Monday, September 13, 2010

Emotionally Invested

I was tinkering with a story this weekend, and it got me thinking about why we become emotionally invested in main characters.  What is it about a character that makes us care?  What tugs at our heartstrings as we read, makes our chest tighten, elated, furious, or sad?

I don't know about you, but when I read a book or write a story, by the end of that story, I want to feel emotionally exhausted.  I want to feel like I just competed in the World's Most Exhausting Emotional Marathon, rotating through every emotion possible.  While the cool storyline can pull you along that emotional rollercoaster, it's really the characters themselves that have to suck you in first.

Regardless of the genre, there has to be something about the main characters that makes us care about what happens to them.  Otherwise, frankly, why turn the pages?  Here are a few reasons to care that pop into my head:

1) Flaws.  A main character has to have believable flaws.  Perfection is boring and, seriously, so not realistic.
2) Problems.  A main character has to be trying to overcome some type of inner and/or outer conflict that the reader has to care about.
3) Likeability.  IMO, you don't always have to like the main character, but you at least have to care what happens to him. 
4) Larger than life.  There has to be something about the main character that makes him stand out against everyone else.  Sometimes it can be subtle; other times, it's in your face. 

Think about the last book that you read that you loved.  What made you like (or dislike) the main characters? What about them kept you turning the pages?

Other stuff:

Omigod, it's Monday already again and time for the weekly Author Blog Hop hosted by the super-cool authoress extraordinare, Lisa.  Please jump in and let's get this party started! 


Donna Cummings said...

This is a great question! I will read for a quite a while if there's some sort of question that needs answering, or a mystery that I find compelling.

But if it involves characters that I care about, I can't set the book down. I guess it's a mystery of another kind: how can they get through this barrier (emotional or otherwise) that they're struggling with? It's like I'm going through it with them, so I keep reading!

Nicki Elson said...

Hi Liz! I'm with you on becoming emotionally invested in the characters. I like what you say about main characters too---particularly the part about flaws and not needing to like them. It's something I've been thinking about lately. I think most of us don't set out to make our main characters unlikeable, but when along the way they rub someone wrong, to me that only means that we've created realistic characters. Because who in this world is well liked by everyone? Well, besides Regis Philbin, I mean. ;)

Nicki Elson said...

Sorry, sent that last comment too soon. In answer to your question, I think it is realistic characters that pull me in and make me like them or at least care about them. Like the Harry Potter series---of course there was the amazing magical world filled with exciting adventures, but it was going through it all with poor little Harry, with all his insecurities and very real pre-teen and teen emotions, that kept me on the edge of my seat.

Unknown said...

Great post Liz. I was kind of stuck on the likeability question. My first reaction was to say that I want my main character to be likeable but then I started thinking about it. Some of my favorite characters are the ones who are damaged in some way that makes them outwardly "unlikeable" but you know they're really good inside. That will keep me reading. (Trying out the hop : )

Liz Fichera said...

Hi Donna!

Story questions are also so critical. In fact one should appear from the first page--some might even say the first sentence! Great story question(s) + characters you can sink your teeth into = winning story. IMO.

Liz Fichera said...

Hey, Nicki!

Great Harry Potter example! None of us are 12 years old anymore (at least I'm not) but I can still relate to poor, cute Harry and all of his loveable insecuritiness. I was pulled in my Harry in Book 1, even before the story pulled me in, as I recall. Love that series!

Is Regis Philbin still around?! Haven't watched him in years! Yeah, he was pretty lovable too.

Liz Fichera said...

Hi Eleri!

Glad you joined the Blog Hop, btw. You bring up a great point--you want to root for your characters, flaws, warts, and all.

Congrats to on becoming my 50th follower! I wish that I could tell you I had a great prize, like a car or a diamond bracelet to send you but, sadly, I do not. :-)

Thanks for stopping by!

Joanna St. James said...

I started a manuscript, by chapter 2 I hated the hero he was so arrogant and whiny. I know I made him up but ugh he was annoying so i have abandoned the story till i can find a worthy hero to save my damsel from the clutches of rudeness galore.

Sherri said...

Have to say I agree with the points you mentioned. I don't care how awesome the plot is if the characters aren't real -- people I might meet in real life.

Liz Fichera said...

Hi Joanna,

Maybe your hero could be used for a different story? A secondary character? An annoying villian? If he created a reaction from you, he might be worth salvaging somehow.

Liz Fichera said...

Hi Sherri!

Long time no see! Great to see you here. I agree with you completely! If a character doesn't create a reaction from me, it might not matter how clever the storyline.

Maria Zannini said...

I like 'unlikable' characters, but then I'm trusting the author to give me a reason to like them down the line.

I want to see what's buried inside them to make them appear unlikable.

JB said...

This is definitely what I am working on right now. Making my characters real. The one is a bit too angelic right now, so I need to work in a few humanistic flaws so we can relate to her. I liken it to exploring our "shadow-selves." We all have a shadow self, we are all "capable" of doing less-than-honorable things. By exploring that, I can give my character more realness. Great advise, I always walk away from your blog thinking and inspired. ;)

Taryn Kincaid said...

Must love the characters!

As long as they're not whiny, unredeemable or TSTL, I'll forgive a lot...if I love them.

Liz Fichera said...

Hi Maria,

Me, too. The perfect characters with nary a character flaw bore me to tears. The perfect hero; the beyond gorgeous heroine--not my cup of tea. Give me someone with issues! ;-)

Liz Fichera said...

Hi JW!

Good luck with your ms! Isn't it cool, though, starting out your story, developing your characters? It's like baking something really special. You wonder how it'll turn out.

So glad you feel inspired by my ramblings. Your kind comment made my day. :-)

Liz Fichera said...

Hi Taryn!

LOVE that: TSTL! I must remember that!!! Thanks for the laugh. I've been writing all day, feeling a bit punchy, and I definitely needed that chuckle. You rock!

Jenny Schwartz said...

If I don't like the character, that kills the book for me. How can you go on a journey with someone you dislike?

It's a question that's started me thinking about character stereotypes I really dislike -- like heroines who simply sigh around waiting to be rescued. Or invulnerable heroes.

Talli Roland said...

Flaws and problems is definitely what pulls me along with characters. I like to see how they get over themselves!

Wendy Tyler Ryan said...

This may be terrible to admit, but I haven't fallen in love with characters in anything I've read (other than my own), since I read To Kill A Mockingbird - that's hard to top.

Liz Fichera said...

Hi Talli!

Agreed. If they're interesting enough, it keeps the pages turning.

Liz Fichera said...

Hi Wendy!

Wow. And yes. TKAM is a tough act to follow, that's for sure.