It's All Relative
As I've prepared lectures for an online class I'm teaching (Emotionally Engage from the Very First Page), I've been doing a lot of analytical thinking about what makes certain stories and in particular certain characters reach out and grab me by the gut. I can easily list characters with whom I immediately bonded and would follow anywhere (sometimes through some pretty damned unlikely plots.) Among the standouts: Gus McCrae (Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry), Odd Thomas (Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz), Stephanie Plum (One for the Money, Janet Evanovich), Harry Potter (If you don't know, I'm not telling). Sure, there have been books whose plots, premises, and writing styles gripped me -- books that were wildly successful by anybody's standards. (Although I thorougly enjoyed The DaVinci Code, by Dan Brown, I really didn't care about the protagonists as people.) But the ones whose *characters* captured my imagination are the ones I recall most vividly, and not coincidentally, these characters have garnered the fervid devotion of countless fans.
So how does an author create instant rapport with a larger-than-life character in a tough-to-imagine situation? I believe it's all about relating to emotions with which the average reader can easily identify. Odd Thomas is a young short-order cook who sees dead people and works for justice on their behalf. Pretty tough to relate to on the surface, but he succeeds as a character because Koontz so quickly establishes his humility (his greatest aspiration is tire sales), his intense, teenage love for his girlfriend, and especially his earnest vulnerability. The wry, self-deprecating wit helps, too, and in no time flat, the reader is rooting for this kid.
J.K. Rowling works similar magic with Harry Potter. On the surface, this kiddo shouldn't be relatable. He not only has magical powers, they're unprecendented even in his special world. But Rowling quickly establishes sympathy by setting up Harry as this downtrodden Cinderfella who's the object of much bullying and makes us feel his both his wonder and confusion as the truth begins to be revealed.
Everyone has felt picked on. Nearly everyone has felt the hopeless intensity of young love. And rooting for the underdog -- the little person who somehow finds the guts to fight back -- is practically hard-wired into our DNA.
For me, the lesson in this is to look at my book's opening and ask myself what universal emotions am I using to help my reader relate to someone in one hell of a pickle. If I fail to do so, I could still have a good story. But with that extra boost, I will have something far, far greater.
Does anyone have a great tip for helping the reader relate to the book's characters? I'm always looking for a sharper blade in my arsenal.