Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Song Lyrics--Part 2

It's just so hard to figure out how to make characters sympathetic, especially if they're spiritually far away from God at the opening of the story, or making wrong choices. What makes me relate to a character might not make someone else relate at all. How do you evoke sympathy? How do you measure it? -- Camy

Camy's question is exactly why I posted the song lyrics yesterday. The lyrics are compelling because they tell a whole story with very few words. The protagonists are involved in something that's illegal, something we wouldn't approve of, and know could lead to a very bad end. Yet we connect with them. Why? I want to take the song apart today and tomorrow and see just why. And perhaps in doing so, we can answer Camy's question--one that all we novelistsface.

A friend of a friend needs a favor.
No questions asked, there's not much more to say.
Me and the wife, we need the money.
We've got four kids all hungry, one on the way.

In the first stanza we (1) meet the protagonists, (2) learn their plight, and (3) see beginning characterization.

One thing the protagonists have going for them right away is that we're in their POV. We're seeing the world through their eyes. In Ricky's eyes, a guy needs his help--someone whose family is starving. No questions asked. There's not much more to say. Those two lines say a lot about this relationship. Ricky trusts that this guy is telling him the truth. Perhaps they're close friends, and Ricky has seen with his own eyes the plight of the guy's family. Ricky is basically a person who'd help a friend, period. He doesn't need to be asked twice.

So we've got a guy, unnamed, who wants to help his family, and Ricky, the willing friend. What we've got here is a strong Desire (remember those four Ds?) for the protagonists. And the Desire is backed by believable, empathetic motivation. We understand someone who wants to take care of his family. We understand a friend being willing to help.

I submit to you that these things begin to answer Camy's question. Even if a character or characters are going the wrong way, making foolish choices, we can still care about them if we're allowed to (1) fully see the world through their eyes, (2) empathize with their Desire and (3) understand the motivation behind it.

If you have a protagonist who's hard to like, is his/her Desire (even if wrong in itself) and motivation for that Desire based on something that is universally understood and admired?

Slip these sweat socks in your shirt and pray they think your packin'.
Be sure to keep your head down, don't look 'em in the eye.
And don't get fancy, Ricky, we ain't Jimmy Cagney.
Look at me. Let's do the job, and let's get home tonight.

This is a wonderful second stanza of further characterization, which pulls on our empathy even more. We're allowed to see three things. (1) these aren't hardened career criminals. In fact, they really haven't a clue how to pull off what they need to do. In other words, they're the Underdog.

Readers (and song listeners and movie watchers) love to cheer for the underdog. It's a part of Story that goes all the way back to the Greek myths, where poor mortals contended with powerful gods.

(2) We're shown their preparations for the job they must undertake. (Or in Hero's Journey terms, the preparations for the journey they embark on to obtain the elixir. See how well this short song follows the steps in the hero's journey?) Watching these preparations heightens our feelings about them being the underdogs, and builds within us a fear for their safety. Even while we like them more for their naivete, at the same time we fear for them more, because of that same naivete.

Interesting--how one piece of characterization such as this increases our stake in the outcome of the story. We're now really with them, seeing the world from their eyes, planning with them as underdogs. Yet as readers/song listeners, standing back and watching them, we're worried for their safety.

When a reader is concerned about the character, worried about what will happen to that character--he/she keeps turning the pages to see what happens.

(3) We're shown the ending of the story as they envision it. They'll "do the job," then get home. Criminal life behind them, money in their pockets, guy's family saved. Again, this is more of the world through their eyes. Yet here again, the more we see the world through their eyes, the more we see what they have to lose, and how things could go wrong.

We'll look at the rest of the song tomorrow. Feedback?


Camy Tang said...

Thanks for doing this series, Brandilyn. This is a question I've been wrestling with a lot lately.

So if I'm understanding what you're saying, reader sympathy goes back to the basics, Desire. The character should have a desire and motivation--or maybe even just motivation?--that is universally understandable. In this case, caring for others, his family. In another story, maybe it would be belonging and acceptance, or forgiveness, or peace.

In their being the underdog, they are both weak and determined. We can relate to the weakness and admire the determination.

Now that's interesting. If they were powerful and confident, I wouldn't care about them. They'd be just bad, powerful men. But their weakness--their naivete--brings them to my level as the reader, makes them human and understandable. I think that's why I worry about them, even though logically I know what they're doing is wrong.

I'm beginning to see where you're going. It's like the TV show "Prison Break." The premise is a guy with an elaborate, clever plan to break his brother out of prison. Logically, I know that's wrong. But I root for the characters because of the protag's deep love for his brother, and his position of weakness as the underdog.

Your last point is especially powerful. The characters are given an incredible amount to lose. The stakes are sky high. I care about them already because of their desire, motivation, underdog status. But I really fear for them because of the DANGER they're in.

That's the next step, right? You build a character with Desire, Motivation, some flaw or weakness. Then you put them in Conflict or Danger.

Aaahhh. Bright light moment. It's very subtle emotional manipulation.

This is great! Thanks!

Stuart said...

Another powerful think about Lyrics is that they invoke the imagination with just the right wording to get you to envision the rest of the story.

Letting the person hearing them build mental images based on the framework of the song that endears the characters and their plight even more.

Something to be said for pinpoint vagueness at times ;)

C.J. Darlington said...

Camy - have you read James Scott Bell's book Plot & Structure? He has a section called the LOCK system for building a solid novel that talks about making readers care about your characters. He's posted about the LOCK system on his website here:


Unknown said...

I think that's it....making the characters HUMAN...sure, they do stupid things, make bad choices, but if I can see them with weaknesses and vulnerablities, then I WILL root for them, bad choices and all.