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?

8 thoughts on “Vonnegut’s Second Rule of Writing Fiction”

  • Excellent questions! I can name a novel or two that left me not caring–one of them being my own that I’m working on now. I don’t think I’ve made my readers care enough. I’ll definitely take another look. I’m entering ‘rewrite zone.’
    BTW, I used to love Vonnegut–when I was young. In fact, during my wild & wooly days, I was fond of wearing his t-shirt: Breakfast of Champions. Then in ’84 (I think it was) hubby and I heard him speak at LSU in Baton Rouge. He was wonderful! And speaking of likeable/unlikeable characters–we also went to hear James Dickey speak. Talk about two very different personalities. Vonnegut was wonderfully friendly, came across very approachable, humorous and happy to answer questions. Dickey came across very bitter. Of course, the writing business can do that to you. 🙁

    Excellent post. Thanks.

  • I absolutely agree. One example I can think of is the television show Stargate Universe. I think that was it’s biggest flaw and why it was cancelled.

  • @Jess: I really wish I’d had the chance to hear Vonnegut speak before he passed. A friend of mine did, and said that Vonnegut completely revolutionized the way he thought about writing. It was a panel my friend had attended, and he said the other writers were smug and arrogant, almost self-righteous, but Vonnegut was humble and gracious. I’ve heard interviews with him, and he seems very down to earth, though his breath apparently smells like mustard gas and roses. 😉

    @Ali: Good point. What goes for books often goes for movies and television series as well. I think Heroes got to that point as well. At some point, as much as I loved LOST, it got to a point where so many new characters came in, it was hard to root for them. Thankfully, they had the stalwarts who’d been there from the beginning, and I could root for them.

  • It’s not just a few shows that suffer from this malady: I think the reason a lot of newer genre shows are failing is not necessarily because of their fantastic elements but their lack of characters we can root for or care about. I missed out on BSG, so I tried to start with the recent prequel series Caprica. In an attempt to make the characters three-dimensional and flawed, the creators ended up underwhelming me with a lot of people I frankly did not care for at all, to the point that whether they lived or died, succeeded or failed, was meaningless to me. Imagine if the Starship Enterprise had been threatened and yet you cared not a wit for the crew: you might even desire the villain of the week to succeed just to put everyone out of their misery. There has to be a line between making characters so unbelivabely good/evil they cease to be people, and characters who are so murky and inscrutable that there’s no one really worth watching.

  • Michelle, you make some great points. I’m not a huge consumer of television. In fact, the only thing I really watch is football and the Food Network. Part of the reason is because I can’t find anything with well-drawn characters. I’m particularly a fan of characters that demonstrate some sort of contradiction. My wife watches HOUSE from time to time. He is a jerk in every sense of the word. But the moments that stick out in my mind are the ones where he thinks beyond himself to the well being of others. Furthermore, we don’t typically think of doctors as selfish, but as giving, of their time and energy to cure the ill. House does it for the challenge, and could care less about the patient. It’s an interesting dynamic. All that being said, I rarely “root” for him. Instead, I root for the patients recover, and he’s simply the vehicle to that end. So, the investment in “rooting” for one character makes me “root” for someone I don’t particularly like. This juxtaposition makes it one of the most interesting shows on TV, for my money.

  • Vonnegut once wrote something along these lines: I know war heroes & volunteer fireman often do things which can only be described as heroic. But I know lots of them and they really aren’t good people.

    I remember reading this but I can’t track it down.

    Does anybody know where he wrote it?

  • I did a quick internet search for you, Richard, but couldn’t find anything linking Vonnegut to a quote like that. To the contrary, he seemed to praise volunteer firemen. If you come across it, let me know.

    • I know it sounds out of character for him–it sounds out of character for almost anyone. But I remember reading it. It wasn’t in a novel or short story–it was in a collection of essays I think. He was mostly talking about war heroes as best I recall.

      I tried googling it too but came up empty. Thanks for trying.

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