>The Elusive Guidebook


There is a rulebook, its just covered in elbow-grease and slips out of my fingers as soon as I get a grip on it. Every now an then I manage to flip it open at a random page and get a glimpse of something, then its flopping onto the floor again. There are a few writers who have read pages and pages of that thing – even whole sections – but they aren’t telling (You Know Who You Are!!!!).

Perhaps it was the first time I glimpsed that self-same rulebook on the bookshelf – and managed to tease it down like an Indian Snake Charmer – that I got my first character ‘eureka!’ moment.

‘That’s it!’ I thought. Character sympathy! That’s the key to hooking a reader.

I did get excited, because you only get that one chance to draw someone into your story, be it a casual reader or potential editor. Once you get a reader interested in your character, they might forgive you for bumps in the other story elements e.g. plots, world building, PoV, multiple characters, action scenes etc.

So I thought I had it. Build the sympathy!

The trick is – and what I learned the hard way – was that what one reader responds to in a character is often vastly different to another – in fact often diametrically opposed. One reader’s cool detached hero is another’s arrogant, insufferable narcissist.

I used to come home from critique groups often puzzled by contradictory comments that made little sense until the penny finally dropped. If people don’t like your characters, they just will NOT gel with your story. Once you reach that stage the critter will start (often unconsciously) working overtime to find all the things ‘wrong’ with your piece, when the real problem is that it simply has no resonance for them. They will talk vehemently about the punctuation on p3, or how they got mixed up in the dialogue, the logic error in par 5, or yada yada, yada…

Even successful writers don’t seem to have real control over reader’s reactions.

One of David Gemmell readers all time favorite characters is Waylander. David Gemmell himself set out to make this guy a real piece of work – a nasty customer that no one should like; a ruthless assassin that kills without a thought. The surprise was that people loved Waylander, and he went on to be one of Gemmell’s most successful characters, extending over three books and carrying the story well in each one. So why did people respond to Waylander? Was there something unconsciously carried through from Gemmell about that character’s destiny that altered his portrayal? Or do people just love the bad guy – the old Sympathy for the Devil chestnut?

Are the ways of building sympathy for a character as wildly different as the characters people enjoy?

What really draws you into a character? They way they love someone else or show they care? Being the underdog? Strength? Courage? Determination? Their vulnerability? Their sheer undead coolness?

Please let me know – while I keep trying to get a grip on that darn slippery rulebook.


  1. >Useful, functional ways of thinking and solving problems, that are not neccessarily sane, for one. Competence. Faces challenges but is not broken or destroyed by them for no real advantage. Not a whiner, a navel gazer, or a venue for preaching at me or against me. Also not blow out your own brain annoying the way real people can be.

  2. >Interesting. So I would imagine you would tend to favor more SF type charactes than usual fantasy characters or am I totally off the mark? What is your favourite blow-out-your brain behaviour in real people? For me its probably people talking loudly on mobile phones in the bus in the morning when I am trying to read:)

  3. >I agree with Rowena. Forcing a character to do really stupid things for the sake of the plot irritates me immensely.Characters should be complicated and contradictory. Goody two-shoes are immensely boring.John

  4. >The three genres I don’t read are horror, romance and modern day political rants in book form. I haven’t been reading as much as I’d like, but I’d tend to identify myself as someone who reads a good amount of Military Sci Fi, with an emphasis on Tom Kratman. I also follow Ryk Spoor fairly closely. Of the writers here, I follow Sarah, John, and Doctor Monkey. Being a fairly old lurker on the Bar, I am familiar with some of the other names here, and I’ve been meaning to look up most of the others, given what I’ve read here. (I’m afraid I haven’t been able to go to the bookstore for a while, and there hasn’t been money in the budget for quite some time.) Aside from Tom, all of the cited authors have a collective range that extends well outside of Sci Fi. Tom is an odd case, because I don’t know that his work really fits any genre if examined closely.I do have a weakness for well crafted tales of engineers and engineering, which does lend itself to Sci Fi. I am also a decently large fan of Doc Smith.The most irritating thing happening in real life that isn’t my own weaknesses and frailties is singing exacerbated by aspects of ill health. The singing is a big part of things at times, but I do not want to go into the full story. A secondary irritation, but easier to ignore, is people advocating policies related to the principles of thermodynamics who obviously have no real background in the same, and claiming that the policies are scientifically sound. Claiming that lawyer training means that one can tell that something is scientifically sound or certain when it is in fact dubious or indeterminate at current levels of knowledge really ticks me off. In short, it could be said that I am annoyed by useless or dysfunctional insanity.

