Friday, February 27, 2009

Nathan Bransford on Likeability and Redeemability

Nathan Bransford, a literary agent who's blog I follow said something extremely memorable in his post today about sympathetic and unsympathetic characters. It's about character and what about them keeps us reading. Here's what he says:

Characters. What to do with them, right? And what's the line between sympathetic and unsympathetic characters? Particularly the ones who do bad and horrible things? Why do we like some characters who do horrible things and dislike the heck out of some goody two shoes?

In this agent's opinion, it all comes down to the concept of redeemability.

Redeemability involves more than just actions. We've seen lots and lots of characters in novels and movies who do utterly horrible things and yet we love them anyway. But if characters are going to consistently do bad things and retain the reader's sympathy: they have to be likable. They have to be brave or brilliant or hilarious or charismatic or strong or all of the above. They have to possess qualities that we admire in ample quantities. We wouldn't normally like someone who eats flesh, but holy crap is that Hannibal Lecter smart and kind of hilarious.

Charisma - actions = the redeemability meter

Now, redeemability is a fickle beast. If a character's redeemability meter dips below a certain base line, that character will "lose" the reader. We've all read moments where this happened: a character did something so horrible and shocking and irredeemable that there was no going back. We're officially done with that person. This may or may not be accompanied by flinging a book against the wall.

The redeemability meter often dips below zero when a character does something that's wrong and there is not sufficient explanation for their actions. They weren't misguided or deluded or well-intentioned-but-astray. They didn't have an excuse. They just went and did it, and the reader concludes: they're just evil. And there's no going back. The reader will make some allowances for a really likable character, but unlikability combined with unmotivated evil actions: that character has officially "lost" the reader. The worse the action the more insanely likable the character has to be.

And there are some actions that are just too far beyond the pale for even the most likable of characters, including using racial slurs and/or other powerful cultural taboos. (Oddly this does not seem to include killing people and eating their flesh. Books are weird that way.) There are also characters whose charisma level is so low it doesn't matter what good deeds they do.

It's fine for a villain to lose the reader. It's also fine for a hero to lose the reader if you're going all Greek tragedy on us and the hero is suffering for their fatal flaw in the climax.

But a protagonist, particularly a narrator, just can't lose the reader before the absolute end of the book, and maybe not even then. It's crucial crucial crucial that the protagonist, the person who the reader is most identifying with, has the reader's attention and sympathy throughout the novel. Otherwise your reader will just stop caring.

And then they'll stop reading.
Actually, I don't think "redeemability" is a word, but it might be. And what Mr. Bransford calls a "meter" he really means an index, like the consumer price index. When it goes down, we hate the character more.

What do you think about this? Has Will redeemed himself? Isn't Ian absolutely unredeemable? He's done something so awful that he can never be rehabilitated? Post a comment.

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Ian Kearney, the director of the Kearney Music School, an elite musical training school in Philadelphia, dies after a fall from a balcony during a recital. World-famous cellist, Henry Harrier, recently forced from the faculty, returns to investigate Ian's death when his prized former student is arrested. Henry shows through his brilliant and single-minded pursuit of the truth that, as usual, they have it all wrong. This Sherlock Holmes-type mystery leads the reader through the world of classical music and lays bare the conflicts which dominate the lives of talented adolescents when placed under the pressure of studying for a demanding, stressful, and often elusive career as a classical music performer. Henry Harrier is part John Le Carre's George Smiley, part Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes, and part Orlando Cole the beloved teacher, renowned chamber musician, and until his own retirement, the premier cellist of the Curtis Institute.

Author Profile:

Tim was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on January 30, 1946. In 1951 he moved with his family to Schenectady, New York, where he lived through high school. He attended Baldwin-Wallace College, Berea, Ohio, from 1964 to 1968. He graduated in 1968 with a B.A. in history and philosophy. He received his Ph. D. in history in U.S. history in 1980 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison after spending 2.5 years in the U. S. Army. Most of his army service was completed in Wuerzburg, Germany, from 1969-1971. In 1972 he returned to Madison to complete his doctoral study. His dissertation, Those Who Moved; Internal Migrants in American 1607-1840, combined the statistical analysis of genealogical and biographical data with the study of traditional literary diaries, letters, and journals.

Tim was a market and survey research consultant from 1983 to 2000 and a smoking cessation researcher from 2000 to 2003. His consulting practice focused primarily on conducting community health needs assessment. He authored hundreds of market research reports and published a number of his assessments in Community Health Needs Assessment published by McGraw Hill in 1996 and in a revised volume published in 1999. In 2000 he joined the staff of the Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention of the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he conducted smoking cessation research. He published several articles in peer-reviewed journals and spoke at national smoking cessation conferences.

In 2003 he moved to Philadelphia and earned his real estate license. He now practices real estate, works on publishing his novels, and studies and teaches entrepreneurship.Tim has written a dozen novel-length stories, a volume of short stories, and about a 3-foot stack of pages poetry. He is currently working on earning his 4th million in real estate sales, publishing his novels, and working on an entrepreneurish handbook as a support for his students.

Tim is a trained violist and an experienced string quartet player. He is an avid listener to classical music and regularly attends classical music concerts. He has two grown children by his first wife and a stepdaughter with his second wife. He likes to cook, read, write, entertain, develop relationships, and help other people. Formerly Tim used to travel frequently. He doesn't so much anymore. Now he regards the combination of real estate practice, writing and publishing, and the teaching and studying of entrepreneurship as enough of a trip.