“Make sure your reader can identify with your main character.”
I’ll file that lovely bit of advice next to “Only buy stocks that go up.”
If I freaking knew how to make my freaking reader identify with my freaking main character, don’t you think I would!?!
Well, now you can, because here’s a trick that helps. I learned it from Dwight Swain, and like certain bits of writing advice, once I read it, it struck me like a diamond bullet in the forehead and I knew it was true.
Stop and think of your favorite characters from novels you’ve read. (Movies are okay, too.) Got it?
They all have something in common, and that’s the specific emotion they invoke in you. Time for some honesty here. Ready? Swain says:
How do you persuade your reader to identify?
You shackle him to the character with chains of envy.
That is, you make the character someone who does what your reader would like to do, yet can’t. You establish him as the kind of person Reader would like to be like… a figure to envy.
Envy? Envy! The word rolls around in my head every time I make a new character.
Sherlock Holmes: we envy his deductive skills.
Harry Potter: don’t you wish that you could be a wizard? That your school could be like Hogwarts?
James Bond: where to begin? Gadgets, girls, guns… and fast cars.
Batman: Envy is emotion, not logic. Logically, we’d rather not be a traumatized neurotic who dresses up in a bat costume. But our gut tells us we’d love to strike terror in the hearts of bad guys, come and go like a shadow, and drive… again, a super cool car.
Bella Swan: Please. Is there a 13-year-old girl on the planet who doesn’t want to date Edward Cullen?
(Note that boys want to be Batman, and girls want to be Bella Swan. Think about your audience.)
Swain generalizes, proposing a universal enviable characteristic present in every well-loved main character:
Courage to do what?
Courage to attempt to control reality….
The exciting character is the one who challenges fate and attempts to dominate reality, despite all common sense and logic.
Robert McKee, in his libromagus Story, proposes that every story has a “Center of Good” that the reader (or viewer) seeks out and latches on to. I think this is envy again, expressed in a different way. McKee says that envy is relative, and if a character merely outshines secondary characters, we may be drawn to him. In the novel and movie Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter is a villain… sort of.
The writers place Clarice at the positive focal point, but also draw a second Center of Good around Hannibal Lecter and draw empathy to both. First, they assign Dr. Lecter admirable and desirable qualities: massive intelligence, a sharp wit and sense of irony, gentlemanly charm, and most importantly, calmness….
Next, to counterpoint these qualities the writers surround Lecter with a brutish, cynical society. His prison psychiatrist is a sadist and publicity hound. His guards are dimwits…. We fall into empathy, musing, “If I were a cannibalistic psychopath, I’d want to be just like Lecter.”
So when your main character makes your critique group snooze, think about that single powerful word, envy. It explains Han Solo… and Darth Vader. And along with an early “save the cat” scene, it can hook and hold your readers.