Character and the Three Stages of Fangirling
I’ve always said that the thing that really truly attracts me to a book – novel, any kind of media, basically – is character. As you’ll see in some of my earlier blog posts, what you really need to do is give me a character that I can fall in love with and get them on the page as soon as humanly possible.
But, the hard part of that is the “fall in love with” bit. It’s so very, very vague, and as we know by the millions and millions of romance novels and subplots in existence, falling in love is unique for every person. That said, we live in a fabulous age of the internet, and Tumblr has come to my rescue.
Have you all seen the new internet meme about the three stages of fangirling? It’s kind of brilliant.
Here’s an example, using my favorite character of all time, Dean Winchester. (Because of course.)
Let’s break it down.
The first stage is: “Wow. What a cutie.”
This is where you grab your readers’ or viewers’ interest. In the pilot episode of Supernatural, Sam is introduced as “the normal one.” He’s at the bar with his girlfriend and his best friend, and he’s so normal that he even refuses to dress up for Halloween. But Dean is first introduced breaking into his brother’s house in the middle of the night and choosing to fight with him instead of saying “Hi.” This is much more interesting, and the fact that he ends the fight with the line, “Easy there, tiger,” and that Dean Winchester smirk, made me go, “This one. This is the one I’m watching for.” I was hooked.
And you can do this in books, too. Even without Jensen Ackles. Remember, readers want to fall in love with your characters, or else they wouldn’t have opened the book. So, just make sure that the character you want us to fall in love with is present, and is doing something that shows us who they are. What makes this character interesting? Why should I give up hours of my life to learn their story? Are they snarky? (Snarky is normally a good choice for me.) Adventurous? (People who take risks are interesting because you never know what they’re going to do.) Caring? Are they the kind of person who risks their life to save small kittens? (Everyone loves a hero.) Smart? Funny? Damaged? You get the idea. You have options here. Just know your character, and odds are they will naturally do something to show readers how cute they are. Make sure you give them the time to do that before you move on to, you know, ruining their lives and starting the main story. You’ll note that the introduction to both adult Sam and adult Dean happened before the line, “Dad’s on a hunting trip… and he hasn’t been home in a few days.”
But grabbing a reader’s attention is only the first step in making them fall in love.
Next, you have to move your character from “cute” to “HOT.” Now, for some people, it’s easy. Lauren finds anyone who is described as tall to be hot. She has a whole host of very hot, tall book boyfriends. But for the rest of us, it’s not always that simple. After all, this is a book, and we don’t have the visual images to show us how hot the guy is with his shirt off. So, instead, we have to look to other qualities. And that’s a better, deeper kind of “hot,” anyway. The emotional “hot” is the kind that you’re going for. Because after all, romance novels are all about the emotion.
With “Wow, he’s cute,” we’ve shown one aspect of a character’s personality that grabs the reader’s attention. This could even be physical attractiveness. But now, we want to add depth. So, you’re really hunting for something that takes them from interesting to really appealing. If you have a tough bad boy character, then you let them care about something. A dog, a kitten, a sibling… something. Conversely, if you have an awkward, dorky character, maybe you show that they have a little bit of snark or can stand up for themselves.
Let’s use Merlin as an example. (Cue Emily jumping up and down in the background.)
Merlin is introduced as a simple farm boy coming into the big city. He’s obviously the hero (there’s a voiceover and everything) but he proves it by standing up to Prince Arthur, who’s kind of a bully, to protect a servant. Merlin is then punished for it, of course. But then, even knowing what the consequences are, the next time Merlin runs into Arthur, he still refuses to back down and let the bully win. Moreover, he faces him down with a fun, snarky attitude. That’s when he moves from “cute” to “HOT.”
