One of the best writing guides I’ve read and studied from lately is The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Mass. It has some incredible insights on not just how to craft the emotional landscape of your work of fiction, but also a handful of other insights on how to get in touch with your own emotional world to better inform the characters you create. After all, the characters we create in one shape or form are extensions of ourselves all of which who yearn to be understood and expressed with the respect they deserve.
Crafting characters, as you know, is one of my favourite aspects of writing because without people there are no stories. It is through the characters that we get to relate to in navigating the human experience, and that’s why it’s important to make them as true to life as possible, no matter what the setting is or whatever other lifeform they take that isn’t exactly human.
For many years I’ve had pre-conceptions of what makes relatable and likeable characters, and unfortunately a lot of those pre-conceptions were at a very shallow, if not obvious, layer of the human spirit. Make your characters flawed like real people. Take traits from people you know and blend them together. Oh and let’s not forget; give them goals, motivation, and conflict like every other human being has.
And while these are all important aspects of what create multi-dimensional characters, I am here to introduce something that I’ve missed over the years!
Virtue as the Cornerstone of Love
We live in a world where gritty anti-heroes are starting to take centre stage, villains are becoming more sympathizable, and we have overall entered into an era in which there’s a strange embracing of the darkness. And yes of course this all important to our evolution in not only our tastes in fiction, but also our human progression, but one thing that hasn’t had much spotlight on lately is virtue.
An act of kindness goes a long way.
They seem insignificant in the moment, but a bunch of tiny acts of kindness add up.
And in the end, it all makes for a better world to live in if we could all just give each other a helping in whatever way we can.
Whenever we see someone or hear about someone doing a good thing for someone else, it makes us feel good by extension. That’s because we’re social empathetic creatures. We end up feeling the good nature of the giver who gave a helping hand to someone who needed it and we feel the gratitude of the person in need. Throughout our lives we fluxuate between being people who are capable of giving to the less fortunate, and being in unfortunate situations ourselves in need of the generousity of others.
Whether it’s from a stranger or a close loved one, we can’t help but feel a sense of euphoria from an act of kindness we either give to or receive from others. This can range from simple things like dropping a few coins in the shaking can of a homeless person on the street to something more personal and expansive like lending an empathic ear to a friend who has a problem to deal with. Nothing feels better than a win-win situation where we don’t have to lose something of value, whether it was a long awaited desire or a piece of our conscience.
Whatever way you choose to create your characters, it’s imperative that you give them an act of virtue that makes your reader develop a natural admiration for them. Even if you choose to create an anti-hero character who is resistant to their responsibility of greatness, we want to see at least a glimpse of goodness in them because it’s the potential that we want to root for so it can come into fruition later on in the story.
Saving a Cat Moment
In Emotional Craft of Fiction, Donald writes about how a simple saving a cat moment can make a protagonist instantly likeable, especially if you include it early on in the story. This gets us to admire the goodness in thecharacter and in turn remind us of the goodness in ourselves–and to take it even further it allows us to see the potential in ourselves to become even better human beings.
So what does a Saving a Cat Moment look like?
It can literally be saving a cat that’s stuck in a tall tree.
Or it can be something more subtle or even more grand than that!
Here are some rapid fire examples from my own stories and other stories I’ve enjoyed over the years. None of them will be ultra specific as to boil down the core principles of the acts themselves.
How to Save a Cat in Several Ways
- Stepping in when someone is being bullied
- Mentoring an eager apprentice in a specific skill or vocational path
- Comforting someone in grief
- Equipping someone with an important life lesson
- Providing someone with a sense of purpose
- Volunteering at an old folks’ home or a homeless shelter
- Helping the disabled get around town
- Saving a suicide victim moments before they execute their plan
- Saving a child from an abusive home situation
- A parent bonding deeply with their child
- A spouse bonding deeply with their partner
- Admitting to fault and asking for forgiveness
The list can go on forever. There’re definitely an infinite amount of other examples I could have put and some that you are starting to think of right now, in which case feel free to share in the comments below!
The point is that whatever good deed your characters perform, they need to come from an earnest and authentic place, even if they have resistance toward it at the beginning. It might be a hard sell if the character performs the deed for admiration and ego gratification as opposed from the goodness of their heart. But you can even make it so that it can start off as an ego boost that eventually touches the character in a deep and moving way where it inspires them to seek even more virtue.
So there you have it, one of the best ways to make instantly likeable characters. It may be obvious to others, but this fell under my radar for a very long time having been so obsessed with the more technical aspect of writing over the years. Sometimes we all need to get back to the basics and remember what we all (hopefully) learned in kindergarten: be kind and share your toys with other kids.
Now I’d like to hear from you, the reader!
What are some other good deeds can we add to the list? What good deeds have you writte your characters to perform in your stories? What acts of kindness from fiction and reality have inspired you?
And as always, if you have any feedback on my writing tips feel free to comment down below. Did I miss something? Should I elaborate more or less? Even feel free to tell me if it was completely useless information, in which you are welcome to give me your two cents on how I can improve Your Write to Live!