Does an Audience Need to Like Characters?
Cool thing that we're gonna get to now is we're gonna start talking about people that might not being doing the things that they should probably be doing. When we read we're not auditioning baby sitters. Right, like I loved reading the book Lolita. I think it's a beautiful book but I would never let Humbert Humbert babysit my daughter. I don't think that's a role that would really suit his skill set. So I hear people ask all the time, "Does our characters have to be likable?" And I don't think they do . I think what they have to be is relatable. I always tell my graduate students, "We are not pageant parents." Right, we're not getting our four year old permanent makeup tattoos or you know, getting them spray tans or little toddler embellishments or whatever. We don't have to think about those things. Our job is not to convince a reader to like a character. Our job is to put that character out there wort's and all. We have to risk a character being unlikeable in order for us to truly do...
our job right. So think about where I'm standing as the middle of a spectrum of characterization. And one step over here is Darth Vader and over here is Luke Skywalker. And I'm gonna make the argument that in literature the two extremes of the spectrum are useless for us. We're not interested in Darth Vader and we're not interested in Luke Skywalker. What we're interested in is right in the middle where our characters are these tangles of strengths and weaknesses. Not being the pageant parent. Not trying to convince your reader, see he's likable, he's likable, take him home introduce him to your family. But be willing to show the whole ball of wax. Show their vulnerability, show what they're ashamed of. Show the things that they probably don't want us to know. And if we're willing to risk that that's when there's opportunity for the reader and the protagonist to have an empathy bridge. We can really start to relate. I've been humiliated, I've been ashamed. And the fact that this person's willing to tell me these things that they've done that they're probably not proud of, it makes me extend my empathy. It kind of brings out the humanness in both the character and also, the reader. The reader can say "Okay, I haven't done exactly "what you've done, but I've done other things "that I'm not proud of." I believe that we all have this stash in a part of our brain that I like to call the shame cave. And in the shame cave are these things that you've done that even if 20 years removed, 30 years removed, you think about what you did the hair on the back of your neck stands up. And you're like "God, I can't believe I "treated somebody like that." "I can't believe I said that." "I can't believe I behaved that way." and if we know those things about our characters and we're willing to put those things out there for the reader to know, that's where empathy lives. So don't necessarily be so concerned about likability so much as relatability. Relatability meaning that the characters are becoming psychologically real. So even though I might do the thing that a character is doing I understand why this person is behaving this way. I understand what's making her, what's propelling her to act in this way. So the next exercise that I want to do is to put the character in a moral dilemma. A moral dilemma in this context means that you could articulate at the fence of either side of her actions. You could support what she did or there you could indict what she did. And both vantage points could have like valid evidence to support that. And we'll use a specific set up here. So let's say in this particular moment that we have a women whose feeling a little lonely. A little lost, a little unmoored right now. And one of the things she's done to make herself feel better is she started to volunteer at the SPCA. She'd been walking dogs Monday afternoon's for, let's say five months she's walking a different dog. And everything's going fine. Except this one day, remember a story is never just another day, it's always the day that something happens. And this is the day where she realizes this is my dog. I've only met this dog right now but it's obvious and it's immediate, we're pals. I dunno if it's from another life (laughing) I dunno what it is but we have this connection and this isn't any run of the mill dog walking moment. We're friends. And why should I only feel this way for half an hour while I walk the dog. They want these dog's to be adopted anyways. I'm not doing anything wrong if I take this dog home. I'm just skipping a couple steps. (laughing) But it's all in the name of me having the requisite companionship and me giving this dog a good home and screw it, I'm gonna steal it. So what she's doing is wrong. Right, you're not suppose to steal dogs. Do we all agree on that? Some people aren't nodding. (laughter) Can they steal dogs? (laughter) So what I wanna do is I want you to write this moment from her point of view, selling the variety of it. Selling its truth, selling its assets. Why is this the right decision? She's doing what's considered the wrong thing but is she maybe doing the right thing? And that's what I want, I want the mud. I don't want the simple answer here. I want you to sort of write into the complications. Make the reader have to make a moral determination for herself. So if 10 different readers interact with this image, five will be like, "She's a criminal." Can't do that, can't steal dogs. And five people will be like, "She's lonely." I might do it to. And that's what we're trying to write. We're writing into the soup. We're writing into the moral mud. So there are no clean answers. That's that tangle of strengths and weaknesses I was talking about earlier from the middle of the characterization spectrum. Darth Vader's here, Luke Skywalker here, and all us dog stealer's (laughing) we're right in the middle here. So, that's the next prompt. Kind of you supply, I kind of leave these sort of a morphous so then you can kind of take them in any direction that you see fit. This will be the last exercise before we take our morning break. Any questions about this before we dive in or does this one seem pretty self explanatory? Alright, cool, happy writing. Finished that last dog napper line. I think we've done what, somebody drinking alone in a park, a killer, and a dog stealer. I must of been sort of in a dark mood when I was putting all these exercises together. (laughing) Who wants to be our next brave volunteer to share their dog theft? You wanna go, great, can you grab the mike please. Great.
I always follow the rules, not this time. This dog belongs with me. I could get caught, I wont' get caught. I will just say he ran off. Saw another dog and shot off. I tried to find him. I'm helping him, he needs me. If I try an do the proper process, I might not get him. He needs me, I need him. "You know I'm right," she says. The dog breathes on her face and stares back.
All right, what I love about what you're doing there, you're letting us be privy to his or her rationalization. You know, we're seeing that from her vantage point, from his vantage point, like I have reasons and they're good reasons and I love that final image. Face to face with the new, newly absorbed pooch. (laughing) That's a perfect way to shut that down, thanks.