I rambled about likable characters back in November. This post expands on the topic by splitting likable down the middle, resulting in two categories: admirable and sympathetic. It's my new theory (not entirely mine), based on some reading and discussion lately.
To be clear, I am using the informal definition of the word “sympathetic”, meaning the characters draws sympathy from the reader.
We admire strength of character, intelligence, competency and wit. Find what makes your character noble, strong or cunning, and show it early in the manuscript. We admire goals and motivations similar to our own. We admire action, the character that sets out to fix a problem, and does so with determination and resolve.
Look, for example, at Sherlock (BBC). He's an ass, right? But he's brilliant, and he uses his intellect for good goals—even if his motivations might be questionable at time. (Note that I haven't watched the show in a while, and I haven't seen Series 3, so forgive me if I'm off on that.) He displays competency, wit and intelligence.
Next, Walter White from Breaking Bad, in the early seasons, Walt is a guy to look up to. He has a noble goal: care for his family's needs. He's in a profession with noble goals, too. He's an educator. He's competent in his field, and passionate. Yet, he does some dark things, and viewers still loved him. They continued to love him for a long time as he grew ever darker, but he always aspired to a single, noble goal of caring for his loved ones. He often looked out for the little guy that kept his nose clean. And he acted with honor in his dealings with most people. For a lot of viewers, their love with Walt ended in a single moment, when he admitted to his wife that he had never been in it to help his family. He admits he did it for power and because he was good at it. Suddenly, he's not so noble—not so likable.
Even crass or dark characters can be likable characters if they have nobility, competency and intellect. Look at Batman. Look at Hannible Lecter from Silence of the Lambs—evil incarnate, yet his intellect, competency, and sharp wit prove compelling. Does his willingness to help Claire make him a little easier to swallow? Perhaps for some. It's the classic love-to-hate character.
The danger in such characters is that the dark or crass side is all too easy, while true strength, nobility, intellect and honor may come out feeling fake or forced. If that happens, the character is left looking like a villain—often a two-dimensional, cartoonish villain.
The sympathetic character suffers unjustly. If they only suffer, then they are to be pitied. Such a character is often static, a fixture. They tug on heart strings, but they hardly inspire us. When the suffering character rises up and struggles against his oppression, he gains a note of nobility and strength. If he persists against immeasurable odds, that nobility only grows stronger.
Yet, there is a danger also in this character. What's the difference between a character who suffers unjustly and a character that is weak and pathetic? Attitude helps. Self-respect. Lack of action is dangerous too—let the character wallow a little before rising up and saying, “Hell no.” Great. Let them wallow for page after page? Ouch.
Aside from the approach of sympathy or admirable, readers tend to seek out the familiar and identifiable. In either vein, the every-day hero is endearing. The high-school teacher, humble public servant, the man who cares for his family, the guy who just wants to be left alone—all traits and situations the average reader can find familiar and, thus, likable. Like wallowing, it can't be left alone. It must struggle and rise up.
Take another look at Batman. He's intelligent, competent enough to rub shoulders with would-be gods, wealthy, loaded with impressive weapons and gadgets, determined, strong, etc.
But can we identify with him? He's a billionaire. He's a vigilante. He's a CEO. He does nothing but pretend to be a playboy, train for kicking ass, and then kicking actual ass. All very impressive, noble at times, but how many readers can see something of themselves in the guy? That's why, in my opinion, Batman is not as powerful and compelling a figure as he could be.
Superman? He's also strong and loaded with powers. But he's also a good ol' boy at heart. He's a middle-american, middle-class, humble guy just trying to get the girl. (This comes out more when he's Clark, and mostly vanishes when he's Superman.) That's better.
(Note that with both Batman and Superman, they've had dozens of writers over the years. Some got their characters right, others went off the deep end and mucked around in all kinds of material, so my comments on them have to be taken in the light of “when they were done correctly”, which is of course entirely subjective.)
I added this to my list after reading Donald Maas's The Fire in the Fiction. It's simple, and I'll not rehash what that author already covered well. The short summary is this: we, as readers, are drawn to characters that impact the story, the other characters, and the world they live in. A character with no impact lacks luster. Why does he or she exist anyway? It's generally going to be wasted material.
After making a character likable on one (hopefully more than one) level, a character wants to be remembered. When I design characters, I look for that one thing that will make them memorable. A by-the-book Jersey City Police Detective? Lot's of potential, but what will make her stand out from any other by-the-book cop? There isn't a formula—this falls back on Character 101: don't make character's bland.
In longer fiction, I always keep a sheet for each character. I list several things, but among them is a question of what will make them stand out and be memorable.
Once in a while, as readers, we run into the story "about nothing." They can be hard to swallow, especially if not done well.
But here's the trick: there's no such thing as a story about nothing. Not really. The good ones are always about something, but that something is never mentioned in the story.
