Thursday, November 27, 2014

Character Secrets: Hooks, Gaps, and Caring

Here's the last tip I mentioned in "Be Clueless, Write Awesome:" 

If the reader doesn't care about the characters, he won't care what happens to them.  End of story.

It doesn't matter how many brilliant twists unfold in your masterpiece- all just more stuff nobody will read.  Unless your characters make an impression- fast.  Which begs the question.


A few incredibly simple tools have worked wonders for me.

But first, one important distinction.  

I've seen this advice over and over- that readers must 'like' the protagonist, that having a relatable lead character is mandatory.


Readers do not have to like your character.  They don't even have to relate to your character.

They only have to do one thing:  Care.  Be interested.  Burn to see what happens next.

You could write about a kindly old man walking his puppy to the grocer, and he could be the most likeable, relatable codger imaginable- but if he's boring pages will stop turning.  Would you be more inclined to read the biography of Grandpa Grocer, or Genghis Khan?  

  Interesting beats likeable- especially on page one.  

So if making a figure likeable isn't the key to snagging reader interest- what is?

I thought about this question before starting Dreamkeepers, and it took me underneath the stairs, to a pathetic crawlspace in the Dursley household.  One thing was drilled home in the opening of the Sorcerer's Stone, and it wasn't the finer points of Harry's personality, or the meticulous backstory that gradually emerged as the books continued.  We knew next to nothing about him, except one thing:

He was receiving bad treatment.  And he didn't deserve it.  

That one idea is what Rowling hammered home- and it worked.

Let's call it The Gap.

When you see something bad happening to a person- if they don't deserve it- you feel for them.

That hard-wired sympathetic reaction is the hook that causes a reader to care.  Introduce a character being unfairly hurt, and people have an instant desire to see them recover, and see their tormentor punished.  Because a gap has been introduced- a gap between how things are, and how they should be.  That gap sucks in reader emotion, and simmers with tension that needs to be resolved.  Pages start to turn- long enough for plot devices and deeper characterization to start building.

So that's it.  Throw The Gap at the reader early on, and it'll make them care.

It seems simple to the point of insipidity.  Just throwing some heavy-handed injustice out?  How could such an incredibly shallow tactic do anything but insult our intelligence?

It's usually the simple tools that work.  And while any tool can kill a story when wielded poorly, reflect on a few examples.  The Gap shows up everywhere- and it can get away with being surprisingly blatant:

*Harry Potter with the Dursleys.

*The murder of orphan Luke Skywalker's loving aunt and uncle.

*Ellen Ripley in Aliens showing affection to her cat, only to be hideously tormented by nightmarish fears.

*Paige being dunked by Randy.

*Mr. Incredible valiantly battling evil only to be sentenced to Cubicle Hell.

*Street Rat Aladdin chased by bloodthirsty guards merely because he needs to eat.

Odds are you didn't even notice these hooks being placed when you were viewing those stories- but these were key points where you started to care, these gaps between what the characters deserved, and what they got.

One cautionary note on The Gap:  You usually want the audience to pity the character more than the character pities herself.  If the character wallows in their unfair treatment we'll feel this self-centered fountain of misery kind of deserves their misfortune.  Nobody likes a whiner.  

Speaking of likeable- there’s a great tool to help with that.  Often deployed in or around the Gap, it’s called the Care Package.

A Care Package is when we see a character showing compassion and genuine concern for someone else.  

Just culling from the Gap examples above- there’s Luke Skywalker resolving to rescue Princess Leia, Ellen Ripley showing affection to her cat, Mace helping Paige out of the water, Mr. Incredible’s concern for the man being mugged outside the insurance offices, and Aladdin giving his hard-won bread to a pair of hungry kids.

The Care Package is another simple yet versatile tool.  You can drop a Care Package to round out a villain and show their human side- or give them an inverted Care Package, to showcase their cruelty.  

There are plenty of ways to snag reader interest in a character- but the Gap and the Care Package are two incredibly usable techniques to get the job done.  Simple?  Shallow?  Sure.  Is a fishhook a complicated mechanical device?  A satisfying story will, of course, have more to it than a hook.  Once you’ve made a down-payment on entertaining the reader, you win the wiggle room to develop deeper substance.

I didn’t have names for them, but I used the Gap and Care Packages when I started writing Dreamkeepers.  And there was one other thought in mind when developing the cast of Dreamkeepers;


Sharply differentiated personalities.  We wanted them so distinctive that we could take one line entirely out of context, and it would be clear who spoke it. 

Different personalities seems like a no-brainer, but it’s ignored all the time.  Think of the last TV show or movie where every character was some minor variation of self-serious angst.  Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like the cast is comprised of different people- like it’s all just one writer, and a few faces get shuffled around to share the lines as they come out.  

When personalities are homogenous it’s like listening to a piano with one note.    

Much richer when there’s contrast between the personalities.  

If everyone is dark and brooding, blah.  But put a grim pouter next to a sunny chatterbox?  Suddenly there’s a dynamic at play, an interchange.  Differences make fertile grounds for conflict, negotiation, betrayal, interesting details of every stripe.    

Often the chemistry, the dynamic between personalities, is vastly more interesting than the characters taken in isolation.  Just something to keep in mind when building your cast.

Hopefully this, along with The Gap and Care Packages, can help hook readers into your story.

But if these tools ignite interest- what maintains it?

What about stories that capture our interest and then seem to go wobbly, deflate, or worse- just stop making sense?  

That’s where the similarities between a good story and a fun game come into focus, and shed some unexpected insight.

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