Another example, this one from a book and without the snark (for variety), comes from Tamora Pierce’s Wild Magic, which I have always loved. Numair, who is one of my favorite characters, is a very powerful mage who was first introduced in the shape of a wounded hawk. This alone would be enough to draw a reader’s attention to him. But, there’s also the fact that all these other important people are worried about him, and of course he’s described as tall and very good-looking. And mysterious. So obviously he’s well past the “Wow, he’s cute, I should pay attention to him” stage. But the point where I tripped over into liking him is when he makes a point of chatting about hair ties to calm down a very, very nervous Daine. Not only is he powerful and important, but he’s also empathetic, caring, and the kind of person who pays attention to details. That’s very appealing. I spent years waiting for a boy who would help me deal with my hair.
So we’ve got the reader’s attention focused on this character. We’ve shown that they are three-dimensional and amazing in one form or another. And at this point, the reader should really like them. This is probably enough to keep them reading all the way through one book. I’ve read a lot of books where I liked the characters and I wanted to know what happened next. You know, I wanted them to have a happy ending, and I was happy when they did. But, for the books on my keeper shelf, the books that I will love for ever and ever and ever and shove into other people’s hands saying, “You have to read this, it’s the most amazing thing!!!” there’s one last stage.
This is the point where you tip over from “Yeah, he’s hot,” to “ohmypreciousbabyI’llloveyouforeverandeverandeversqueeee!” And Tumblr has summed it up for us with the phrase, “Protect him, he’s awkward!”
To really, really fall in love with a character, it’s not enough for them to be interesting and attractive. They also have to be vulnerable. There has to be some extra quality that makes you just want to wrap them up in blankets and feed them pie and give them a hug until they feel better. Because if they’re not tortured, then you’re not doing your story right. But that’s a different blog post.
Right now, I want to talk about the importance of making your character vulnerable. The actual meme says “awkward,” and for many characters that awkwardness is a sign that they’re not perfect. It’s a symbol of the fact that they’re human and can make mistakes or can look like an idiot. But they get away with it because you love them so much. Perfection is boring, anyway.
Once again, I turn to TV for illustration purposes. When I first started watching Arrow, I wasn’t sure I was going to continue. There was no question that Oliver Queen was cute (see: his interactions with his little sister) and hot (see: this gif).
But the show itself is so very grim dark. Everything was sad, Oliver was so closed off, and I was just bored and depressed. There didn’t seem to be any hope that things could change for the better. Oliver was too in-control, and he had his mission.
Then, there was Felicity. Oliver brings her a bullet-ridden laptop and the worst cover-up lie EVER, and she just looks up at him with this look of, “I know you’re lying to me, but you’re hot, and my boss. So, okay.” And he smiles at her. And it’s a real smile. Not a fake smile, not that pained grimace that he pretends is a real smile when he’s lying to his family, it’s an actual smile. And it’s completely involuntary and out of his control. And I fell in love.
Felicity made him human, and if he could lose control enough to smile at Felicity, maybe eventually he could heal. There was hope, and that was enough to keep me hooked. And as the show added in more and more Felicity, I eventually got to the point where Oliver has been on my iPhone cover for the past year. And despite a few serious missteps – I’ll spare you the rant, but Jenny Crusie has some fabulous insights about this – I still recommend the show and will continue to watch it. It’s that kind of love and loyalty that you as an author want to inspire in your readers.
If you can create a character that inspires all three stages of fangirling in readers, there are very few things that they won’t forgive. I will forgive a few plot holes or missteps or even plotlines I don’t really enjoy if I love a character enough that I am totally on their side.
I have obsessively watched Supernatural for 10 seasons and have no intention of stopping any time soon. And I did this because I. Love. Dean. Winchester. The rest of the show is great too, but mainly I’m watching for Dean. And even though (sorry for any spoilers) during the last season he was basically a mass-murdering serial killer, it’s totally not his fault and I have an extraordinary chain of logic explaining how everything can completely be blamed on Sam. Or Crowley. Basically anyone but Dean. It’s never his fault, because he is my precious baby and needs to be protected. And fed pie.