Creative Writing Strategy: Make Your Main Character a Delicious Baby Bird
Beginning a Novel: What You Need
The most important thing about the beginning of a novel is making the reader care. You have to not only get attention, but get the reader to feel something intensely enough that they want to keep reading. It's not easy.
So, since I am a writer too and writers like to use metaphors, here's my mixed metaphor for this: your character is a delicious baby bird. What does that mean? Are you telling me you eat baby birds? That's sick!
No that's not what I mean. It's a metaphor with two parts. Delicious and a baby bird.
Two things. Delicious = appealing, and baby bird = vulnerable or threatened. Let's explore this further.
A Delicious Character?
Being delicious means to be appealing. This isn't the same as just making them look good. In fact, characters who are beautiful can be boring, if there's nothing else interesting about them. Deliciousness means having something that pulls the reader in on an instinctual level, the way that the look and smell of good food instantly attracts.
This is going to be in your character's back story and personality. It's the little thing that draws us in. It's what makes your character stand out and makes them relatable. It makes them feel like a real person. It can be very small, but it has to be there.
Please don't go for the typical, cliché ones. Hair colors aren't personality types, for example. I'm not enthralled by how fiery your redhead is or how vivacious and sexy your blonde is. Adorable clumsiness is overused. Another common mistake is when the author clearly thinks that something about a character is interesting when it's not actually that interesting.
This is why the Mary Sue character type is so widely hated. In an effort to make the character flawless, the author forgot to make them appealing. They seem just like one out of many similar flowers standing in a field. Real people are unique. What makes your characters unique? Frankly, why would anyone want to read a book about them?
How to Make a Character Appealing
Keep in mind the rule, 'show, don't tell', here. Your sweet young princess can be described as kind, but that doesn't work nearly as well as showing her stop on her way to a ball to help a trapped kitten. The character's personality is always best shown through their actions.
For example, Bran in A Song of Ice and Fire is curious and adventurous. How do we learn this? We see him climb the walls in Winterfell. He's also a little bit rebellious because he doesn't stop doing this when his mother tells him not to. Make sure the attributes that are supposed to make your character appealing are shown, as much and as early as possible.
A Vulnerable Character
Even the most appealing character isn't interesting if they're never in any real danger, or if they never really tug at the reader's protective instinct. The protagonist, to gain our sympathy, has to be dealing with something more powerful than themselves. We have to think, oh no, that person is in peril, and we care about them (deliciousness), so we want to keep reading to see what happens to them.
Carrying on with the example of Bran in A Song of Ice and Fire, as soon as we find out what's interesting about him; fearlessness, curiosity, we also see that very thing put him into danger. While climbing a wall, he overhears secrets and sees things the queen can't allow anyone to see. Jaime Lannister pushes him out a window, and he falls, but doesn't die. Now we're invested, as an audience. Bran is in a vulnerable position. People much older and smarter than him, with more political power, want him dead. We become interested in what will happen to Bran, and also to those secrets he knows.
A character who's extremely powerful, like Superman, is hard to write about because if he's so powerful, is he ever really in danger?
The Juiciness of a Flawed Baby Bird
There's also the idea of inner conflict, causing moral peril, or the danger of flipping to the 'dark side'. If a character is personality-wise perfect, will we ever doubt that they'll do the right thing? Not that every character has to have moral complexity or be in moral inner conflict, but it can make a character more interesting.
That's what is meant when they say a character should have a flaw or weakness. It's not an interesting flaw if someone trips a lot, doesn't like marshmallows, or can't keep a houseplant alive. An interesting flaw is a flaw that could make a normally good character tempted to do something bad, or at the very least, reckless and foolish. That puts them on the edge of a moral cliff, and your character needs to be in danger of some kind, whether it's internal, external, or both.
Examples and How They Work
So how does this look in fiction?
Tyrion Lannister is a great first example. He's not physically attractive (not the book version anyway). What draws us to him? How is he delicious?
Tyrion Lannister Example
For one, his brutal honesty. He is unabashedly honest about his own flaws but is also not afraid to point out the flaws in others when he sees them. His love of books makes him relatable—it's a good idea to put in a character who loves books because people who buy books tend to love books. His witty remarks are also appealing because they make us laugh, and people like to laugh.
But what makes him a baby bird? What is it about him that makes us want to protect him, or at least, read more to make sure he's safe? He's in internal moral peril. His drinking and lusts, along with his family's abuse, put him on the edge of doing something bad. Eventually, he does get pushed over that moral cliff and ends up doing a couple of very bad things. He's internally conflicted, torn between conflicting loyalties to his own happiness, his family's legacy, and his kingdom's needs.
He also faces a string of external perils. He is blamed for Bran's near-death fall and then attempted an assassination. For this, he is imprisoned by Lady Stark and put on trial in the Vale. Then, when safely back in King's Landing, he has to keep his father from finding out about his lover, Shae. And then King's Landing is attacked by the fleet of Stannis Baratheon. And so on. All the while, we're rooting for Tyrion to at least survive, even if we don't necessarily think the Lannisters deserve to win. That's because George R. R. Martin did such a great job of making this character appealing and memorable.
Katniss Everdeen Example
Another good example is Katniss from The Hunger Games. It's pretty straightforward. She's 'delicious' because she's young, pretty, humble, and cares for her family. And she's a baby bird when she enters the Hunger Games on behalf of her sister, putting her life in danger.
She not only is entering a mass fight to the death, but one in which a representative from her District rarely ever wins, since her district is one of the poorest, and therefore the least well equipped to handle the fight. Her District didn't have any trained, combat-ready career tributes like the richer Districts could afford. All she knew was subsistence hunting to keep her family alive. You have a character who's interesting, because she's kind in a cruel world, and vulnerable, up against people with combat expertise that she lacks. She's also an underdog, up against a system designed to oppress her people, to keep them fearfully submissive.
So there you have it, make your character a delicious baby bird. Give us a reason to care about them. Something that makes them special, realistic, attractive, interesting, or relatable. Then put them in some kind of danger. Something where winning is possible, but not certain. A situation where the character faces incredible odds.
It can be an internal or external conflict that puts them in danger. Are they in danger of dying, or simply in danger of failure? Maybe the danger is that they will not be free or happy, like when a female character in a historical romance flees an arranged marriage. Maybe they're in danger of losing touch with themselves or becoming someone they don't like, such as when the main character Andrea in The Devil Wears Prada was afraid of becoming too shallow and a workaholic. Maybe their whole world is in danger unless they act.
It may be hard, but if you can do these two things, you'll have a solid beginning and foundation for your book. I wish you the best of luck, or, may the odds be ever in your favor.