We are so proud and humbled that the Lisa Cron, the author of Wired for Story, and Story Genius has agreed to blog with us on a regular basis! In case you haven’t yet seen her TED Talk, you can watch it here. Later. After you read her first installment of ‘Ask the Story Genius’.
Hello! It’s thrilling to be here to answer your story questions. I’ll be doing so every other month from here on out, but since I don’t have any of your question on tap just yet, I thought I’d kick it off with a question I’m often not asked by writers – until it’s too late. Here’s how that process usually looks:
I’m reading a manuscript and the protagonist – let’s call her Betty – never gets mad, she always takes the feelings of others into account, she’s always polite, on time, and she never takes an extra cookie, even when no one is looking. In other words, Betty couldn’t be less interesting. After a while, “something bad” happens. Let’s say that Betty’s co-worker Ramona stole her hard-won research and is taking credit for it. Ah, I think as I read forward, now it’s going to get good! But Betty, understanding that Ramona had a hard childhood, takes a couple of deep cleansing breaths and decides that Ramona needs the promotion more than she does, so she ignores the whole thing and spends the evening making calls for Amnesty International.
By this time, I’m not only not on Betty’s side, I’m wondering two things: why Betty is such a wimp, and what is Betty’s behavior actually a front for – like maybe she’s so insufferably nice in order to keep anyone from asking who she’s got locked up the basement.
Here’s the kicker: When I ask the writer what’s going on – like, “Hey, why didn’t Betty get mad and, at the very least, tell Ramona off?” — the writer will invariably answer: “Because I wanted Betty to be likeable, otherwise, the reader won’t care about her.”
And there you have it: The whole “likeable” question. Writers know that we have to care about the protagonist in order to read forward. Thus, it follows, the protagonist has to be likeable. And by likeable the writer means . . . kind of perfect. As in someone you’d definitely want to invite over for dinner. Someone so safe that you know they’d never say a thing to offend your right wing Grandpa, or incite crazy Aunt Harriet who has a bunker in the basement, or expose the fact that your millennial cousin is playing video games on the phone in his lap, or utter a regrettable word in front of your five-year-old niece Natasha who repeats everything she hears. Nor would you have to worry that when your back is turned they’d pocket the silverware.
In the name of making sure their protagonists are “likeable,” writers prevent their characters from doing a whole host of forbidden things: they can’t shoplift, even once as a child, unless it’s bread and their little sister is hungry; they can’t swear, even when they stub their toe; they can’t be mean to anyone, ever, especially children or pets. Nor, it often follows, can they stand up for themselves or what they believe in, unless it couldn’t possibly offend anyone.
In other words, “likeable” often means sanitized. And while “likeable” people don’t offend anyone, neither do they genuinely appeal to anyone, either. In fact the sanitized, the “picture perfect,” often arouses not benign interest, but suspicion. Because we humans know that nothing – and no one – is perfect. How do we know this? Because we aren’t perfect – at least not by those sanitized never-make-a-mistake definitions. After all, we know that the reason they tell us to “Never let ‘em see you sweat,” is precisely because we’re always sweating buckets about the right thing to do.
So, here’s the scoop: what “likeable” really means is relatable. The reader needs to be able to relate to the protagonist, and to do that the protagonist must be vulnerable, flawed – in other words, decidedly not perfect and definitely not a surface, sanitized version of “a good person.” Otherwise, what do they have to sweat over?
There’s another reason this is so important. In a nutshell: stories are about how someone changes internally over the course of the novel — leading to an “aha” moment — which is what then allows them to solve the external plot problem. So if they enter the problem already perfect, why would they need to change? They don’t, which is why when you have a perfect protagonist, you have no story.
The truth is that it’s the baggage they carry – the places where they’re making mistakes – that make the protagonist human. We like the protagonist because of their supposed flaws, not in spite of them.
And here’s the irony – in real life we don’t like “perfect” people. We all know that person – the one at the office who always talks about their spouse so nicely and they’ve got pictures of their kids on the desk, and their always clothes are always neat and pressed, and they always have their work done on time, and they always remember everyone’s birthday (even before Facebook). Do you like that person? Of course not! They’re really annoying because they seem to wear their “perfection” on their sleeve – as if they never Ask wake up cranky or get road rage or snap at the cashier at Trader Joe’s for being too damn friendly. What they make you think is: Okay since nobody’s that perfect, I wonder what he’s really up to? We don’t like that person because we don’t trust them.
And just in case you’re still not sure – the truth is we are often captivated by characters who are decidedly unlikeable, despicable even. As writer Elizabeth George says, “Characters with the most edge tend to be the most interesting to write and to read about.” She went on to say, “I just read all four Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels in a row, and one of the two main characters is not likable at all. I found myself wondering how anybody could remain friends with her because she’s so foul. But as a character she is fascinating and unforgettable.”
Are you breathing a sigh of relief about now? It’s liberating to think that your protagonist can be a real person – who makes the kind of mistakes that we all do, but are always trying to keep other people from seeing. It’s like taking off those tight jeans at the end of the day and finally being able to let it all hang out and breathe. And nothing feels better than that!
“Now that I’ve answered a question that I posed, I’m open for your questions. They can be about any aspect of story – something you’re struggling with now, or would like a little feedback on, or are just curious about. Post them below, and I’ll dive in and answer as many questions as I can. Can’t wait! Till then, onward and upward my friends.”
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Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius. Her video tutorial Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story can be found at Lynda.com, and her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity.
Lisa has worked in publishing at W.W. Norton, as an agent at the Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency, as a producer on shows for Showtime and Court TV, and as a story consultant for Warner Brothers and the William Morris Agency. Since 2006, she’s been an instructor in the UCLA Extension
Writers’ Program, and she is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts MFA program in Visual Narrative in New York City. In her work as a story coach, Lisa helps writers, nonprofits, educators, and journalists wrangle the story they’re telling onto the page. She can be reached at wiredforstory.com