Nancy: Justified Part 2: Holding Out for a Hero

Justified_2010_IntertitleLast 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?

7 thoughts on “Nancy: Justified Part 2: Holding Out for a Hero

  1. It’s really hard for me to write a character that’s likeable, per se, in the first chapter. I sometimes resent it as a reader when the writer resorts to cheap tricks to make the main character likeable or rootable. My particular peeves are orphans who are turned out of their homes and are shown in the very first scene as being in the dirt road while horses kick up mud upon them. This scenario CAN work for me, but it’ll take a lot of pluck and work.

    So, since I resent that as a reader, I don’t like to do it as a writer.

    What I’m trying to do right now is make my main character have enthusiasm for life and her work. She’s going to meet the antagonist (plot or subplot, I am not sure) and fall in love in the first few pages. But the very first thing she does that’s likeable is think kind thoughts at a ghost.

    This kind of reminds me of Robert McKee’s Story, which we read for class. I really respect the amazing range of emotions he wants writers to invoke in the readers. There’s a sort of roller-coaster quality, from down, to lower, to rock-bottom. Lots of room to spring back into happiness from there (LOL, probably to be cut right back down to dismal. Plus and minus.)

  2. McKee’s ‘positive to negative’ and ‘negative to positive’ change that should occur in each scene is one of those lessons I revisit when a scene or scene sequence isn’t working – it’s a great one!

    I think you’re right, there’s a fine line between creating empathy and manipulating the reader (although IIRC, I read a quote once about all fiction writing being manipulation, and there’s probably some truth in that). I also don’t think ‘likable’ is the only attribute that invests readers in characters. As long as the character is interesting, actively engaged in pursuing a goal, showing a passion of some kind, and the writer does a deft job of it, readers might also engage and be willing to take the ride of the story with that protagonist. But in certain genres, and I think romance is one of them, protags have to show some likability somewhere in the first act, or the romance reader just isn’t going to follow the story into the 2nd act. Or say so I, but YMMV ;-).

  3. I have a long history of creating unlikeable protagonists, so this is something I’ve really studied.

    In Ain’t She Sweet, Susan Elizabeth Phillips just barely rescued her unlikeable protagonist, Sugar Beth Carey, before I gave up on her. She did this by showing us that Sugar Beth,despite her very real and unpleasant faults (like being verbally abusive to her dog), had such a strong sense of fairness/justice that she was willing to accept being groped by an old enemy because she knew she had it coming.

    Another way to keep the reader on board with the unlikeable protagonist is to surround him with characters who are much worse. That’s what I did with Belial in Demons Don’t. It’s clear from the very first scene that he’s an arrogant jerk but Satan, Zeus and Loki are so much worse he looks good by comparison.

    A third way is the one Nick Hornby uses with Jess Crichton in A Long Way Down. He makes her so fascinating that, even though she’s angry to the point of being repellent, we keep reading. At one point, Hornby makes the reader really feel bad for her and her situation, only to have her turn on the reader and tell us to take our sympathy and “cram it up your saggy old arse.” I remember actually gasping when I read that–but I kept reading, because she was so well-drawn, such a believably angry adolescent, I hung with her.

    Great post–loving your Justified analyses!

    • I read a great article about writing unlikeable heroes years ago. It was given to me by one of my critique group members (yes, she was trying to tell me something :-)). Unfortunately, I can’t put my hands on it right now, but the gist of it was that if your protag isn’t likeable, s/he at least better be damn fascinating to watch. A book I read recently that had an unreliable and, at least for parts of the book, unlikeable protagonist was Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train.

      I haven’t read that SEP book, but I would have a really hard time with someone who was abusive, verbally or otherwise, to a pet or child or otherwise helpless/dependent creature. I’m not sure the redemption would be enough for me. We’ve talked before about readers each having their own individual Do Not Cross lines. I think this might be one for me.

  4. I really don’t know how my readers feel about my characters. So far, there have only been critiquers reading it and some agents/editors of my older stories and they were so bad, feedback never got that specific. You’re so right about SEP and Ain’t She Sweet, Jeanne. SEP did a masterful job of showing the unpleasant aspects of Sugar Beth’s character and then showing how she learned from past mistakes and is a good person by the time she gets back home. Next time someone reads my story, I’ll have to specifically ask how they feel about the characters.

    • If no one has mentioned it to you, your readers have probably liked/empathized with your characters. You could still ask the question, as it might cause some deeper thinking that leads to ‘yes, but’ responses that could help you amp up the empathy factor.

  5. Pingback: Nancy: Justified Part 3: My Enemy, Myself | Eight Ladies Writing

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