Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Identifying With The Hero

We've just returned from a brief trip to the North Shore area of Massachusetts, a relaxing time spent with friends with plenty of opportunities to read (including the four hour flight each way). One of the books I brought with me was written by a favorite author, Lee Child. The protagonist in this one, as in many of Child's books, is Jack Reacher. Reacher is an ex-MP, big and strong and knotty like a hundred-year-old oak, drifting from town to town with a toothbrush, an ATM card, and an expired passport. His sense of right and wrong causes him to do some things that most of us wouldn't dare, and in many cases trouble ensues--for him and for those he goes up against. I salivate when I see a new Jack Reacher novel coming out, and feel as though I've lost a friend when the book ends.

I'm not Jack Reacher. I'm nothing like him. But I can identify with him. He has his faults and frailties, but he stands up for what's right and isn't afraid to put himself in harm's way to do it. Maybe he's what I wish I could be. And that makes him an ideal protagonist.

An author's first job is to get the reader to identify with the characters in his/her book. A hero who is absolutely too perfect, a villain who has not even the trace of a good quality, are easy to ignore and forget. They're cardboard cut-outs, one-dimensional, formulaic. Give me a Jack Reacher anytime.

How does an author go about doing this? If I had a sure-fire formula for it, you'd be reading a review of my next novel in the New York Times and looking for it on the best-seller list. Instead, ask yourself this the next time you find yourself immersed in a really good novel. What makes the protagonist tick? Why do I like him or her? Not only will it tell you a bit about the work put in by the author. It may tell you something about yourself.

5 comments:

Timothy Fish said...

Screen writer Blake Snyder talks about what he calls the Save the Cat moment. Other people have talked about similar things, but I like his name for it because it is easy to remember. The Save the Cat moment occurs when the character does something nice or right, such as saving a cat, when the audience is first introduced to the character. The theory is that this causes the audience to identify with the character, or at least cheer for the character. Even when the character does despicable things later, the audience member is able to remember that first indication that there is something redeemable in this character and hopes that the good will win.

RumorsOfGlory said...

Hi Richard, I tried to look up the author's book that you recommended and couldn't find him in my library system. Then I searched Barnes and Noble and found him under "Child" not "Childs" - seems like an interesting author. Thanks for the recommendation.

Richard Mabry said...

Timothy--nice analogy. I'll see if I can get a cat in distress in the first chapter of my next novel. Might work well.

Lucille--my bad, and thanks for the heads-up. I've now corrected the spelling of Lee Child's name. I'll apologize before he sends Jack Reacher looking for me.

Jody Hedlund said...

I'm just popping over from Rachelle's blog party today! I think I read an interview with you on Rachelle's blog where you shared your writing journey. Rachelle recently gave me the call and I'm super excited to begin working with her.

RumorsOfGlory said...

Hi Richard, I tried to look up the author's book that you recommended and couldn't find him in my library system. Then I searched Barnes and Noble and found him under "Child" not "Childs" - seems like an interesting author. Thanks for the recommendation.