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The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell

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The key to reader bonding is
falling in love with the Lead.
Plot alone won’t get the job done. Twists and turns and
chases and guns won’t do it.
For your novel to blast off, your readers have to fall
in love with your Lead character.
As a reminder, there are three types of Leads: positive,
negative, and antihero.
Positive refers to the traditional hero, who represents
the values of the community. We root for him because
when he wins, we all win. Our collective sense of moral-
ity is vindicated.
A negative Lead, as the name implies, is doing things
we don’t approve of. If he succeeds, its bad news because
others might follow him.
The antihero operates according to his own moral
code. He has left the community. The story may draw
him back in for a time, and then he will have a decision
to make. Does he stay or go back to being alone?
A reader can fall in love with any of these types.
We love the positive because were on his side; the
antihero because we like individualists. But what about
the negative Lead?
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Think about forbidden love. Usually that is mani-
fested through power. We are drawn to powerful nega-
tive Leads, especially if they have a little charm. We have
a part inside us that wonders what it would be like to
have such power.
All that said, here are the things you need to know
to get readers loving your Leads.
1. Great Leads have grit, wit, and it. Grit is guts. Cour-
age. Inner strength. A Lead needs it, or needs to develop
it over the course of the story.
Wit is mental acuity, usually laced with a little hu-
mor. A Lead needs wit to get through the thicket of the
many confrontations in the plot.
It is what they used to call “sex appeal.” It’s based on
inner energy. Clara Bow, the silent screen actress, was
dubbed the “It Girl” in the twenties. Onscreen, she gen-
erated an insouciance and self-possession that women
admired and men found irresistible. Your Lead needs to
have an inner something that would make anyone want to
know what makes her tick.
2. Character is revealed in crisis. We learn about Scar-
lett OHara when the Civil War breaks out. She is forced
to deal with hardships (challenging her selfi shness) and
has the strength to do so.
Michael Corleone starts on the road to becoming the
Godfather when his own father is almost killed.
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So pile on the tests and let us see how they reveal the
insides of your Lead.
3. You should know your Lead’s deepest thoughts,
yearnings, secrets, and fears. And you should know
this early in the writing process.
Some authors like to create extensive biographies. I
have always found this tough slogging. What I prefer is
the voice journal (see page 116). I just allow my charac-
ters to talk, in stream-of-consciousness mode, and type
what I hear them say. Like I’m interviewing them, and
allowing them to open up.
4. Emotionally bond the reader to the Lead character.
Some ways to do this are:
1. Make the Lead care about someone other than
himself.
2. Have the Lead do things to help those weaker
than he is (this is also known as thepet the
dog” beat). Here’s an example from the TV se-
ries Mad Men:
Don Draper, the skirt-chasing Lead, gets
on an elevator with a couple of other guys. The
two guys are talking in a sexually explicit way.
A woman gets on the elevator. The two guys
keep up the uncivil chatter. Draper notices the
woman is uncomfortable.
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To the loudest mouth, Draper says, “Take
off your hat.”
The guy says, “Excuse me?
“Take off your hat.” Draper takes the hat off
the guy and shoves it in his chest.
A small beat, but it gave this complex char-
acter some needed nobility when it counted. And
another great point about this is that Draper
didn’t make some clichéd speech about man-
ners. He just showed who he was by what he did.
3. Put the Lead in a situation of jeopardy, hardship
or vulnerability.
Do these things, and you will be at least 75 percent of
the way toward a novel readers won’t want to put down.
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