Sparkle: Characters to Cheer For

Do you think it’s just chance if readers like your characters?

Not at all!

Do you think your material is more compelling if you write bleak, depressed, passive, unhappy, apathetic characters?

Not at all!

Do you think your material is cheesy and unsophisticated if you create active, upbeat, heroic characters?

It probably is!

Is that a problem?

Only if you’re opposed to creating saleable fiction.

Let’s keep this piece of advice simple:

Readers want a protagonist they can identify with, sympathize with, like a lot, and cheer for.

That protagonist may be as snarky in attitude as Harry Dresden in Jim Butcher’s bestselling series about a wizard PI in Chicago. But underneath his jaded exterior, Dresden really cares about people and he really wants to be helpful as he fights Evil.

Robert Crais’s popular tough guy, Joe Pike, is stoic, taciturn, and hard to know. He’s also brave, loyal, extremely competent, cool in a crisis, and a person that’s going to save your backside if bad guys come after you.

The late Betty Neels wrote Harlequin romance novels in a career that reached from the late 1960s into the 21st century. Her heroes are arrogant, rich, autocratic, and less than likely to give a plain, perhaps plump, heroine a second glance. yet the Neels hero is a supremely competent surgeon/doctor, generous, intensely protective of those he loves, willing to rescue and adopt the most pathetic mixed-breed stray dog or cat on the planet, and someone rich, handsome, and successful who will give the plain nobody of a heroine both the moon and the stars.

Ms. Neels remains in print constantly, unlike the majority of her colleagues.

One of the most popular novels in thriller author Dean Koontz’s impressive oeuvre is a book called WATCHERS. The human characters Travis and Nora are likeable, but it’s the dog Einstein who steals the show. Einstein is a genetically modified, highly intelligent golden retriever who loves Mickey Mouse cartoons, is able to read, and communicates with humans by spelling sentences with Scrabble tiles. If you can’t adore this character by the time you finish reading his story, then I worry about you.

What is that special quality that makes a star?

Different people have differing definitions of it. Figure out how you identify it and give it to your protagonist.

Don’t be afraid of sophisticated literati out there jeering at your hero/heroine. (They only read each other’s stream-of-consciousness passages anyway.)

Don’t be afraid of exposing your heart a little to readers. (It’s the only way to truly touch their hearts.)

Don’t be afraid to let your protagonist care about others. (The empathy within your character creates sympathy within readers.)

So go ahead and let your good guys take a stance, stand up for the little guy, defy the odds, dare to try, speak up when others won’t, express their values, shoulder responsiblities, and help little old ladies cross the road.

In Tom Clancy’s novel, PATRIOT GAMES, ex-Marine Jack Ryan is just a tourist in London’s Hyde Park when Irish terrorists attack members of the royal family. It’s a moment to duck and take cover, keeping your head low until the shooting’s over.

Instead, Ryan makes sure his wife and child are safe before he sprints across the park and single-handedly fights off the terrorists, killing one, assisting in the capture of another, and being seriously wounded himself. All to help people he doesn’t know.

Later, a friend asks Ryan why he took such a wild risk. Ryan shrugs and then opens up: “I saw what was happening. It made me mad.”


John Wayne was a savvy actor who played heroic roles. He didn’t try to be sophisticated and nuanced. His characters stood for what was right, regardless of what the law or authority might say. John Wayne delivered poetic justice in film after film.

Result? Other than Marilyn Monroe, are there many other actors besides Wayne with their pictures hanging in American living rooms?

People of the 21st century may wear ennui like a jacket, but if they were suddenly standing on the TITANIC they would want 1) access to a lifeboat; and 2) a leader who could help them get it.

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