Last week, I told you about Justified, the TV series I’ve been binge-watching and loving, focusing on the way the writers used the opening scene to establish character and propel the plot forward with the first few minutes of screen time. This week, I’m focusing on another important aspect of the first chapter, or in the case of a TV show, the first episode: making the audience like and root for the hero from the beginning of the story.
That’s not to say you can’t write protagonists who are anti-heroes like the serial killer/ title character in Dexter, or unreliable narrators like pretty much every POV character in Lost. But if you’re going to ask an audience to follow a TV show for a season (or longer) or readers to stay with a book until the words The End, you’re going to have to get them invested in your lead character(s). One of the best ways to do that is to make them like, care about, root for, and even love the main character like an old friend. But sometimes, as writers who live with and fall in love with our characters long before committing their stories to the page, we forget to share that love with our readers. If you find yourself in this position, as I did recently (more about that in a few weeks), you might want to take some advice from Michael Hague, story consultant and creator of the Story Mastery workshops.
I was fortunate enough to be in the standing room only crowd during Hague’s presentation at RWA in July. Among the pages and pages of notes I scribbled during that amazing session was a gem about the need to elicit a reader’s empathy for the hero. Hague outlined three ways to do this, all of which I managed to miss in the first draft of the opening chapter of Book 1 in my Victorian series. The Justified writers, however, managed to hit all three in the first episode of the series.
Make the hero the victim of undeserved misfortune. Hague uses examples such as showing the character in a sad or bad situation, or making him stuck dealing with the past. In Justified, after shooting a really bad guy who would have shot him first if given the chance, protagonist Raylan Givens is banished from his position as a Deputy US Marshal in the Miami office to Kentucky, from whence he came. It’s quite obvious from Givens’s reaction that this is a misfortune, and since the shooting was declared justified, it seems undeserved. Add to that the fact that within a few scenes he’s back in his home county of Harlan and dealing with characters from his past, and the writers have managed to check all the boxes in this empathy category.
Make the character likeable, e.g., kind, generous, good-hearted. Despite all he’s already lost and come close to losing, Givens has maintained a sense of humor, which we get to see in his banter with his new boss and co-workers. He’s also polite, sometimes even to the bad guys (until he has to get nasty) and oozing with Southern charm. In the first episode, we also get glimpses of his deeper nature and see the goodness at his core. When visiting the sister-in-law of the fugitive he’s hunting (who is also an old frenemy), he goes into full-on protective mode when one of the fugitive’s cronies shows up to harass her. Later, when confronting the fugitive, who has become the leader of a local white supremacist group, he attacks the groups ridiculous claims about race and shames them for twisting the Bible to suit their un-Christian purposes.
Put the character in jeopardy, in danger of losing anything important to him/her. In just the first few scenes of episode one, Givens is in danger of losing his life, then his job in Miami, and if he refuses the job transfer, his Marshal’s star that’s an ingrained part of his identity. In the course of the episode, we also learn that somewhere along the way, he lost his marriage to a woman he still loves. In the final scene of the episode, when he confides in his ex-wife that he never before thought of himself as an angry man but now he’s concerned he might be, we see the character in a different kind of jeopardy as he struggles to come to grips with his deeper essence, which threatens the identity he’s created for himself.
Throughout the course of the series – in fact, even just in the course of the first season of Justified – lead character Raylan Givens makes some bad choices, picks the hard road too often, chooses his job over loved ones’ feelings more than once, and insinuates himself in more situations with flying bullets per episode than most law enforcement officers will see in a lifetime of duty. But at the end of the day and each episode and each season, we’re still rooting for him, because the writers got us in this character’s corner during the very first episode.
What have you done in chapter one of your own story to make your character likeable/loveable/root for-able? Have you ever written a character you loved only to realize readers (hopefully in the beta and critique stages) just didn’t feel the same way? If so, what did you do to make the character worthy of your readers’ empathy?