Building Characters – IT

I’ve been dishing out wisdom from Jeff Gerke’s book  Plot vs. Character, but today I’d like to add something from James Scott Bell’s book Revision & Self-Editing. Today’s discussion is on likability, or what Bell calls “it.”

Jeff says, “If your book doesn’t have a likable hero, your book is dead. End of discussion.” Even if your hero is an anti-hero (like Butch Cassidy, who was a thief and an outlaw), he’s got to be likable. If you begin your novel with a protagonist who is so despicable, so depraved that the reader can’t stand the guy, the reader won’t continue reading. That equals a dead book. Even if your scoundrel is heading for a major transformation, it won’t matter. If you lose the reader in chapter 2, she won’t be around to watch the glorious transition in chapter 19. You don’t want a perfect protagonist, either. 

Absolute perfection (in anyone other than Jesus Christ) is boring and unrealistic. No reader will stick around to find out what happens next. 

The protagonist MUST be likable – or at least comprehensible. So how do you make a realist character that’s both flawed and likable? James Scott Bell has the answer: A great protagonist has Grit, Wit, and It.

The protagonist can’t be a wimp, just taking everything that everybody dishes out. He’s got to do something. He’s got to move forward. He’s got to have grit. “Grit is guts in action,” says Bell. The protagonist can’t give up, can’t take too long to react, can’t sit around and think without reacting or doing something. Go through your novel and add some fight to your character. Think Clint Eastwood.

The protagonist who has a sense of humor is always likable. Even if they’re getting whiny, a little self-deprecation will smooth the edges. Give your protagonist the ability to laugh at himself and the reader will warm to him instantly. Wit can also enliven negative characters. Bell uses Hannibal Lector as an example. He’s absolutely disgusting, but who didn’t find humor in his lines about a census taker’s liver and some fava beans?

“It” is personal magnetism, sex appeal, a quality that invites admiration or envy from others. When someone walks into a room and draws attention from everyone, that’s “it.” Putting “it” into your character can be difficult, especially if you have a weakness for telling. Show the protagonist being charming, attracting attention, at the center of attention. Think of Scarlet O’Hara at the beginning of the novel (or movie).  

Find something likable about your protagonist and show it early in the novel. You’ll hook the reader.


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