Frea Interprets Vonnegut — Rule #2

Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

You know what turns me off of most fiction faster than anything else?
  • “Improper grammar!”
  • “Didn’t do the research!”
  • “Summary says ‘first story/wrote while drunk lolol!’”
...Okay, there are a lot of turn-offs for me. Improper grammar is probably my number one pet peeve (people: these are the reason beta readers exist. Seriously), but a major, major, major turn-off is unsympathetic characters. Especially unsympathetic main characters.

I’m not talking about characters that make bad choices, per se. Life is meant to be a delightful romp through embarrassment, screwing up, intense highs, depressing lows, and bad decisions. I’m talking about characters that can either Do No Right or Do No Wrong.

You must give the audience at least one character that they can celebrate. Imagine your best friend for a minute. Hopefully, if your best friend gets promoted at work, you celebrate that: you take them out for a drink, or give them a high-five, text them a “GO YOU!” message, or even send them a congratulatory gift. At least, I’d hope that’s what you’d do. If not, we need to talk about how you’re treating your best friend.

Anyway, that’s what I’m talking about. People like books that contain characters they can cheer for. If you’re writing and people are wanting your character to go drown in a ditch when they should be encouraging that character...you’re doing something wrong.

Some tips to avoid this:
  • Don’t make your characters too perfect.
    A character that is too perfect is called a Mary Sue. They always make the right decision, they can handle any problem tossed at them without flickering an eyelash, they’re the life of the party, the heart, the soul, the lodestone for those around them, the perfect leader, so and so forth. Congratulations. I’ve wandered off to go read Harry Dresden screw up some more and ride a huge T-Rex skeleton around.
  • Don’t make your characters too hopeless.
    I’m all for underdog stories, but when the odds are TOO high for too long, then I’m starting to wonder what the point is. Also, I’m back to Dresden again. Did I mention the T-Rex’s name is Sue?
  • Redeeming qualities
    Your character doesn’t have to have many or even more than a handful. But these are the best ways to garner sympathy for your characters rather than “She’s a witch! Burn her! Burn her!” Maybe your character is a bitch, but she’s funny and she genuinely feels bad when she’s a bitch to the wrong person. Maybe your character’s a thief, but he only takes from the affluent who won’t miss it. That sort of thing.

I guess the best way to sum this up is to look at Season 1 and 2 of Chuck and specifically the Sarah Walker character. I think with a less talented actress in the role, Chuck probably wouldn't have made it past the writer's strike. Even when her actions were reprehensible (shooting a man in cold blood, anyone?), we found something to root for in the Sarah Walker character. Whether it was because we admired her vulnerability, her kickassery, or even just her wardrobe, we wanted good things for her. When she hurt, we hurt.

And that really, really enhanced our experience, didn't it?

Part: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8


  1. Anonymous8.3.12

    I'd like to add another. This is just my opinion but here goes.

    Don't make a smart character stupid. Have them make mistakes certainly or wrong decisions or poor information used but don't have them make a stupid decision just to force the plot in a certain direction when you have established them as being smart or great at their job or role. Make a wrong decision certainly but keep them smart doing it, just flawed and coming to the wrong conclusion. This fits well with your use of the S1 S2 Sarah Walker character. One of the countless things I hated about Season 3 was they had to force Sarah to make stupid decisions to make their god awful plot work. Because of that she became less sympathetic. But no need to go back down that road.

    1. Heh. You just summed up my write-up on Rule #3.

    2. NeilN9.3.12

      God yes. I swear, some of the angst/shipper fics have shaved fifty points from Chuck and Sarah's IQ. I'm reading these stories because I like the characters, people! Why are you making them dumber than a bag of rocks?

    3. Neil, this is an awful, awful thing I'm about to post:


      *hides in shame*

    4. NeilN9.3.12

      Ha, yes. Almost as bad as author's notes which read, "I know the characters wouldn't act this way, but in order for the plot to work, they have to."

  2. Anonymous9.3.12

    I once attended a lecture by two Disney animators who worked on almost all of the early classic Disney films. One of those animators kept preaching "Warmth! Warmth!" over and over again. He was basically saying the same thing you are: give the audience someone they like, someone they can identify with, someone they care about.

    1. That...sounds like the coolest (ignore the wordplay) lecture ever, seriously. As many times as I watched those early classic Disney films as a kid, I probably would've been stunned too stupid to learn anything, but the animator definitely had a point. Some writers write to see which character they can make you find more despicable, but even Cruel Intentions had at least one sympathetic character.

      Heh. "Warmth! Warmth!" That really sums it up quite neatly.


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