Friday, February 27, 2009

First Page Character Empathy

Lately I've read quite a few novels whose opening chapters I did not find compelling. A month ago we discussed "Novel Openings" for two days--Part I and Part II. These novels whose openings disappointed me lacked some of the elements we discussed. But for some reason lately, I've been seeing a lot of the same problem--failure to create immediate empathy with the main character. I've noted three typical reasons for this failure.

1. Spending too much time on the antagonist(s).

As I noted in the "Novel Openings" posts, sometimes in suspense it's effective to start with the "bad guy." I've done that a number of times. It's a way to showcase the level of evil the protagonist will have to fight against, and allows the protagonist to then make an entrance. However I advocate that such openings be short--typically no more than a few pages. Readers hold back their empathy from the antagonist, waiting for the protagonist to appear and claim it. You don't want to make them wait too long.

By the same token you don't want to pull away from your protagonist too soon and return to the antagonist. In some of these books I've read you've got the bad guy(s) in chapter one, protagonist in chapter two, then back to the bad guy in chapter three, etc. The reader isn't allowed to stay with the main character long enough to get to know him. This kind of pace in a suspense may be fast and seem exciting, but bottom line, character rules. If the reader doesn't care about the character caught in the conflict, he's not going to care so much how that conflict is resolved.

2. Introduction of too many characters in the beginning.

This is a variation of problem one, except that it involves numerous supporting characters rather than the antagonist. (Or maybe it involves both if it's a suspense.) Again, we need some time with the main character. This is the person we're supposed to root for through the entire book. If protagonist A is introduced in chapter one, then supporting character B is introduced in chapter 2, and supporting character C is introduced in chapter three, etc., it's hard for a reader's loyalty/empathy to land somewhere.

3. The protagonist isn't doing enough to interest me.

In the 12 steps of the mythic hero's journey, the first is "Normal World." Here we find the main character in his usual life, dealing with whatever issues he usually deals with. In step 2, The Call, the first major conflict comes along and spins the protagonist out of his normal world. The rest of the book is a series of conflicts against which the protagonist fights, all set in motion from The Call.

The Call--which also can be termed the inciting incident--should come quickly in the novel. Readers expect it when they first meet the protagonist. They know the Normal World is about to be upset, and they're turning pages to get to that point in the story. So let's say The Call comes on page 10, at the end of chapter one. What's the character doing for the first nine pages? I advocate giving the character a strong problem/Desire from the opening page--something that's over and above what that character usually deals with. Give her a Desire that must be solved in her Normal World. A Desire that will carry over after The Call, exacerbating all the problems brought about by The Call.

For example, if the protagonist runs a shelter for homeless families, you might think just showing her in her everyday world, dealing with all the issues of housing said families, would be enough. Her Desire would simply be to house these families. I say give us more. How about if her Desire is to raise $50K in four weeks, or the homeless shelter will close and all those families will be out on the street. Now, from the opening line, you see this character struggling, straining toward fulfilling her Desire. She's strong, she's moving toward something. She's not just reacting to being buffeted by life's everyday problems. Then when The Call comes--say, a dead body in the kitchen (heh-heh), that first Desire is made even more difficult to achieve. Kinda hard to raise $50K for an organization in which someone has just been murdered.

Think about this. How can you up the ante in your character's Normal World--before The Call occurs?

And then there are the novels in which The Call doesn't come until page 50 or so. I read one recently in which The Call came around page 85. By then I was totally bored and skimming.

Thoughts, anyone?

BTW, nearly three years ago I ran an 11-part series on immediately Creating Character Empathy. If you missed that, you might refer back to it. We talked about 10 different ways to pull the reader into your character's life from her opening scene.


Rita Gerlach said...

Thanks, Brandilyn. This is fantastic.

Lynette Eason said...

I'm so glad you posted this timely topic. I've noticed this quite a bit in two or three of the recent novels I've read (we may have been reading the same thing?) but didn't really have the time to figure out why I was bored with the book. I just closed it up and moved on. But I think you've just nailed it. I didn't have any empathy for the character. And in one particular book, the character just kept repeating herself. It was really odd, like the whole editing process had been skipped. I made it through the book because the plot was good, but...

Anyhow, thanks for the reminder to go back to that first page and make sure I'm not going to send my reader into snooze-ville. LOL.


Nicole said...

It takes an exceptional writer to pull off a good story with a non-empathetic protagonist. I've seen it attempted to the point where it was beginning to speak of a trend (in CBA fiction).
It doesn't matter what the genre is, unlikable is unlikable and makes for either a swift turnaround to save the story or a lousy book.

Margaret Daley said...

Thanks, Brandilyn. Very good points. The opening is so important to a book, and I agree 100% that you have to care about the main protagonist or the reader will move on to another book. I don't have a lot of time to read for pleasure so I need to be wowed from the start.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I can relate. I just put down a book, from one of my favorite authors, and scratched my head.

Don't get me wrong, great book, I was just overwhelmed by all the people introduced so quickly. I couldn't keep track.

It took about a hundred pages before I could get into the book, then once I did, I was off and running...invested in the two main characters.

Sharon Ball said...

Brandilyn, thank you so much for providing specific observations and insight. It really helps that you've also covered these topics previously and included the links. I'm like a sponge soaking it all up.

Pam Halter said...

I've been busy with snow the past few days and am catching up on the blogs.

It's funny how things come around. My writing partner and I met last week and talked about what was missing from my WIP. It was protagonist empathy. My hero wasn't suffering! I need more tension and conflict ~ enough to make the reader care. It's hard because that means making changes to another character I know pretty well and now have to get to know all over again.

But it's a good thing!