Have you ever known someone that you didn’t want to spend time with? It wasn’t that you didn’t like the person, not necessarily. You just didn’t, well, enjoy him. Whenever you got together, you left his company feeling tired. Something was missing—he didn’t engage you.
As writers, we need to understand that we’re asking our readers to spend time with people of our choosing. Character development, if rightly considered, is an intimidating prospect. Our characters must not only be lifelike, they must also be memorable.
“If we’re invited to spend twelve hours with a story, we want to fall in love with that principal character.”
Chuck Wendig puts it in more colorful terms—
"Your Protagonist has one job: to make me give a… If I get to the end of the first chapter and I don’t get a feel for your main character—if she and I are not connected via some gooey invisible psychic tether—I’m out. I don’t need to like her. I don’t need to know everything about her. But I damn sure need to care about her. Make me care! Crank up the volume knob on the give-a-f— factor. Let me know who she is. Make me afraid for her. Speak to me of her quest. Whisper to me why her story matters. Give me that and I’ll follow her through the cankered bowels of Hell."
At First Sight
You haven’t been introduced. You haven’t even opened your mouth. A glance from thirty paces and poof! Your appearance, body language, demeanor, mannerisms, how you’re dressed—each summons associations and the image is drawn. Onlookers weren’t trying to sum you up, but as they say, seeing is believing. In a matter of seconds, you’ve been judged.
Professionals assert that we make up our minds about people within two minutes of meeting them. According to Malcolm Gladwell, in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, our fact-gathering jaunts through the brain’s clearinghouse of cues takes only a fraction as long. In the interest of self-preservation, we’re hardwired to jump to conclusions.
From our subconscious, a composite emerges. In fiction, as in life, rare is the second chance. First impressions have consequences. Jobs, relationships… dreams are often won or lost in the blink of an eye. To win the approving nod, our characters must fascinate.
To fascinate: To hold spellbound, to captivate. To allure, arouse, beguile, engage, engross, intrigue, overpower, overwhelm, provoke, rivet, stir, transfix, transport. To attract and hold attentively by a unique power, personal charm, unusual nature, or some other special quality.
In The Art of Racing in the Rain, here’s how Garth Stein introduces Enzo, a caretaker and philosopher with a nearly human soul, disdain for crows, and dread of stuffed zebras—
Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature. And while I occasionally step over the line and into the world of the melodramatic, it is what I must do in order to communicate clearly and effectively. In order to make my point understood without question. I have no words I can rely on because, much to my dismay, my tongue was designed long and flat and loose, and therefore, is a horribly ineffective tool for pushing food around my mouth while chewing, and an even less effective tool for making clever and complicated polysyllabic sounds that can be linked together to form sentences. And that’s why I’m here now waiting for Denny to come home—he should be here soon—lying on the cool tiles of the kitchen floor in a puddle of my own urine.
In case you don’t know, Enzo is a dog. What makes him fascinating isn’t the fact that he’s a dog, nor that he’s lying in his urine. What makes him fascinating is the glimpse of personality we’re given (largely, in a single phrase—“much to my dismay”).
The narrative continues—
I’m old. And while I’m very capable of getting older, that’s not the way I want to go out. Shot full of pain medication and steroids to reduce the swelling of my joints. Vision fogged with cataracts. Puffy, plasticky packages of Doggie Depends stocked in the pantry. I’m sure Denny would get me one of those little wagons I’ve seen on the streets, the ones that cradle the hindquarters so a dog can drag his ass behind him when things start to fail. That’s humiliating and degrading. I’m not sure if it’s worse than dressing up a dog for Halloween, but it’s close. He would do it out of love, of course. I’m sure he would keep me alive as long as he possibly could, my body deteriorating, disintegrating around me, dissolving until there’s nothing left but my brain floating in a glass jar filled with clear liquid, my eyeballs drifting at the surface and all sorts of cables and tubes feeding what remains. But I don’t want to be kept alive. Because I know what’s next. I’ve seen it on TV. A documentary I saw about Mongolia, of all places. It was the best thing I’ve ever seen on television, other than the 1993 Grand Prix of Europe, of course, the greatest automobile race of all time in which Ayrton Senna proved himself to be a genius in the rain. After the 1993 Grand Prix, the best thing I’ve ever seen on TV is a documentary that explained everything to me, made it all clear, told the whole truth: when a dog is finished living his lifetimes as a dog, his next incarnation will be as a man.”
More personality. We have here a documentary-watching, Grand-Prix enthusiast with a healthy dose of pride and a dream of returning to this world as a bipedal Homo Sapien. And what passion for his dream. Do you hear the excitement—“explained everything to me, made it all clear, told the whole truth”? I was intrigued. This was a dog I wanted to get to know, and Stein didn’t disappoint. I laughed, became angry, cried—the gamut of emotions and measure of a story well told.
As readers, we bond with a protagonist through our universal experiences.
We identify with Enzo’s dream, with the experience of having a dream, of the possibilities of its fulfillment and the possibilities, or fear, that we might never achieve it. We also identify to some extent with Enzo’s current state, not that we’ve lain on the kitchen floor waiting for someone to come home to us, but that we have tasted, however briefly, the helplessness intrinsic to loss. Perhaps on occasion we resorted to the melodramatic to make our points, or felt we didn’t have ability to communicate what we needed. We might even identify with Enzo’s perspective on growing old and facing the eventuality of death.
Identification simply means that the protagonist is like us, that under just-so circumstances, we might find ourselves in his or her position—even if the protagonist is a dog.
Whether it is a dog longing to become a human, or a human longing to become his fully-realized self, characters that appear real, credible, lifelike—or like us—appeal to the reader.