Hemingway didn't start this notion, but he did develop it for his own works. You can see the idea progress over time as you read his stories. One of the first to demonstrate this concept, which he called the Iceberg Theory, was Big Two-Hearted River. On the surface, it's about nothing. It's a fellow who goes fishing alone, in the wilderness. What is it about? If you know Hemingway's life and times, you can see that it is about a man coming home from the war. (We know this because of his other writings and because he went on a similar trip himself after the war. Only, Earnest went with friends—and early versions of his manuscript show evidence that he originally had more characters as well.)
Hills like White Elephants is another example from Hemingway. It's just a conversation between two people waiting for a train. Under the surface, it's about abortion and separation.
If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing —Earnest Hemingway
This theory is also known as the Theory of Omission. The lt;dr version is this: cut out what you know well and the story can do the work for you.
Now, this doesn't mean we should all write like Hemingway. Mimicry is always the wrong answer. Don't seek to follow the footsteps of the wise men of old; seek what they sought. So it is with writing, grasshopper. (Grasshoppers also play a role in Big Two-Hearted River.)
In fact, we could find a dozen different ways to apply this theory to modern writing. It doesn't have to be literary and obscure. Personally, I don't like that we have to know about Hemingway, his life, and his notes to get what Big Two-Hearted River or Hills Like White Elephants are about.
But if you have, let's say, an info-dump to deal with, perhaps the Theory of Omission can help shed light on the way forward. Hemingway originally ended Big Two-Hearted River with eleven pages of stream-of-conscious introspective from his main character's head. He later told his editor that he had discovered it was all crap and cut it out. Yet, perhaps a few more hints at the character's past might have left fewer readers scratching their heads. I'm not going to suggest Hemingway did it wrong. The story was acclaimed in its time, after all. Instead, I'm looking ahead—as a writer seeking ways to improve.
Here is another example. If you know the background well, skip the info-dump and just write the present story. Let the reader figure out the backstory from the clues present as a result of your intimate knowledge of the back story. Let it appear naturally and organically, not forced. Then, if your beta-readers come back and say it was too confusing, you can consider dropping in some more information where needed. My bet is that it will rarely be needed.
The ultimate no-no, as Mr. Hemingway states above, is to omit something you don't know. Your character must have a back story, a life, and you need to know it well. Your reader, on the other hand, can learn it between the lines. Reader engagement comes into play when you let the reader do some of the work—thinking and deciphering—for you. Your end of the bargain is to not put too much on the reader's shoulders.
I don't think it takes much reading to learn where the middle begins and ends, or that the writer should fill the middle up with, well, stuff. The exact nature of that stuff usually turns out to be “conflict” and plot points and so forth. Talking to writers, reading blogs, and digging through books, the middle always seems to be a mire.
I'll note here that I'm a structuralist. That doesn't mean outliner or seat-of-the-pants writer—I do both, based on the needs of the story at hand. (The Superhero Murders is heavily outlined because after a few attempts to improvise, I found I just didn't have a handle on the drama.) Being a structuralist means drawing on structure to build a story, regardless of whether you do it while your write, before you write, or after you write.
The first question is how to find stuff (i.e., conflicts and plot points) to put into the middle.
The plot points come out of the arc. Who is changing? Who has the opportunity to change, but doesn't? Which incidents will facilitate and highlight that change.
Going beyond that then, one trick I use to get ideas is to list all of the character's resources, and then all of the opposition's resources. Then list limits: where is the line? I've mentioned this before. The resources must be things the character is willing and able to draw upon in the struggle (whether it's a literal fight or, say, conflicting social goals.)
Consider the first Hunger Games movie. (It's been some time since I read the book.) Katniss is not only up against the other kids, but the game keepers as well. What can the keepers bring to the fight? A lot. They can use the environment against the kids. They can change the rules at a whim. They can herd the kids to a single point. They can up the pressure by releasing monsters into the arena. And they do all these things, but they also have limits: the games must entertain, and they must have a winner. That last point is used against them in the end.
Once you list what each character can bring to the table, review and look for any characters with weak a weak hand—the powerless. Those guys will either need to be trimmed or given an ace up their sleeve.
Why do this? Because when you reach Act III, you want the reader to feel as if each side has offered a good, strong fight. They've played all their cards (except maybe the ace), and it's time for the final showdown where it is about who will give up more and risk more, not who has more cards in their hand.
You can do this at the scene level too.
So that gives a stack of things to work with. Do you use them all? Not quite.
(A friend recently enlightened me on this.)
The next step is to evaluate each conflict that arises from those use of resources. The ones you want to use are the ones that lend to character growth, or character change. Which conflicts will teach skills or drive someone along their arc? The goal isn't conflict for the sake of conflict. The goal is conflict for the sake of the character's or the story's development.
So list resources to get ideas. Evaluate them in the light of character arcs. If you still find the middle a slog, I would venture that you're missing something in terms of arc or character passion.
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.