Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Getting Reader Sympathy for Characters

I watched Taken at the weekend, and good fun it was too, merrily playing with just about every cliche there is. I felt they'd done a check list to make the main character, played by Liam Neeson, sympathetic...

- He loves his daughter and we generally like family-oriented people.
- He is being brave although his daughter lives with her mother and her new husband - we like him because he's being stoical about his situation.
- He had to work extra hours to get his daughter the present she wanted for her birthday - hardworking, self-sacrificing...
- The step father is loaded - Liam isn't rich, just like us.
- When his daughter is kidnapped, he turns out to have buckets of useful skills, gadgets and handy friends in high places...well, from time to time, don't we all wish we had vastly superior skills and could zap people who got in our way?
- He's only trying to save his daughter; if the baddies had handed her back as he politely asked, he wouldn't have needed to kill them.
- All the baddies were foreign - them versus us. They all smoked, too, so what else did they expect?

There are certain qualities we all think are desirable, like being respectful and kind to those under us. A character who is snotty to the waitress is a character who we will never like. Ditto one who kicks the dog. We can admire a character who steals diamond necklaces, but never one who steals from the charity box.

We like people who are brave - but don't make a fuss about it. Modesty and self-deprecation are attractive. Loyalty is also very important - many a novel has been about a conflict of loyalties and how the main character can resolve that conflict.

We like people who DO stuff, people who make things happen. And we like it when they have special talents. We like people who are like us, but better. Liam, in other words.

NEW!!! I've finally got round to organising some course dates....
How to WRITE a Novel: London 3rd May/Birmingham 7th May/
Oxford 8th May/Exeter 21st May/Bath 12th June
How to SELL a Novel: London 24th May/Exeter 4th June/


Jim Murdoch said...

I don’t know if it’s a particularly British thing but we do love to root for the underdog and just because a character is unlikeable like Ebenezer Scrooge doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t be in his corner. In my first two novels the protagonist, Jonathan, is a misanthropic misogynist and yet I’ve never found anyone who hasn’t sympathised with him and I suspect it’s because he’s like Scrooge, not a bad man but a man who has simply reacted badly to the events in his life. But it’s more than that. He spends three days in the company of the personification of truth who in many ways plays the parts of the three Dickensian ghosts and gives my guy a similarly hard time. Jonathan isn’t brave, he’s vain, selfish, an isolationist who has spent his life avoiding life and has no special talents but because we see him being effectively bullied our hearts go out to him and everything else gets put to the side. It’s like bad guys in films, we don’t mind if they get dispatched quickly, blown to smithereens, but we really don’t like it when a bigger baddy comes along and makes them suffer despite what they might have done before. Odd innit?

Sarah Duncan said...

I think the underdog has always worked from David v Goliath onwards. It's about reader identification - there are more underdogs than top dogs.

womagwriter said...

I watched that too. Massive body count by the end, but hey, the daughter survived.

Anonymous said...

I guess I would watch Liam Neeson even if he smoked and hit his dog (well maybe not the dog). I just felt there was a lack of plot interest. He tells daughter Paris is dangerous - Paris is dangerous and he has to rescue her. No surprises there. I had assumed the celeb singer was going to be a subplot - i.e. her attackers actually went after L's daughter as an act of revenge, then he would have felt partially culpable for daughter's abduction and have to redeem himself as well as rescue her.
Shall I send in my rewrite? ;)

Sarah Duncan said...

You would have to join the queue Ali as I too have a re-write in the offing - and several other blog posts in mind!