This has been on my mind the last few days because I’m reviewing a novel that has kept me at a distance from the protagonist. The result is, that after reading sixty pages, I’m bored to tears because I don’t care about the lead character and I don’t understand exactly what her problem is. And although the writing is beautiful, I will likely not finish it and I will certainly not review it due to lack of interest.
Here is an interesting description of plot, from Writing to Sell by Scott Meredit:
“A sympathetic lead character finds himself in trouble of some kind and makes active efforts to get himself out of it. Each effort, however, merely gets him deeper into his trouble, and each new obstacle in his path is larger than the last. Finally, when things look blackest and it seems certain the lead character is finished, he manages to get out of his trouble through his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity.”
I love this description, but the key element I want to focus on is “A sympathetic lead character…”
A reader doesn’t have to like or even find the protagonist sympathetic, but a read MUST be interested in the main character and understand what his/her problem is, and it is important that the reader somehow empathize with him/her.
Readers are desperate to attach to somebody from the moment the story begins, and you want them to attach to the protag, since it’s the protag’s story. It’s that attachment, that emotional connection, that deepens the reader’s interest in the story and keeps them turning pages.
But how does a writer establish that connection early on? By writing what Blake Snyder calls the “Save the Cat” moment. In the first few pages, make the protag do something nice (like saving a cat from a tree), or interesting, or funny – something that will push the emotional buttons of the reader so s/he can connect on a deep level with this character. You want to hook the reader on this character, and the bigger the emotional content, the deeper the hook is set. Saving a cat from a tree sets a smaller hook than rushing into a burning building to save a baby. The general rule of thumb is: this save the cat moment should happen the first time we meet the character, that is our first impression should be a positive and deeply emotional charge for the protag.
Once the reader has established this emotional investment in this character, then you can start lowering the boom on the protag. And when s/he get knocked in the head, the reader feels it, the reader cares, because you established that connection up front. The reader wants the protag to win, needs for him/her to win, and will stay hooked until s/he does win.