Wednesday, March 6, 2013

"Aww-ha!" Moments: using pathos and humor to create a character we love

I think if I have one fatal first-draft flaw, it is thinking everyone must love my main characters as much as I do. After all, they’re charming! They’re witty! And--most of all--they’ve been through so much. The problem being, of course, that I can’t dump all that backstory into Chapter no one actually knows all those endearing things.

I’ve been analyzing several of my favorite books to see how the authors created a character I loved from the get-go. The methods vary, of course, but here’s two things almost all of them had in common: 1) they all had a moment that made me say, “Aww!” (at least, you know, interiorly), and 2) they utilized humor, whether it was laugh-out-loud funny or a little dry wit. And with those two small things, they had my heartstrings wrapped up around their little fingers.

Here’s an example. In my opinion, one of the most instantly lovable characters ever created is Damian Cunningham, the protagonist of Millions, by Frank Cottrell Boyce. From paragraph 1, Damian makes you laugh:

“If Anthony was telling this story, he’d start with the money. It always comes down to the money, he says, so you might as well start there. He’d probably put, ‘Once upon a time there were 229,370 little pounds sterling,’ and go on until he got to, ‘and they all lived happily ever after in a high-interest bank account.’ But he’s not telling this story. I am. Personally, I like to start with the patron saint of whatever it is.”

And he goes on making you laugh, harder and harder, for the first 7 pages, as he relates his rather awkward moments explaining certain unusual saint stories to the kids and teacher at his new school. But through this, we’re already getting the picture that Damian is a little, well, weird. Certainly his classmates see him that way. As a reader, you’re entertained, but you’re wondering what, exactly, made this kid so different.

Then you get hit with it, right in the middle of page 7. Damian’s big brother Anthony tells a bully who is trying to steal Damian’s lunch, “You can’t take his Pringles. He’s got no mum.”

And, if you have any heart in you, it definitely goes “Aww!” right there. And you decide to love Damian forever and ever.

My favorite part of this chapter, though, comes a few lines later, when Frank Cottrell Boyce just makes his whole method clear through the words of Anthony: “Works every time. Tell them your mum’s dead and they give you stuff.”

Yes, well, maybe I am easily manipulated.

But it was an important lesson for me to learn: I have to give my readers just enough information about my character’s past that they will actually care. Not a whole life story, but that one bit that puts everything in perspective.

If you’re a writer, how do you help readers identify with your main character right away? And if you’re a reader, what books do you think do that best?


  1. Yes, yes, to the aww-ha moment. I think you need to trademark that. Love these excerpts by the way.

  2. Heavens, Faith ... I suffer from the exact same thing. I make more excuses for my characters than I do for my children and when it comes right down to it, backstory is ofttimes an excuse for why a character behaves a certain way or suffers from a certain condition or says a certain thing ... you get the picture. And readers seem to have antenna out for that type of thing, especially the reader who is heavily dependent on pacing. As a reader, I want the backstory to be as surprising as the "frontstory" because the aww-ha moments are one of the universal pleasures of a story.

    Spoonfed readers generally rip off the bib and leave the highchair. I have to stop serving up pablum and throw down a nice scone ... or a steak.

  3. As a reader, I think Dean Koontz did an excellent job making me become vested with Odd Thomas. As a writer...I'm still working on it! :)