understand. Building profiles and back stories is thus key to character construction. But knowing isn’t the same as liking. An ounce of openness will do more than a mountain of back story.
Here are some starting points:
What do you like best about your main character? How can we see more of that? How can we experience that right away?
You are your main character’s best friend. What secret do you know about him or her that nobody else does? What are ten people, places or things about which he or she has powerful feelings? What makes him wince? When is she strong? What delights? What disgusts? Find a spot in each POV scene to convey the essence of this person.
Make a cast list. For each character, write down their problem (large or small) with every other character on the list. How many of these issues can you use? (Same goes for what’s beautiful about every other character on the list.)
For this character, what’s the deeper meaning in something small? What’s the common wisdom that’s utter crap? What’s a staunch principle? What’s a powerful temptation? Who’s the greatest left handed pitcher of all time? Who’s the worst poet? What is there to be proud of? Of what should we all be ashamed?
Some plot-driven storytellers worry about getting too mushy, while some literary types do nothing but. There’s a balance. It’s necessary to be natural. But for protagonists to capture us they’ve got to open up.
So do you.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s Jack Batchelor