Vonnegut’s Second Rule of Writing Fiction
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. –Kurt Vonnegut
I’m going to go ahead and say it. This is a rule that should never be broken. In fact, the simple brilliance of this line is so stunning, that I really wish I’d said it first. If ever there was a rule that had it’s finger on the pulse of fiction, this would be it. We could make cases and argue over the others, but this one I think we have to concede, there’s really no way around it.
Of course there will be naysayers. There’s always someone to assert their rebellious spirit and shout loudly that there are no rules in fiction, that rules were made to be broken, and that true genius can find away around the boundaries we mere mortals erect for ourselves. I have to believe that these people exist, because I used to be one of them. However, I think that even the most obstinate “freedom writer” out there must tip his or her hat to Vonnegut on this one.
To those of you who may still feel that there are ways around this, think of it this way: maybe there are. But why would you want to take them?
I’d also say that this rule does not mean that we must “like” the protagonist, but it sure does help. I’ll use Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five as an example. For those of you who’ve not read it, the book follows Billy Pilgrim, a World War II veteran and survivor of the Dresden fire bombings in Germany. The premise is that he’s come unstuck in time and he jumps back and forth to random points in his life.
What’s interesting about it is that Billy Pilgrim is far from what we would call a hero. Vonnegut even goes so far as to say that there are no heroes or villains in the book. And he’s right. Billy does not behave like a hero—especially not a war hero. He never kills anyone, never even handles a weapon. In fact, most of his time in the war is spent hoping that he’d simply just die. Nearly every moment of Billy’s life is mundane, boring, and often tragic. But it is the tragedy of Billy’s life that make us root for him. We want so desperately for something good to happen to him, even though he’s no Stallone or Schwarzenegger. He feels as much like a real person as you can get, even though he’s a bit of a loser. And thusly, he becomes sympathetic.
Rooting for a character does not mean you have to “like” them in the normal sense of the word. I’d never invite Billy Pilgrim over for dinner. But I sure don’t want him to die. I want something good to happen to him. I want him to find some moment of happiness. In several ways, the novel is about that—Pilgrim’s quest for contentment. He seldom finds it, but when he does, the moments are that much sweeter.
Take a moment to reflect on the novels you’ve read. Which stand out as the best? Which characters did you find yourself most pulling for? Do you recall any in which you didn’t care whether the character succeeded or not? Now think of what you’re currently writing. Who is the reader rooting for? Are there several, or only one? Are there any at all?