Saturday, August 25, 2012

What makes a character resonate?


What makes a character resonate with a reader?

It’s helpful if the reader likes them in some way, but it’s not entirely essential. A character who may begin as unprepossessing may encounter a problem that the reader can identify with. These can range from the grand, where the protagonist is the only one in the world who can stop the bad guys from kidnapping the president and replacing him with a body double; to smaller issues including common irritants. This might be something like an inbox full of spam or a broken muffler on their vehicle. That broken muffler might play a bigger role if the bad guys hear the protagonist arriving in a desperate, one-woman rescue bid. In that case a simple irritant has become a much bigger problem. It could be as simple as liking toasted tomato sandwiches, in fact making the antagonist eat one might humanize them a little…especially with lettuce, a slice of cheese and some grated onions, and just a hint of mayo.

Duty—a character has a duty, whether it’s paying the mortgage, protecting the public or just to try and keep a friend out of trouble. We all have our own duties, big and small, and so we can relate.

Science-fiction great Ben Bova says, ‘the protagonist and the antagonist each have a problem that they need to solve.’

I have a problem that I need to solve. I’ll bet you do too. I think I’m a protagonist rather than an antagonist, but we’ll let the readers decide. However, the key factor here is problem. In our example, the antagonist has a problem. He wants to replace the president with a body double in order to achieve some sort of a goal, perhaps justice for his own people, revenge or just plain evil reasons. The protagonist wants to prevent it even though they are alone, have little resources or training, and of course a duty to do the right thing.


Some of the most compelling characters are victims of injustice. To prevent this from becoming cliché, it has to be believable, and the back-story could be as simple as an innocent man being released from jail. The readers know he’s a good guy by his behaviour. Just because the author says they’re a victim of injustice doesn’t necessarily make it so. There have been plenty of trick endings written in fiction, and the readers are on the lookout for that. So their behaviour is key, and I think it’s in the little things—how they treat a kid, or a stranger, or even their manner of speaking. Do they ask questions, or make statements?


We have all suffered. A character might suffer pain, or grief, or loss. These are things we can all identify with. The antagonist also suffers, more often than not. The difference is in how they deal with it. The nice guy tries to deal with it with as little impact on the lives of others as possible, and the bad guy wants to destroy the world, or whatever. How they deal with problems is another key indicator of who’s who and who’s what, if you take my meaning here.

Who likes them?

This is important. If nice people like them, it can go two ways. They are either a genuinely nice person, or they are false and manipulative, a hypocrite and a con artist. While it is by no means as cut and dried in real life, these cues go a long way to letting the reader know who is the good one and who is the baddie.

Personal life is important. The real people have them, the bad guys are totally obsessed. They’re always busy doing bad things, right? Hobbies, pets, aging relatives, a small dependent child, these are the hallmarks of the well-rounded person. While Hitler loved his dogs and that guy in all the James Bond films was always stroking that danged white cat, there were enough other indicators to let us know this wasn’t the normal person.

Giving a character a phobia, or a cold, can help any number of readers identify with them—remember the cave full of snakes in the Indiana Jones movie. Most readers would not like to be in a cave full of snakes in real time. On a movie screen, it’s just fine and dandy. It’s a vicarious thrill.

(It also helps if they love someone. Or even just some thing.-ed.)

The reader’s expectations of the genre play a big role in character resonance. If they’re reading horror, it’s for the thrills and the chills. The protagonist must be at the centre of the action and must be in great danger for much of the time. A horror movie almost inevitably has a host of disparate characters. They give us all someone to like, and then when they’re killed by having a stainless steel spike driven into the head, it’s pretty easy to imagine how that feels, and there is a distinct emotional wrench. It’s all in great fun, of course. In terms of steel spikes, a lesser stimulus would of course carry a smaller emotional impact. A scene where someone takes an overdose of sleeping pills would take an entirely different treatment to get the same emotional shock. The spike in the head is much quicker of course, the death by sleeping pills has a much slower pace.

What makes a character resonate is that we can identify with what happens to them, how they feel about it, and how they react to it, even if it’s not exactly what we hope we would do under similar circumstances.

How many times in horror have we seen perfectly sensible people split up and search a rambling old house for a psychotic slasher? The emotional impetus of that is essentially one of sheer frustration. We yell at the screen. Don’t you just grind your teeth during those scenes? But that’s why they keep putting them in there, even when the universal audience response is that they don’t like it.

The characters' actions are not entirely logical, but there is that gut-level reaction. It’s something we can all identify with.

Additional comments are always welcome.

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