What is rooting interest and why is it important?
In the opening of your novel, I’ve become more and more convinced over the years that one of the most important things that you can do is to begin creating rooting interest in your protagonist(s). The reason for this is simple: the more powerfully sympathetic that a character becomes to a reader, the more eager the reader will be to find out what happens to that character—and the more powerful the climax of your story will be. In short, creating a powerful tale begins by creating sympathy for and rooting interest in your primary characters early on.
Now, how do you create characters that your readers will care about?
In part, you do it by creating characters who mirror your readers. Usually the most powerful draw for a movie is that it has a character who is roughly the same age and sex as the viewer. It’s a subliminal draw, but it is the single most powerful draw.
This means that when you write a story, you will of course be populating it with at least one character who will appeal to your primary market demographic. If you’re writing for teenage boys, then your protagonist will be a teenage boy. You might think that you can get away with having a protagonist who is of the wrong age or sex, but you’re wrong. Teenage boys want to read about teenage boys—not about teenage girls, not about geriatrics. Unfortunately a lot of writers don’t get this. Children and teens are often attracted to people who are slightly older than they are. So a teenage boy, for example, will feel some rooting interest in an older male—up to the late twenties. But once your protagonist begins looking more like the boy’s dad than the boy, forget it.
So your characters need to be roughly the same age and the same sex as your target audience.
Next, your character’s internal landscape must roughly match your reader’s internal landscape. Your protagonist’s hopes need to be your readers’ hopes. This means that if you imagine your reader to be noble and idealistic, then your character should probably be so, too.
This is tremendously important. Let’s say that you have a reader, a young woman who is 19. What kind of person are you when you’re nineteen? Think about it. Give your readers someone that they can relate to, and that will go a long way toward creating rooting interest.
There are some almost universal traits that you might consider giving your protagonist. Give your characters the desire for acceptance or love, the desire to overcome their own weaknesses, a hope for mankind, a love of honor and decency—in short, give them our most common virtues, and you will create rooting interest.
You don’t have to express those attributes in positive terms. You can express them as negatives. Instead of a hope for life, you can give them a fear of death. In place of hope for love, you can give them a fear of loneliness. Rather than giving them hope for approval, you might give them a fear of dishonor, of rejection by family and friends.
So all of our most common fears can also be used to create rooting interest for your character.
Many writers in mainstream say that we must give our characters weaknesses in order to make them “more realistic.” One popular author suggested that if you have a teenage protagonist, you should give him a masturbation problem and a drug habit, make him despised by friends because of his acne, make him lonely, morose, and lazy. After all, this author will tell you, that’s how teenagers really are, aren’t they?
But there are some problems with this. “Realism for realism’s sake” is as foolish a notion as is “Art for art’s sake.” We don’t read in order to confront reality, we read to fill needs that reality isn’t satisfying. So his argument is fundamentally wrongheaded.
Let me say this as clearly as possible: each time you associate some vileness with your protagonist, you create a barrier between that protagonist and your reader. Your reader may very well not have an acne problem. Some kids never even think of masturbating, and they’d be horrified to learn that others do. I don’t think that many people are really lazy. A normal, healthy person naturally works. (Lazy people are usually suffering from a physical ailment—low thyroxin levels, disorders of metabolism (such as diabetes), or from depression.)
If you go too far, you can easily create a protagonist that will eject your reader from the story. You might decide, for example, to create a protagonist who is a racist. Now, I know that there are racists in the world, but I’ve got to tell you, I don’t care if your Nazi wants love. I don’t care if he wants respect, a decent job, or to break his drug habit.
In short, take care that you don’t make your characters too vile. If you do give your protagonists weaknesses, a couple of them are sufficient; and if the protagonist recognizes those weaknesses and sees them as something to overcome, then your reader will be much more likely to sympathize with him.
You can get away with a lot, if your protagonist hates himself for his weaknesses. Look at the movie Jerry McGuire. In it, Tom Cruise has one moment where in a drunken haze he gropes his co-star. He was really a creep, and as I saw that scene, I thought, “Man, this movie is over for me.” But then Cruise did something right—he begged for forgiveness, and he did it so convincingly that, for me, at least, it worked.
Sometimes the technique can be more subtle. Have you seen the James Bond movie Casino Royale? In it, James Bond is a sociopath. He’s admirable in ways—inhumanly driven, quick -thinking. But he has a problem—he seems to be incapable of love. So the entire movie revolves around him learning to love a woman—and then losing her. Though the performance is subtle, we as audience members recognize what is going on.
So when you create your character, I’d suggest that you consider ways to make your character someone we want to spend time with.
We develop strong rooting interest and care more about characters who care deeply about something, who are committed to something. Perhaps they care about their families, or have a powerful love for their country. Maybe your character loves his horse, or is uncommonly honest or honorable.
But you there are also other ways to make characters likable. In movies, we tend quite frankly to be drawn to people who are attractive. In novels I don’t think it matters much whether your character is physically attractive. As writers we lay our character’s hearts bare. It’s their hearts that the reader must admire.
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