Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Should You Care?

Craft: Do characters need to be sympathetic? Why? Why not? Does it make a difference in different genres?

From Frank

Short answer?

No, they do not have to be sympathetic. But they have to at least be someone the reader can understand.

Longer answer?

My speciality.

If you make a character sympathetic, that's the easiest path. And it may be the one that pays off the most for the reader, I believe. It's a great approach, and I think one that most of us strive to achieve. But there are degrees, right?

Full sympathy would be like the golden ticket. If a reader identifies with a character to that degree, you literally have their heart strings clutched in your little Machiavellian fingers. Tug away.

Most of the time, we get some sympathy. Just like real people, we may not like everything about a character, but we mostly like that character. And you can get a lot of mileage out of that, believe me.

But all it really takes is one or two connections between reader and character to make something meaningful happen, to keep their interest, and make them care.

But what if they don't like anything about the character, but they still understand where she is coming from? I contend that's still enough. It's a harder row to hoe, but it's enough to keep a reader hooked.

Does genre matter? I think so. I think romance has some pretty specific expectations in a narrator and a romantic lead, for example. But mystery seems a little more forgiving of characters who are more gray.

That's my answer.

There's a similar question to comes to mind, though. What if the character is someone you think you'd hate in real life (or at least find annoying) but you love the character on the page? This seems to be the reaction of many readers when it comes to the character of Detective Wardell Clint of the Charlie-316 series that I write with Colin Conway. I mean, people love Wardell Clint. They've told me this in person, on social media, and in private correspondence. But then they usually go on to admit that they probably wouldn't like him much in real life.

That's undoubtedbly true. Clint is brusque and appears arrogant to most people. He has a strong defiance to authority and a paranoid and unhealthy belief in multiple conspiracies. From the outside, he's mostly unlikable. But the reader gets the benefit of his own point-of-view chapters, so s/he sees inside his mind and person, which makes him far more likable. Probably puts him into that 'one or two connection' category, or at least into the 'understandable' range.

I also think there's some fantasy projection occurring with this character. He is secure in who he is (and he's good what he does), and he speaks his mind without compunction. Most of us couch our interactions for the sake of civility, and I'm guessing most of us would like to be more like Clint if we could.

Anyway, that's just a side note, probably included because the second book in this series just came out about a week ago. It's called Never the Crime. Books three and four will follow in September and November of 2020, so for Clint lovers out there, you're going to get your fill!

But if you're looking for characters who fall into that golden ticket category, you're going to have a rough go of it. The color of this series is gray, not gold.


Paul D. Marks said...

Frank, good point about liking a character on the page (or screen) that you might not like in real life. Like a lot of those noir anti-heroes.

Terry said...

More than once I've realized when I'm reading a book I'm enjoying that I probably wouldn't like the character in real life. Side note: In my first draft I almost always make all the characters too "nice," and I have to go back and make them real--meaning they have to be more than nice.

catriona said...

I think you're right about romance, Frank.

Frank Zafiro said...

@PAUL, thanks... I think your Jack character is also a perfect example of this.

@TERRY, well, that just speaks to what a nice person you are! Go ahead and dirty up those characters, though!

@Catriona, thanks... not saying there's anything wrong with it but...I dunno, I prefer more complexity in my own characters, and in those I read. Some might say, "I read for escape so I want it this way or that" (vis a vis the romance comment above), but I still think nuances make a story more interesting. It can still be light-hearted, though, right? Still an escape? I think certain of your books attest to that.