  5. >I built a trap for the rulebook. It was a long hard process. It has to be made of the first books – around 20 – written by a bestselling author, and that first book has to have been at least quite successful. (no, actually I am not kidding). The books must have launched with minimal effort and flown without the benefit of a well-connected author or fortuitous happening and great publicity for any reason. (you begin to understand why merely picking mandragoras by the full moon in a werewolf’s garden is simpler.) You then sit and pull apart everything in the book — from text structure, to the types of characters, to the frequency of dialogue. At the end of this process you can, inside the carefully constructed analysis of several months work read – in very small print (with footnotes) the rulebook. It’s shorter than most people think or claim. I only managed to read the first bit, before it was snatched away by an invisible hand. It went something like this.”There are no rules. There are only guiding principles, and they won’t work for all readers, or even for writers. Some bastards can break all the rules and still succeed.”(at which point you will probably hear a thunderous voice saying “oy! It’s that little hairy oik that stole fire. Scrag him, boys. See him off…”)For an inconvenient truth part of what makes a character is… the author. Yep, there are reflection of the author in each and every character. Some people are a bit more sensitive to the author-nuance. I can’t read some books, and have actually met the author… and I know why. That’s why some people do however transform even villains into something likeable – at least for me. Not everyone feels the same way about them, and well, some the creep-me-out ones that I avoid in life as well print have legions of fans. Perhaps they don’t get that involved in a character, or perhaps the bit that creeps me attracts them.

  6. >Interesting, WangZheng. I've run across some of the thermodynamic misinterpretation as well. People love to quote things like '1st law efficiency' because it seems so impressive, but then go and apply to things like fuel production & energy transformation when its only really applicable to the effiency of use of heat to drive a device or create work – and lawyer types seem to be the worse that's for sure.Dave: I must set about building that trap for the rulebook. I think I can get a sense for what you mean being 'snatched' away. Its amazing how many very successful writers can hook and do beginning, but just can't pull off a decent plot conclusion – I guess they got pulled 'out' of the rulebook before that read that bit:)

  7. >What really gets me are the types that seem to think that mechanical and power systems engineers are incompetent or something, and they can just command that efficiencies raise and power usages drop, and the engineers will somehow magically get the ability to do so when they couldn’t or wouldn’t before. Maybe I just don’t have enough experience working under nontechnical people.

  8. >Chris,Just got to this, as I've been in a hotel and have had some problems accessing the net.First, thank you for the "sympathy for the devil" quip. I now have "Please to meet you, hope you guessed my name…" stuck in head probably for next week.Not every character is going to appeal to every person — and kudos on insight into writers' groups. Took me YEARS to figure this out. I used to believe ALL the critiques. Including "This book sucks because there's a paragraph missing."Kudos also for THINKING of the reader early on. It took me till my tenth written (one but the first published) book to realize I was writing FOR someone. I used to amuse myself by having the plot take sudden turns to make an heroic statement or whatever that ONLY worked if you were me, and had read the exact same things. Then, while writing Game of Cat and Mouse (reincarnated as Darkship Thieves. Not so much rewritten as totally recast) it suddenly HIT me that I was writing for others, not for me. I mean, I had been submitting for years.And regardless of the sliperiness of the notebook and the differences in your readers, I've been remarkably more successful since realizing this. It's not so much writing to market, as having the discipline to realize you're writing to other people who DO have to understand it. 🙂

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