November 26, 2013

A Character's Strength

Reading through Donald Maass's The Career Novelist, I've landed on a passage that describes what this agent believes is the true reason why people can project themselves into the main characters of the story.  And it's not because that character's nice or you feel sympathy for it.  No.

As Mr. Maass describes it when talking about why he loves the character of Scarlett O'Hara is that "[s]he has qualities that [he] would like to have: courage, willfulness, pride, ego, with. One word that can sum up all of that is strength."

And so it is that Mr. Maass believes that it's the strength of the protagonists that draws readers to them.  He adds that strength is "fundamental to sympathy," so much so that sometimes, when it's the antagonist who's really strong, we tend to remember that character better than the true protagonist (ex: Hannibal Lecter).

There are different kinds of strength, however, and each evokes a different level of sympathy:

  1. Physical:  Conan the Barbarian.  
  2. Endurance:  James Bond.
  3. Cunning:  George Smiley (John le CarrĂ© character)
  4. Integrity:  Howard Roark (the Fountainhead)
  5. Love:  Jane Eyre
Conan the Barbarian; 007; George Smiley; Howard Roark; Jane Eyre

But the greatest strength, Mr. Maass argues, is self-sacrifice, which shows a true strength of spirit.

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