As we write, we create characters and they become real to us. Our readers must become invested in those characters in order to care about the outcome of the story. But what is it that makes a character attractive?
What makes anyone attractive? Physical attributes are our first clue. According to numerous studies*, we all look for symmetry in a mate, and we perceive beautiful people as better in a number of ways. Still, attraction involves much more than a beautifully proportioned face.
My first experience with this was in high school. I was an average girl who, with some extra effort on hair, clothes and makeup, could look pretty. I tended to be shy and bookish, and while I had some boyfriends, boys weren’t lining up to date me. Then on a waterskiing outing with my family, we joined up with another group, and afterward one of my new acquaintances asked me out, much to my surprise. It certainly wasn’t for my looks. In a modest one-piece swimsuit, wet hair, no makeup, and bruises on my shoulders from an ill-fitting life jacket, I was no beauty. Yet something had attracted him to me.
Eventually, after other similar incidents, I concluded that I was most attractive when I was having fun. When I forgot to be self-conscious and just enjoyed the activity, people responded. They wanted to share in the fun. Other studies* have shown that we are attracted to those similar to us. When rating hypothetical strangers, people are attracted to those who have similar attitudes.
Almost everyone says that a sense of humor is important in attraction, and yet we’ve all experienced our friend’s “hilarious” new boyfriend who just isn’t funny. Once again, similarity plays a role here. We like people who “get” us, whose sense of humor matches ours.
My conclusion is that our characters are most attractive when readers can identify with them. This doesn’t mean the characters must be just like the readers. In fact, living vicariously through a character that is bolder, smarter, better looking, or more athletic is one of the joys of reading, but readers need to feel a connection with the character. A similar sense of humor, a common attitude toward family or pets, or a weakness for junk food can link a reader to that character.
I think that’s why we respond so much better to a flawed hero. It’s hard to identify with a superman, but with some scars and weaknesses, he becomes more like us. He becomes a real person, not just a plastic superhero toy. It’s possible to take the flaws too far, however, and to turn off a reader who can no longer identify with this monster.
One of the advantages of Boomer lit is that the characters have had time to actually become characters. They’ve lived life, made mistakes, and learned lessons. Perhaps over time, they’ve become comfortable with themselves, confident in their abilities, aware of their weaknesses. This doesn’t mean they’re done growing. As they face new challenges they will continue to struggle, and old scars can complicate these transitions. That’s what makes the story.
The attractiveness of similarity may explain why one person will love a book while another will hate it. My son loves movies with humor that I consider mean and snarky. Some people identify with ‘nice” characters that do their best in a bad situation. Others like dramatic characters that take charge and take over. Perhaps these readers can find these characteristics in their own personalities, hidden away under their everyday personas.
We can’t create a character that is attractive to everyone, but we can keep in mind that our characters need to be genuine, to have traits and foibles that readers can identify with. We can make them real.
*Perrett, David I.; Burt, D. Michael; Penton-Voak, Ian S.; Lee, Kieran J.; Rowland, Duncan A.; Edwards, Rachel (1999) Symmetry and Human Facial Attractiveness, Perception Laboratory, School of Psychology, University of St. Andrews, Scotland,
Bryne, D & Nelson, D (1965) Attraction as a linier function of proportion of positive reinforcements, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
About the Author
When Beth Carpenter was a little girl, she read everything she could get her hands on, and entertained herself on the school bus by making up stories in her head. She’s still at it, but now her reading material appears magically on a tablet, and the stories on her head get published. She lives in Anchorage, Alaska and Prescott, Arizona with her husband and an aggressively affectionate fifty-pound lap dog. She loves to hear from her readers. You can contact her at BethCarpenter2012@gmail.com, or see her blog www.BethCarpenterBooks.blogspot.com.