Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Hateful Heroes and Heroines

I thought it might be fun to bring the rest of you in on my discussion with Pat regarding unsympathetic protagonists. (See comments to this post.) It's not tough making your protag likable and sympathetic. Long ago, I read some advice on this: when you introduce your protag, either (A) have him tell a joke, or (B) put him in an embarrassing or humiliating situation. The joke. It had damn well better be funny, and not annoying-funny, either. You want your reader to like your protag, okay? Also, by 'tell a joke', I don't mean, "So a rabbi, a priest, and a bowl of guacamole walk into a bar." 'A joke' in this context means anything that will make the reader smile. Chandler's introduction of Phillip Marlowe in the beginning of The Big Sleep is a good example. In first person POV, Marlowe describes what he's wearing, and if you have any imagination you'll be grinning by the end of that description. Also, think about how rapidly Mark Twain establishes rapport between the reader and Huck in the beginning of Huck Finn. Embarrassment. Preferably, this should be a situation a reader can easily relate to. The first example which comes to my mind: from the Analog issue I recently reviewed, Richard Lovett's "Zero Tolerance". Lovett opens the story by having his middle-aged protag dressed in a Harry Potter outfit for a Halloween costume party. He's turned away at the door because he doesn't have ID and can't prove his age (even though he's old enough to pass for Dumbledore -- and that's Lovett's joke, not mine. He's using both techniques to build empathy). Now he has to roam the city in a silly Harry Potter outfit. I'll add more examples of this in the Comments, when I remember 'em. I'd also add (C) put your protag in a situation which highlights one or more of her better traits. Here's how Lizzy is introduced in Pride and Prejudice. Lizzy's mom is talking to Lizzy's dad : "... Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good humoured as Lydia. But you are always giving her the preference."

"They have none of them much to recommend them,'' replied he; "they are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters."

Sure, this is thinly veiled 'telling', but it succeeds nonetheless in building sympathy for all the Bennett sisters (What do you mean, 'none of them much to recommend them' -- what kind of father is that?) and Lizzy in particular. We're also told that Lizzy is 'quick'. Soon enough, we see that quick wit in action.

To cross genres (big time), think about the 'Deliverator' opening in Snowcrash. (Amazon has their 'look inside' function enabled, in case you're interested.) Stephenson introduces Hiro Protagonist as a determined man of action with a sense of humor to burn. Hiro's focus on delivering his pizza before the deadline tells us all we need to know.

That said, I confess I never felt too much empathy or sympathy for Hiro. His smugness put me off. The female lead, YT, had a lot more going for her in the empathy department.

One last point. (D) You can get a lot of mileage if your character appears full of mystery. Here, I'm thinking about the opening to Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Here's how Conrad introduces Marlow:

Marlow sat cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzenmast. He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards, resembled an idol.

What's the first thing out of his mouth?

“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”

They're on the Thames, for cryin' out loud. The last thing the stodgy Brits on the boat with Marlow want to hear is a comparison of London to the Congo -- yet that's the whole point. What the hell is Marlow thinking? What's on his mind? Out with it, already!

Okay, I've blathered on too long. (I haven't even gotten to Janet Evanovich's introduction of Stephanie Plum in One for the Money.) Now it's your turn.

D.

12 Comments:

Blogger Lyn Cash said...

great character introduction in Cannery Row - the town practically becomes a character on the 1st page, and by the time the frog-giggin' arrives, i'm on the floor every time. love that book.

you've made some great points today. enjoyed the blog.

8/23/2005 12:26:00 PM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

Doug, what's the matter with you. Reading Austen and Evanovitch? :)

Btw, the Stephanie Plum book must be a very recent addition to your list, because I had the first sentence on my Book Riddle not long ago and didn't get a reply to that one. ;)

8/23/2005 03:09:00 PM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Lyn: I'll have to check that out. Thanks for stopping by and helping this place look respectable ;o)

Gabriele: I'll have you know I've read Pride and Prejudice twice: once in high school, and again on my own for fun.

As for Stephanie Plum, I read her first one long enough ago that I'd forgotten the opening line. In writing today's blog, however, I remembered that Evanovich's opening sizzled, and had to be about the best I'd ever read at establishing rapport with a protag -- great hook too, btw.

8/23/2005 05:32:00 PM  
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8/24/2005 12:16:00 AM  
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8/24/2005 01:01:00 PM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Devious, too. Note the feminine handle (as a guy, I'm less likely to expect a woman to spam me) and the fact 'her' blog has certain touches that make it look almost real -- like the way 'she' likes Juicy Fruit! And if that isn't proof 'she' is a replicant, I don't know what is.

8/24/2005 02:21:00 PM  
Anonymous F. O'Brien Andrew said...

Hey, I was thinking of the opening to 'One For The Money' after your first paragraph. I don't remember the lines, but I do know that it ends with Stephanie's little sports car getting repoed and a trip to the pawnshop. Without the cash from selling her TV she never would have gotten the phone turned back on. That's a sympathetic situation.

I think that there's a third opening that can really work well. Have your character in trouble. Lots of trouble. It's not embarrassing, but it does build sympathy.


Cheers,

-- F

8/24/2005 02:26:00 PM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Good point. Reminds me of the opening to David Goodis' Shoot the Piano Player:

Second para:

The man was kneeling near the curb, breathing hard and spitting blood and wondering seriously if his skull was fractured. He'd been running blindly, his head down, so of course he hadn't seen the telephone pole. He'd crashed into it face first, bounced away and hit the cobblestones and wanted to call it a night.

I have to finish reading that book one of these days ;o)

8/24/2005 05:47:00 PM  
Blogger Pat said...

Speaking of heroes: I was inspired today to do a story for your Character challenge, but it's looking like it'll be about 2,000 words by the time I'm done. Plus, it involves water, so I think it'll end up going in the Fantasy challenge. It's a sequel of sorts to my "ghost and dog" story (Came a Gunslinger), and just like that one, it's flowing quite nicely.

8/24/2005 08:19:00 PM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Yup, good story, Pat. I remember it well. Perhaps you might want to use the SF challenge to float one of the main characters from your Queendom work? (Or for that matter one of your newer WiPs.) That's what I thought I would do if the challenge is poorly subscribed -- put in a novel excerpt. What the hell.

8/24/2005 08:57:00 PM  
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