The other night we all watched ‘Salt.’ It’s the only movie I’ve seen Angelina Jolie in where she actually acted all right (no phony British accent, yaaay!). While the action was good, the soundtrack good, the special effects well-done and the plot just twisted enough to keep you guessing, afterwards it felt…flat. I didn’t feel hyped and glad like I did when I got out of the theater after watching Bourne Legacy. My stomach didn’t hurt from laughing like it does after I watch Knight and Day or Red. It wasn’t pulse-pounding excitement like Eagle Eye.
And I realized it was because the main character, Salt, was sad. There wasn’t anything likeable about her. She was a trained machine, fairly heartless, humorless killer out for revenge. There wasn’t anything in her to root for, there wasn’t any personal sympathy over ‘the poor little girl.’ And this is why the movie felt lacking. (I feel like such a snob watching movies now that I write. I dissect them instead of just watching them – but I think it’s actually a better way to go.)
It got me to thinking about my Unforget MC, Cayne. When I first spun him out of word-dust, he was very much like Salt – a heartless killer with his mind set on one thing. I knew he needed something, but for a while I couldn’t put my finger on it. And so he sat in a dark corner, waiting to really come to life, and finally he did. I realized he needed a heart. (One of those “How could I have forgotten that!?” author moments right there.)
And so, I gave him one. And with the very first heartbeat, he became a different man. He became three-dimensional, he became a real character, he became someone I could connect with and feel sympathy and root for.
Yes, he’s out for one thing at the beginning of the novel – to retrieve the two percent of his memories that still exist. And yes, his mind has been so drained that he’s trigger-happy and panicked and therefore shoots anybody in his way. But the more I got to know him (non-writers – not that there are many non-writers who read this blog – this is the way lots of authors talk. I beg your pardon if it seems unusual) I realized there was more to him. A lot more. His heart, tattered and bleeding as it was, was special. It was still there, all it needed was someone to remind him of it.
And so, I introduced Moon. She’s like Cayne in many ways – wary, sharp-tongued, mistrusting. But she has a tender, caring side that, while she doesn’t show it often in order to protect herself, ends up being prominent anyway. She’s a pickpocket and a thief in order to survive, and she constantly feels guilty about it because she’s a Christian. Her Christianity makes her even more uncomfortable – and horrified – at Cayne’s thoughtless killing of anyone who might be a threat. They stick together out of necessity for a little while and she hates every second of it, thinking Cayne is a mindless, heartless ‘ghoul’ (yes, she calls him a ghoul) something happens that makes her see that he is, in fact, the saddest person she has ever known.
Once she is allowed that glimpse into the man he used to be, she begins to pry his shell open little by little and realizes that he is a human being, albeit a ghost of what he was before. And Cayne surprises even himself as his heart begins to thaw, beat by beat. He begins to let people go. He begins to care for Moon, even putting himself on the line to protect her. Over the course of the novel, Cayne regains his humanity – and does it without the use of his memories, which were the only things he was living for.
He is, as my friend Ashley put so well, a ‘burnt marshmallow.’ He’s crispy and black and unappetizing on the outside, but the inside is an entirely different matter.
See the similarity?
So my main point is – if you’re going to have a character you want the reader to root for, they have to have a soul. Even if they aren’t very likeable at the beginning, if they have horrible habits or kill people or vote for Obama, they have to have a heart. They have to have something for the reader to sympathize with, to connect with, to have hope for. Cayne himself is hopeless at the beginning, but there’s something the reader can hope for – his redemption. (And yes! Unforget’s theme is redemption. I am so excited, I can hardly contain myself).