What happens when your characters are too likable? Is there such a thing? You bet, and Damon Suede is here to tell us how to make our characters fascinating and interesting. Much better than just likable. =)
Building the reader connection to your characters is critical, especially with your leads.
When I first started writing movies and theatre, likability came up a lot in meetings and story conferences. Nervous producers would insist that audiences preferred likable characters, and entire projects would be overhauled to amplify likability. Of course, plenty of affable starring roles tank hard at the box office, so the studio-lot rationale is shaky. Being likable doesn’t make a person fascinating or empathetic.
Happily, in one of my first big film gigs, a producer I loved complained about a script her studio had purchased. “I can’t stand the heroine. She’s so” — she made a cat’s ass face— “Likable.” She made it sound like a fart in a closed elevator. “I can’t connect with this chick at any point. Who likes Hannibal Lecter? Who wants to hang out with Medea? What I want is accessibility.”
We may not like dark or deranged characters, but if we can access them we will empathize. Your characters can be repugnant, vicious, or bizarre, but if they are fascinating, readers will pay attention. At the end of the day, paying attention sells tickets and builds hits.
By definition, perfection cannot change so a character who starts out perfect gives a writer nowhere to go. Perfection paralyzes and excludes. For best results, don’t serve up paragons to whom no one can relate. Instead give them access to fascinating people who live on every page.
If you want folks to feel something, to pay attention, to rave about your stories, you have to give them a point of entry.
Invite your readers to the party.
People read fiction for an emotional experience. Your entire job is to create ample opportunities for strong feelings, provocative relationships, and deep empathy for your characters.
The best characters feel real to their readers. Of course that doesn’t mean they are real, even if they draw upon reality, but rather that they evoke emotions and insight that change real lives. Their impact extends beyond their pages.
Creating that instinctive empathy is a simple as looking at the roots of civilization and our own childhoods. Many anthropologists argue that the core of all human law and culture derives from the ancient rule of hospitality…what the Greeks called Xenia.
In the most literal sense, Xenia translates as hospitality or “guest-friendship” although most commonly it is understood as the core principles of courtesy, generosity, and graciousness shoring up all human interactions. Xenia is the reason we don’t cheat at games or murder our guests at dinner no matter how annoying they are. Xenia is why we bring gifts to parties, bow when we meet our betters, and say thank you for kindness. Xenia is the “right thing” we all know we need to do, with which we struggle, for which we’re grateful.
The closest synonym in modern, everyday English would be grace, in the sense of kindness, compassion, consideration, and gratitude…in the sense of personal prudence and social balance. When people “say grace” at the table, they give thanks for what they have.
All hospitality starts with reciprocal, cooperative gratitude.
Remember being a kid and whining, “It’s not fair!” at nearby adults? Xenia is the fairness we all complained about and pined for as children, the basic moral balance that civilized folks hope to see and try to ensure) structures the world we inhabit. Xenia is why cannibalism, incest, child murder, and other betrayals of innocence horrify folks across cultural lines. Xenia is why we give to charity, shelter strangers, and keep our promises. Our sense of grace is hardwired in us.
According to Xenia, the act of giving or accepting hospitality creates an unbreakable contract between host and guest, ruler and subject, parent and child. The careful balance must be maintained by both parties and the first to renege is permanently stained thereby. Violating this agreement is seen as the most grievous sin in almost every human culture. This prohibition is so primal that as humans we expect (even demand) punishment for those who violate it.
In that way hospitality is the root of all empathy: gracious characters will always attract our attention.
For the ancients, hospitality laws offered a simple way to maintain social order. In the abstract, Xenia was a way to cover your butt when gods went around in disguise making trouble for humans. That beggar on the corner might be an Olympian in mortal drag. In practical terms, Xenia presents a great way to encourage general civility in an era when might made right and war meant fame and money. It balances the cultural scales. Yes you want to be renowned for your great deeds, but not for being a lying, thieving jerk.
Of course, Xenia extends far beyond the cultural confines of ancient Greece. it’s enshrined in Hammurabi’s code as “an eye for an eye.” In India it’s “Atithi Devo Bhava,” in Hebrew “hachnasat orchim,” It’s a reciprocal expansion of the Golden Rule that weaves the social compact: do unto others and they must do unto you in kind.
Xenia is so hardwired into our worldview that it dictates all of our stories and our preconceptions about people and their just desserts. How do we know that tormented ugly ducklings in a comedy will get a makeover and a mate? Why does an audience cheer when misers are bankrupted and gold-hearted hookers get justice? Xenia is our most ancient character metric, telegraphing who’s going to win and who’s going to go down in flames. We love seeing underdogs prevail and bullies beaten to a pulp.
In other words: instant audience empathy, just add xenia and stir.
Globally, legends and fairytales enshrine the rules of hospitality and define protagonists and villains based on their adherence to it. Even the sneakiest protagonists respect and enforce Xenia. Robin Hood is a shameless thief and a political terrorist, but he does so in service of Xenia…so he gets a pass. The Artful Dodger steals to survive as a child in the roughest part of London. Han Solo may be a smuggler but he pays his debts and acknowledges the honor among thieves. Katniss Everdeen poaches to feed her family and slaughters to survive. Above all else, xenia is fair.
The same is true of the dark side. Anytime you want audiences to loathe a character just let them violate xenia, often and awfully. Wicked stepmothers excite hatred because they break faith with their new families and target their charges. Cheaters, liars, and cravens earn our contempt by their refusal to show basic graciousness. And almost every monster in mythology is created by an abuse of hospitality laws and continues to undermine hospitality by their very existence. That’s why Dr. Frankenstein is the real monster for robbing graves and violating the natural order, but his Creature is mostly a tragic figure. That’s why Gollum suffers so much, Thorin dies in agony, and Bilbo makes it home in style. Even the most minor breaches of Xenia create anxiety in an audience:
But… if you hope to redeem that rake or give your sociopath a heart, you’ll have to find a way to let them show hospitality and reinforce basic social grace. Otherwise, why are Tony Soprano and Lestat so damn charming? How else does Hannibal Lecter charm and court Clarice Starling so easily during their asylum interviews? The audience will forgive anything in direct proportion to the xenia on offer.
Blake Snyder famously described this kind of necessary narrative grace as the heroic impulse to “save the cat” in service of audience empathy. Savvy writers bake that into the narrative cake as early as possible so we know who to root for. We know that the world doesn’t always work the way it should, and fiction lets us play with the tension between the personal desire for glory and our primal duty of hospitality.
Audiences track xenia within and between characters, as a measure of just desserts. They track it subconsciously and relentlessly and they are pitiless about it.
- Protagonist honors xenia without fail, and helps others do the same.
- Antagonist violates xenia, often and awfully. (ergo, redemption requires careful planning)
- Secondary characters waver in xenia (which limits identification…cool trick! )
- Antiheroes walk a fine line, like xenia acrobats… they seem to breach xenia but actually don’t.
Weigh the good and the bad within your characters and between your characters. Audiences track these details, both as an unconscious sense and a logical measure of a character’s value and values. Xenia works in any genre, context, and relationship…because the audience demands it. Violate it at your peril!
By the same token, look for ways to amp the xenia your protagonist shows in all of their actions. Readers believe what they see. Show them true xenia, and they’ll follow that character off a cliff.
Join us on Wednesday for computer guru Pat Haggerty!
Bio: Damon Suede grew up out-n-proud deep in the anus of right-wing America, and escaped as soon as it was legal. Though new to romance fiction, Damon has been writing for print, stage, and screen for two decades. He’s won some awards, but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year. Get in touch with him on Twitter, Facebook, or at DamonSuede.com.