If there’s one thing authors like to talk about more than their cats, it’s their characters. There are so many things to tell us about your character! Like, the depth of their wine-dark eyes, the whalebone curve of their lips, how their favorite color is the orange-pink of ocean sunsets…. And so on, down through favorite animals and up through the way they smell. And it’s understandable! You’ve spent so much time with this character that the moment they appear on the page, you want to share them in all their incredibly detailed glory.
But that’s kind of like grabbing someone you’ve just met in a full-throttle, full-body hug—while you whisper in their ear about every success you’ve achieved since the 2nd grade. All in hope of impressing them enough that they’ll like you. It’s a little too much, too soon, and no matter how awesome you actually are, they’re liable to back away slowly until they can bolt out the door.
When your reader first meets your main character, it’s a lot like flirting in a crowded room. You’re competing not only with all the other characters and setting elements in the room, but also with all the other books out there. And on top of that, you are forbidden from making the first move! So of course you want to do everything you can to help your character make an impression. Here are a few tips to help you—and your character—flirt your way into readers’ hearts.
1. Smile like a Sphinx
Nothing is more engaging than a secret. It’s like a flickering smile and a promising glance from across a room. One that hints at your clever understanding of the world, the startling depth of your personality, and the scintillating nature of your wit. It begs further investigation. It could be that the ruffian in the back of the bar with the too-intense eyes is actually a ranger-king-in-exile with a heart of gold, it could be that your hero was raised by a clan of chimera everyone assumes are the product of her imagination, or it could be hints from a devil that one twin is markedly different from her sister in ways unaffiliated with her appearance. Hinting at your hero's secrets flirts with the reader, drawing them in with the promise of learning more.
2. Be Positive
People—or heroes--with strong voices can think, emote, do, or say anything, and we’d be totally enraptured. A strong voice is pure charisma, and it’s almost always positive--or at least tempered with some combination of humor, confidence, and drive. After all, if your hero’s sick of your story, why should we want to read about it? And a charismatic voice means you can get away with starting characters in terrible, devilishly intriguing situations, as we have the confidence that we will be reading about daring escapes and derring-do rather than a cynical bastard’s humorless whinging.
3. Show Us You’re Sociable
It can be super tempting to keep your hero isolated, at least long enough for your audience to bond to them before any other lesser, perhaps more attractive characters happen by. After all, you spent so much effort getting them ready, you want to make sure they are appreciated! But give your hero a little credit. Trust that you built a good character, and put them in an interesting situation with other characters in which they can truly shine. It gives us a chance to judge them by the quality of their friends, as well as to see how others react to them and how they respond in turn. This builds empathy and teaches us far more about the character of the hero than we would learn from any amount of solitary philosophical waxing.
4. Show Us Why You’re Cool
We want to read—or meet-- someone awesome, or someone whom we have it on good authority will soon be awesome. This could mean heroes showing off their trademark talents when we’re introduced to them, but I like it most when heroes show off their trademark attitudes as, just like with people, it is their attitude more than their skill that is most attractive. A future great swordsman might suck at sword play as a child, but when he fails and the other kids laugh at him, he merely thins his lips, straightens his glasses, and tries again—and again, until night has fallen and the moon has risen and he has it perfect. That is relatable, endearing, and shows us why he is cool: he never gives up in the face of adversity, and because of that, he will be a great swordsman someday. Of course, that trademark attitude can be shown through any number of mundane activities as well, and those might even serve you better, when punched up with a dose of heroic personality.
5. Show Us You’re Relatable
Push-ups. Sweat glistening on pecs the size of Texas. Breath coming short and fast. Transitioning to pull-ups. Shadows carving abs that could carve cheeses. Breath comi . . .Oh, my, I didn’t notice you there reading! Sorry, you just interrupted me in the middle of my morning hotness routine, which continues until I’m interrupted by someone as obviously infatuated as you. You can’t defeat villains without a killer physique, you know!*
It’s good to show us how awesome your hero is, and it’s good to give her something to do so they can engage our interest. However, when heroes “happen” to do things they are perfect the first time we meet them, they can come off like they’re trying too hard, which isn’t really a sexy look for anyone. To solve this problem, simply make whatever they’re doing something relatable. This can be done by having them do something mundane in an engaging fashion or by tempering their amazing actions with emotions that are all-too-human, like a huge crush or an endearing faux-pas.
*Just once, I’d love to see this flirty routine pulled by the villain. Then, of course, they can go ahead and do something mind or soul-rendingly horrific. But not before we have the sweat-slick image of his carved physique permanently burned into our minds.