To return to the film that inspired this week's posts (in case you didn't know I've been building on a theme), I don't feel bonded to the MCs of Fargo. During one of our perennial debates about this movie, Captain Film Major said to me, "How can you not feel something for her? She's pregnant and investigating a murder, which is dangerous."
To such an argument, all I can say is, "CHEAT!" (Or, to quote Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, "Cheat! Cheat! Cheat! I hope you die!" But I try not to take Fargo that seriously.)
As far as I'm concerned, telling me that I should like a character because they're pregnant is cheating. So is telling me I should like them because they're left handed, have three eyes, or happen to look like my sister. Really, telling me that I should like them for any other reason than that they are a likable person is a cheat.
Much like showing me that your villain is a bad guy by having him kick a dog (and we all know that's a bad idea, right?), it's not okay to tell me that I should like your MC just because he's playing with a dog in the first scene. It's too easy. Maybe he's an ax murderer who happens to own a dog. In which case, you've a decent villain, not a likable hero.
Writing is hard work. I understand that. But there are reasons it's hard, and one of those reasons is that when you slack off, it shows. Really shows. I mean, everyone knows. They know, and when they put down the book, they talk about you. "Can you believe it? So-and-so didn't even bother to characterize the MC. All So-and-so ever says is that the MC really likes puppies. But come on, everyone likes puppies. Lame." **I do not promise that the dialogue will always look exactly like that**
But, here's the deal, most people like puppies and kittens. Most people like babies. Most people feel some empathy for pregnant women, people with disabilities or diseases, and/or people in untenable positions over which they have little control. However, none of these qualities or states of being, should your character possess them and/or be in them, actually constitute a likable person. After all, if you write a serial killer who gets picked on for having three eyes, I'm probably going say, "He's a serial killer. Who cares?"
Therefore, if you say, "You should feel sympathy/empathy/deep personal concern/love for my MC just because she's pregnant/he's in the unfortunate situation of having three arms/dogs love my MC," I'm going to call you a cheat. Most people, I think, would agree with me. Because those aren't likable characters. They're just people I usually feel something for.
I do not have an obligatory Harry Potter reference for this post. Why? Because I don't recall J.K. Rowling ever doing something like this. Good work, J.K. Rowling.
To sum up this week: You want the reader to love your characters. To do this, you'll have to give them something in the character to love. And this something better be something real about the character, not a stock sympathetic attribute, or it will not have the desired effect.
Have you ever run across characters that were more sympathetic type than actually sympathetic? Did this work on you? How did you feel about the character? Did your feelings about this character effect your view of the work as a whole?