Camy here, chatting about something I’ve been wondering about lately.
Most contests limit you to one chapter or the first 15-20 pages of your manuscript, which is understandable because how many contests could get judges willing to read an entire book?
But a judge only getting one chapter isn’t going to see the character’s growth from shallow heroine to loving heroine, or aggressive alpha-male to pussy-whipp—er, I mean, kind alpha-male who will do anything for the woman he loves.
Contest judges only get those first pages, which introduce an entire book! Even if they get a synopsis, it’s hard to see a character growing from a handful of single-spaced pages detailing a 60K or 100K word plot.
So, as contest entrants, we get comments like, “Your heroine is unlikable” and “Your hero is full of himself” or “Your heroine is too mean” or “Your hero is a wimp.”
Well, come on, you only get fifteen pages. The character does grow. If they didn’t grow, it would be a really boring book.
But on the other hand, when I’m in a bookstore, I give an author about five pages to decide if I want to buy the book. I admit it. I don’t have time to read more, and I don’t have unlimited funds to buy everything that looks remotely interesting.
My editor told me in my edits for Sushi for One? that my heroine was too mean. In the opening chapter, she’s running late into her cousin’s baby shower banquet, and she’s harassed on every side by her sniping Grandma and rude waiters and unruly children. She doesn’t handle the situation well, to put it mildly.
But my editor said that the conflict-filled chapter didn’t show anything likable or sympathetic in my heroine’s personality, and a reader wasn’t going to care about her enough to want to keep reading.
Hmm. Good point. I didn’t really want to lose my reader at the first chapter.
So, I had to make sure some of my heroine’s good qualities came out in those first 2 pages. Otherwise, a reader would pick up the book in a bookstore, skim a page or two, and put it back.
My heroine was going to go through some major character growth, sure—otherwise, like I said before, it would be a really boring book.
But my editor said that the heroine has to prove to the reader that she’s worthy of their time to read about her.
My heroine had to prove to the reader that while she had some problems, she was still likable enough that the reader would care about the things happening to her and care to see how she grew and changed as a character.
I added a few small things in those first two pages—I showed her fun, teasing, and caring relationship with her cousin Chester, rather than having her be so late and distracted that she just traded a few quips with him and moved on.
That showed the reader in the first two pages that she’s worth their time to read about. Her other character flaws become evident in the next few pages, but those first pages show her in a conflict-filled situation, yet taking time to be kind to a favorite cousin.
The combination of conflict and likeability ensure the reader is hooked for those first few pages.
I think the key is that the likeability actions have to be OBVIOUS and DELIBERATE. Nothing small or off-hand. Don’t just show her petting a dog, show her giving some small sacrifice (time, money, possessions) in order to be kind to someone or something else.
There’s a good section in Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias that talks about things that show a likable character in the first few pages. If you haven’t yet gotten that book, but you’ve gotten comments on how unlikable your character(s) are, go out and get it from Amazon. It’s totally worth it.