Can Anybody Find Me Somebody To Love?

You may hate these kinds of kid commercials, or you may run right out and buy a Kindle after watching this, but either way there’s a great writing tip in here.

You need loveable characters inside a story.

Who were your first fictional loves? I loved Jo in Little Women, Meg and Charles Wallace in A Wrinkle in Time, Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web, and Harry in Harry the Dirty Dog. I loved Scout in To Kill a Mocking Bird, Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, Arthur in The Once and Future King, Garp in The World According to him and Jeanette in Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. I loved them fully, without reservation. I’d follow them anywhere, and I did.

So how do you make your characters loveable?

Most of the ones I mentioned are classic, time-tested literary stars. But they did not get there because they are perfect. They are flawed. They make bad choices. They are scared, lonely, stubborn, jealous, unfaithful. But still, we love them. Why?

Maybe because they are complicated, or they speak a truth that we know, or their flaws are our flaws. Or maybe it is because of redemption.

I always hated the story of the prodigal son. I felt so bad for that other son, doing what was expected of him, all the right things, getting no credit or praise or thanks. Not even a single barbequed goat. Then when bro comes home after a life of hell-raising fun and wild nights he gets a family cookout and a slap on the back. Really? What’s the message here? Maybe I’m missing something but it seems to me that prodigal son is a much better gig than do-the-right-thing son. I think we need a sequel to this story. What happened when the party was over and everyone had to get back to the business of real life? Did prodigal son roll up his sleeves and start taking care of the farm or did he drink wine all day and mess around with the servants? Or was it like a Brotherhood episode where good bro starts cheating on his wife and taking kickbacks and bad bro stops his niece from getting high and saves a cat?

I think the prodigal son is a lousy story because redemption is not earned. To really love a character we have to see them push the boundaries of their hearts. We have to see them flail and sink and come up for air. We can barely breathe as we watch them spit, scream, sob, turn their backs, run away, stand up to someone, beg, fly, sing, deny, fight. We are on their side. We know their pain. We have to root for redemption.

How do you create loveable characters?

You have to love them.

I have characters in stories I love so much they make me cry. They rose out of dust and air and fired neurons and shadows and caffeine and hazy memories and overheard conversations, but they are real to me in some inexplicable way. I think great characters are great because they were written from love. Not with love but from it. But I’m not sure.

You need loveable characters inside a story. How do you do it?

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Can Anybody Find Me Somebody To Love?

  1. The Hobbit was one of my favourite stories as a kid. I also read the Magic Treehouse books, because who doesn’t like stories where books take you through time? What? They do that anyway? Right.

    Harry Potter is a good example of loveable characters. I’m not sure if it’s because they grew up through a series or because they are so realistic or both, but when someone dies in Harry Potter, you feel.

    I try to make my characters into likeable people that you want to befriend and hang out with, that you can understand and relate to. I don’t really like the whole prodigal son story, either. I like to watch a character rise and fight for what they want. It makes a better story when you can relate to what the character is going through. Not everyone is going to like your character, though, no matter how hard you try, but some people will and that’s what matters. : )

  2. So glad to see you back on the blog.

    Here’s my thinking about lovable characters. They have to inhabit you. Rent a room in your brain and your heart. Live with you. Because if you become intertwined with them (no matter how different they are than you) than the love you have for them will come through. It’s like falling in love. You think about them when you are walking down the street, taking a shower, commuting to work, sitting in a meeting. Then when you write, there they are.

    Maybe writing is like love then?

  3. WSW

    I think if you love them it comes through in the writing. Personally, I loved Harriet (the Spy) when I was a child. If ever there was a superficially unloveable character, she was it. I recently discovered (albeit late) Olive Kittredge. To my way of thinking, that is a serious achievement in transforming prickly, difficult and rude into positive attributes. Think about it. Who do you like best in real life? The smiling, always pleasant PTA mom (about who people invariably say, “She’s very NICE” in the same way they might say “I think big feet are very attractive on a girl.”) or the unruly, f-bomb dropping parent you see only at drop off and pick up, but never on curriculum night?

    • Olive Kittredge is the perfect example of loving your character regardless (or because) of those warts and chin hairs. It’s a brilliant book. And Harriet the Spy–she’s fabulous!

      In real life that PTA mom makes my skin itch.

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