There is a rulebook, its just covered in elbow-grease and slips out of my fingers as soon as I get a grip on it. Every now an then I manage to flip it open at a random page and get a glimpse of something, then its flopping onto the floor again. There are a few writers who have read pages and pages of that thing – even whole sections – but they aren’t telling (You Know Who You Are!!!!).
Perhaps it was the first time I glimpsed that self-same rulebook on the bookshelf – and managed to tease it down like an Indian Snake Charmer – that I got my first character ‘eureka!’ moment.
‘That’s it!’ I thought. Character sympathy! That’s the key to hooking a reader.
I did get excited, because you only get that one chance to draw someone into your story, be it a casual reader — or potential editor. Once you get a reader interested in your character, they might forgive you for bumps in the other story elements e.g. plots, world building, PoV, multiple characters, action scenes etc.
So I thought I had it. Build the sympathy!
The trick is – and what I learned the hard way – was that what one reader responds to in a character is often vastly different to another – in fact often diametrically opposed. One reader’s cool detached hero is another’s arrogant, insufferable narcissist.
I used to come home from critique groups often puzzled by contradictory comments that made little sense until the penny finally dropped. If people don’t like your characters, they just will NOT gel with your story. Once you reach that stage the critter will start (often unconsciously) working overtime to find all the things ‘wrong’ with your piece, when the real problem is that it simply has no resonance for them. They will talk vehemently about the punctuation on p3, or how they got mixed up in the dialogue, the logic error in par 5, or yada yada, yada…
Even successful writers don’t seem to have real control over reader’s reactions.
One of David Gemmell readers all time favorite characters is Waylander. David Gemmell himself set out to make this guy a real piece of work – a nasty customer that no one should like; a ruthless assassin that kills without a thought. The surprise was that people loved Waylander, and he went on to be one of Gemmell’s most successful characters, extending over three books and carrying the story well in each one. So why did people respond to Waylander? Was there something unconsciously carried through from Gemmell about that character’s destiny that altered his portrayal? Or do people just love the bad guy – the old Sympathy for the Devil chestnut?
Are the ways of building sympathy for a character as wildly different as the characters people enjoy?
What really draws you into a character? They way they love someone else or show they care? Being the underdog? Strength? Courage? Determination? Their vulnerability? Their sheer undead coolness?
Please let me know – while I keep trying to get a grip on that darn slippery rulebook.