science fiction and fantasy writer

On Knowing Who Wants a Glass of Water, Being a Sadist, and The Asshole Leper Hero Problem

A while back I read an article by David Wong at entitled 5 Ways You Don’t Realize Movies Are Controlling Your Brain, and it got me thinking about how storytellers trick their audiences into caring about things that they know don’t exist.

I’ve written elsewhere about screenwriter Andrew Stanton’s advice on storytelling. Stanton says his first commandment of storytelling is “make the audience care.” There’s even a TED talk about it, because of course there is. This one’s good TED though, not bad TED – nearly as good as the one about making a chickenosaurus.

“How do storytellers make us care?” the two of you ask who haven’t gone to find out how to make a chickenosaurus.

With characters.

Kurt Vonnegut said that the storyteller must always “give the reader at least one character they can root for”. Robert McKee goes even further, saying that “character is story, story is character”. It’s a point that’s hard to overstate. If the reader doesn’t care about (at least one of) the (major) characters in your story, they’re not going to care about the story. If they don’t care about the story, well, firstly they’re probably not going to finish it, and secondly, even if they do, they’re not going to absorb any of the important things you might be trying to say.

Now you’ll probably begin your quest to create characters people will care about by dreaming up characters who are some combination of personable, caring, brave, determined, cool, fun, vulnerable, struggling to learn and grow, the underdog, etc, etc. And that’s all good. But even making them likeable and/or interesting is unlikely by itself to be enough to make people care, and to keep them caring through to the end of the story. Some storytellers try to distract audiences from their inability to create characters you care about by being Michael Bay. Other (better) storytellers with smaller CGI budgets understand the tricks that will make people care.

So, how do you do it? How do you trick your audience into caring about characters that don’t exist, that real people are pretending – for a little while – to be, or that they have to imagine for themselves solely from words on a page?

By Knowing Who Wants A Glass Of Water

Kurt Vonnegut – who, it must be said, is the font of all writerly wisdom – said, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” What they want is usually something the audience can relate to, that they can imagine wanting for themselves – to get the girl or boy, be popular at high school, win the job, save the world, become a Jedi ninja, not be eaten by zombies, and so on.

What the storyteller does first is put obstacles between the character and their glass of water. As the story unfolds, the glass of water seems to get further out of reach before it gets closer. Luke wants to learn to use the Force, but his teacher is killed by Darth Vader. Marlon wants to keep Nemo safe, but Nemo is taken away from him. The tension around whether the character will ever get their glass of water – be it becoming a Jedi, finding Nemo or drinking an actual glass of water – is increased with every obstacle that the character needs to overcome.

Another way a good storyteller sucks the audience into the drama around what the character wants is to make what the character wants different from what the character needs. First Luke just wants to take Ben to Anchorhead and get back to doing whatever it is farmboys do on a desert planet. Then he (understandably) wants to do (unwitting) incest with his hot sister. Then he wants to become a Jedi. But what he needs to do is confront and redeem his father.

Another character with daddy issues is Michael Corleone in the Godfather movies. As Stanton points out, what the character wants is to please his father – even after his father is dead. What he needs is to get into some damn therapy. And because the audience knows that what the character wants is not what they really need, the story sucks them in, because they want to find out how that tension resolves itself and whether it results in a bloodbath.

By Being A Sadist

A second way to make the audience care about your characters is to be awful to them. Once again, the best advice comes from Vonnegut. And the best advice is this: “Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

This (by the way) can be one of the hardest things for new writers to do (and even experienced writers). As a writer, you love your characters, especially your hero and their friends and allies. That’s good but, as a writer, you have to be the abusive partner in that loving relationship. You have to be prepared to hurt your characters, because you love them.

That’s what generates audience sympathy, emotional investment, tension, threat, conflict, drama. For the audience, the fictional characters they read about or watch on screen exist to live through all the shit that they would never want to endure themselves in real life.

Now, when I say writers have to hurt their characters, I mean emotionally hurt them. Physically hurting them is a crude but often effective and exciting mechanism for generating the emotional hurt that gets the audience to buy in. People don’t care about Jigsaw’s victims because… well, okay bad example, people don’t care about Jigsaw’s victims. Better example: people don’t care that John McClane gets shards of glass in his feet because it physically hurts like hell.

Come on, admit it – you don’t care. You think it’s awesome that Bruce Willis pretends to get glass in his pretend character’s feet and that it’s not happening to you. But you care because you’re invested in the character and it hurts him emotionally to have such a setback in his quest to pretend-save his pretend wife and pretend-throw the guy pretending to be Hans Gruber from a skyscraper. Yes, even tough guys have emotions, and you know it, because if they’re well-told tough guys, you feel it with them.

So crude works – as do subtle and sophisticated – but there’s a fine line between ‘crude’ and ‘cheap’. Crude works. So can cheap, but it’ll probably leave people feeling dirty and weird afterwards. An acquaintance recently told me a story about an interaction he had with his partner, who was a big fan of a novelist who shall remain nameless here and had read all their books. Her enthusiasm convinced my acquaintance to read the books himself, until he realised that, from a certain point in their career, this novelist started using the same device, over and over, to generate sympathy for their female characters: having them raped.

