If you’re a writer and you write commercial fiction, the
question you should be asking yourself in the revision
process isn’t if the reader likes you--the writer--but if she
likes your main characters--the hero and the heroine,
because that’s more critical to your success in terms of
selling your story.
Welcome to Down and Dirty - The Twelve Step Program
to Revising Your Work.
We are on Step #2 - Create a Hero Who is Both Likeable and Heroic.
And if you’ve written your rough draft and are in the
process of revising, what you need to examine is the
likability and heroism of your main characters.
This isn’t my bright idea. Two giants in the industry rant
about this concept all the time.
For example, Donald Maass, top literary agent in New
York, in his Writing the Breakout Novel, asks, “Why
would we wish to read about characters whom we do
not like? The fact is, we don’t. We stick with characters we
like, we admire, we cheer for; we abandon characters we
dislike, we disapprove of, and don’t care about. It’s that
simple. That is not to say protagonists can’t be flawed,
troubled, torn, haunted, unhappy, hapless, or in any other
condition that makes their situation ripe for drama and
He goes on further to write, “That is why lifting your
hero above his circumstances—indeed, above himself-- is so
necessary. How do you do that? It starts in your opening
pages, when your protagonist gives us some reason to care .
. . I believe it is because we see ourselves in them. Indeed,
when we see in others ourselves as we would like to be. We
want our heroes to win. Heroic qualities are highly
If you’re not yet convinced, Michael Hauge, top
Hollywood scriptwriter, in his book Writing Screenplays
That Sell also insists that “readers must empathize and
identify with a hero.” In his book, he provides a concrete
outline for how a writer can achieve this goal. An author
must do two of the following five things:
Create sympathy for your hero. Make your hero the victim of some undeserved misfortune. You will often notice that in the beginning of stories or movies, something bad usually happens to the main character, something the character does not deserve. This is done quite deliberately so that the audience will be drawn to the hero or heroine.
Put the hero in jeopardy. The truth is that we identify with heroes we worry about. If the hero is about to be evicted from his apartment or about to lose his job, we will bond with that character more quickly.
Make the hero likable. Show your hero as kind, loving, etc. or show him as being liked by others. Movies or stories often begin with the hero doing something nice for someone else that he doesn’t have to do--being altristic. Again this scene is deliberately placed in the beginning to win the audience over.
Make the hero funny. We identify with heroes who make us laugh. Many of the current popular heroes in movies are comic heroes. Think of Steve Carell or Paul Rudd or Will Ferrell.
Make the hero powerful. We like to root for characters who get the job done. By powerful we mean either physical strength as in superhero or intelligent as in super agent or highly talented in a certain field as in super nerdy.
Last month we examined Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s
Wife. Shreve began her story with the Inciting Incident--her
heroine is awoken in the dead of night by a knock on her
door. Her husband’s plane has exploded near the coast of
Ireland. Her ordinary world is completely changed.
The beginning of the story is very powerful. The hook
pulls us in. But there is a risk in beginning a story like this.
Will the reader care enough about the main character to feel
the impact of her tragedy? To continue reading?
Shreve does two things brilliantly in those first few pages.
She gives her heroine undeserved misfortune--that is the
opening hook. Thus she creates empathy for her
character. And she makes her heroine likeable. By using
deep point of view, we are the heroine. We experience her
thoughts, her bewilderment, her panic, her shock, as she
hears the news of her husband’s death. It’s the little details--
her bed head when she first wakes up, her thoughts about
and anguish over her teenage daughter on the page that pulls
Of course, Donald Maass cautions us to go one step
further. Our heroine or hero by necessity must show signs of
heroism in our story, but he says--show us a glimmer of
heroism on those first few pages--in that first scene. That
glimmer will make your heroine believable later on in the
And he suggests an exercize in his workbook to help you
focus on that heroic quality:
1. Write down the name of your protagonist
2. Write down the name of someone in your life who is a hero.
3. Write down his/her greatest heroic quality?
4. Assign that quality to your protagonist.
5. Find a way to show that quality in the first scene of your story.
This exercize works. When I completed the exercize, I did it for the sequel for my first published novel, Wild Point Island:
1. Lily Pattenson
2. my father
3. He never gave up; he never stopped believing. He was an inventor and invented a product that it took him years to market. He started his own company. I always admired his determination.
4. Lily - determination
5. When my sequel opens up, and Lily is summoned back to the island, she is determined to right the wrong she did the year before despite the odds against her.
So you really like me?
We want the reader to say YES.
Next month, Step #3 of Down and Dirty will discuss a neat and nifty trick to making sure the naming of your characters doesn’t cause needless confusion.