Cheap only marginally begins to describe that as a writing formula. After my acquaintance pointed this out to his partner, she was no longer such a big fan of this novelist.

Which isn’t to say that a storyteller can’t ever use rape as a legitimate device in their stories (here I pause to reflect on the fact that for the first and last time in my life I actually used the phrase “use rape as a legitimate device” and meant it). Of course you can make all kinds of awful things happen to your characters – and must, if you want to trick your audience into caring. But, once the audience gets wise to what the cheap tricks look like, those tricks stick out like Robin Zander’s hair in the Eighties.

Ah, puns, the lonely man’s wit.

So anyway, be crude if you must. Just don’t be cheap.

What about from the other side of equation? What if the character you want the audience to sympathise with and care about isn’t the victim of an abhorrent act, what if they commit it?

The Asshole Leper Hero Problem

Those of you who are readers of science fiction and fantasy… which, come to think of it, is neither of you, since they’ve all gone to see the chickenosaurus. Start again:

Readers of science fiction and fantasy may be familiar with the Asshole Leper Hero. Or, the Asshole Leper Rapist Hero. (Yes, I’m still on that, but it’s a surprisingly and disturbingly common device in fiction – try Googling “use of rape in fiction”. Plus, it’s a good example.) The Asshole Leper Hero is the gift of Mighty God King to the millions of people who have bought and presumably read, or attempted to read, the fantasy novel series The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen Donaldson.

In the first book of the series, Lord Foul’s Bane, Thomas Covenant is dying of leprosy. After an accident, he’s transported to an alternate world which he believes is just a dream and where he is befriended by a young woman. Since he believes it’s just a dream, he rapes the young woman. Y’know, as any guy would. And then he goes on to discover his inner hero and save this alternate world. Wait a second – what?


Somewhere soon after that scene is where a majority of the people I know (disclaimer: may or may not be a statistically meaningful sample) who’ve started Lord Foul’s Bane stopped reading – including me. I’m quite prepared to believe that by doing that I missed out on an amazing epic fantasy story. But I could not forgive that character. I could not care about Thomas Covenant enough after that to allow him to redeem himself. (According to the publisher, the first six volumes of the Chronicles sold a total somewhere over 10 million copies. For the purposes of this argument, I’m going to assume that 9 million of those copies were of Lord Foul’s Bane.)

So, are some acts irredeemable, even in a story?

In the aforementioned TED talk that isn’t about chickenosauruses, Stanton draws a parallel between storytelling and joke telling. I think the answer to the above question lies in the big trick that storytelling shares with joke telling: it’s all in the delivery.

Here’s a contrasting example to the Asshole Leper Hero:

SPOILER ALERT! Skip the rest of this section if you have just now got China Mieville’s 2000 novel Perdido Street Station in your to-read pile and really don’t want to know ahead of time that Yagharek the Garuda is a rapist.


Anyhow, in Perdido Street Station, when the reader meets the Garuda (bird-man) Yagharek, he’s been de-winged for a crime that he won’t talk about. Yagharek’s character arc centres on his quest to fly again. The character’s reduced state is kind of pathetic, but he’s also dignified and, as the story progresses, you learn that he’s courageous and loyal, too. Above all, he’s most definitely suffering.

It’s only at the end of the book, when you’re already totally sold on Yagharek as a character, that you discover the nature of his crime (although Mieville’s Garuda conceptualise it as a generic ‘theft of free choice’). The revelation of the crime poses the question of whether the punishment of permanent, crippling disfigurement was disproportionate to the crime, even when that crime was so despicable. Critically, too, the crime occurs off-stage and when the reader finally meets Yagharek’s victim, she is presented as anything but a Victim.

Contrast this to Thomas Covenant who, at the time he commits the same crime, has hitherto been self-pitying, self-absorbed and mentally disturbed. To this point, his positive qualities really haven’t been on display. Afterwards (at least for book one), his crime goes unpunished and even unacknowledged, and his young victim is exactly as you would expect her to be. Because of the different ways Mieville and Donaldson have chosen to present the same crime, one character remains sympathetic – as a tragic figure – even after the revelation of his crime, whereas the other is much harder to care about. And the reason why that’s the case is all in the delivery.

To be fair to Donaldson, in writing Lord Foul’s Bane the man probably wasn’t advocating the sexual politics of John Norman. The story of Thomas Covenant is clearly meant to be a journey from the lowest possible point to world-saving hero. It’s meant to be confronting and challenging. But, by starting the character in such an awful state, Donaldson takes a big risk of losing his readers before they even embark on that journey with him. You might also argue that Mieville cheated by withholding the information for so long, and by presenting Yagharek’s victim as a stereotypical Strong Female Character.

Cheap? Maybe. Do you feel dirty and weird?

  1. Thanks for the post, Ian.

    I had a couple of ‘aha’ moments (oddly enough the Bruce Willis glass thing was one of them) – stuff I already kind of knew, but needed to have put into words.

    Now on to listen to TED (and maybe also find out what the heck this chickenosaurus thing is – sounds like a KFC mega-meal) …

  2. This is all oddly familiar…

    Actually, bloody good stuff. Donaldson does a similar thing in The Gap series, but moderates it much better by putting far more dispicable characters in it while at the same time making the character that starts off as the ‘bad guy’ suffer some pretty horrible things.

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