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Updated: May 5

If there is one trait all actors, singers, comedians, magicians, and even politicians want, it’s charisma. A general definition of charisma is,

“A compelling attraction that inspires

devotion in others.”

Well, that’s nice. My mother grew up among stage actors and musicians. She told me,

“A star commands everyone in the audience

to look at him or her continually.”

I’m not an Elvis Presley fan, but I can't help but be seriously impressed by the charisma of this young man in the following clip. If I were a young woman, I believe I’d be unable to resist watching this video less than a hundred times:

Notice how he looks across the audience when he speaks and sings. Notice his gratitude and respect for those watching him.

Listen to Elvis Presley sing another song:

I don’t know how many people were present when this song was recorded, but assuming the screaming girls were kept out, I imagine the room was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. What strikes me is his sincerity, as if he were singing to only one person. Then there is this song: A Little Less Conversation. It's more of a crowdpleaser, but still feels like Elvis is singing to only one person.

Watch this video of Barbara Streisand and Barry Gibb: What Kind of Fool. Does she sound like she's singing to just one person?

We should consider writing as if

we had only one reader.

Watch this video of Nancy Wilson from the band Heart explaining the beginning guitar work for their song, Crazy on You. Does she seem sincere to you?

This is what their fans want and what your readers want from you.

What about charisma in literature?

What is the literary equivalent of charisma? Often, when reading a book, the character’s appearance is barely described. There are no shiny white teeth, tossed-back wavy hair, or screaming crowds.

The Love Me Tender link provides no video. We don’t know Elvis' age or appearance. Yet, the song captivates because he comes across as genuinely sincere.

Still, the song is fiction. No young woman is standing in front of him. The melody comes from a Civil War song called Aura Lea. But this doesn’t matter to his fans because he is sincere.

I believe that sincerity in fiction opens the door to trust and acceptance. And with trust and acceptance comes loyalty. A reader’s loyalty is the Holy Grail for authors.

Sincerity in real life

Can we impart inspiration, wisdom, and kindness to our relatives, friends, neighbors, and coworkers without sincerity? I don't believe so.

If we wished to be genuine both in real life and in our fiction, wouldn't we treat our fictional characters as we would anyone in real life?

Most sincere characters

What would a list of the most sincere fictional characters of all time look like? This is the kind of list that can be improved upon for years. But here’s a start:

In every case, the reader trusts the character so much that the reader is willing to offer all his or her emotional energy and resources to help the character succeed.

Human connection

What can we do in real life to help us connect with each other? We can:

  1. Be caring

  2. Be reliable

  3. Be authentic

  4. Love actively

  5. Pay attention

  6. Ask questions

  7. Listen actively

  8. Make eye contact

  9. Put your phone away

  10. Don’t be a know-it-all

  11. Take people as they are

  12. Interact without an “end game”

  13. Be present and focused on the other person

  14. Greet people as if they’re already your friends

  15. Interact more often than just during “special occasions”

What impresses me about this list is most of it describes both protagonists and antagonists. Antagonists can be just as caring about their goals as protagonists are about theirs.

What’s missing?

Something obvious is missing from the above list. Believe me, I’ve read many such lists, and it’s missing from all of them. Anyone in real life can demonstrate all the above traits and still not be acknowledged at social gatherings or voted president of the book club.

What’s missing from the list is charm. People like charm a lot. Last weekend, my wife dragged me off to a neighborhood pancake breakfast. While there, I interacted with at least thirty people, most of whom I didn’t recognize and may never speak to again. Because I’ve “been around the block” a few times in life, I’ve learned that what makes people feel comfortable in social gatherings is charm. Thus, I tend to put on some schmaltz when greeting people. Not too much. Just enough. While at the neighborhood pancake breakfast,

An older lady said to me, “I don’t think I’ve met you before.”

With a big smile, I said, “I don’t think you have because it’s not possible to forget me.”

She smiled and laughed.

When I meet an elderly couple for the first time, I’ll often say to the man, “Oh! You brought your daughter.” This approach never fails to produce big smiles. When leaving a crowded restaurant after dinner, I sometimes say to a waiting patron, "We cleared a table for you." People always return an enthusiastic, "Thank you."

Most people go around in public wrapped in protective emotional layers. These mentally dulling blankets are worn by people their entire lives. But when someone comes along manifesting any degree of charm, some of those layers come off and it makes people feel good.

Must characters be charming?

It’s fitting for just one of your characters in your stories to be charming. Notice that in the Star Wars movies, only Hans Solo is charming. Lando Calrissian is charming, but he is a minor character. Princess Leia is charming only when she’s in a good mood.

What about the other five hundred or so characters? Are they forgettable?

No. But I believe all of them must at least be sincere, whether for the good or the bad.

What if we replaced the word sincere with the word genuine? Is being sincere the same as being genuine?

Sincerity: freedom from deceit, hypocrisy, or duplicity; honesty in intention or in communicating; earnestness

Genuine: possessing the claimed or attributed character, quality, or origin; not counterfeit; authentic; real; free from pretense, affectation, or hypocrisy; sincere

I’m not an etymologist, but perhaps someone who is sincere is someone who is behaving genuinely.

Sincere story

What about the story itself? How can we write a sincere story? What if you wrote a sincere story with insincere characters? I think that would be an interesting read.

How to make a story sincere:

  • Make it emotionally relatable.

  • Make it emotionally thorough.

  • Make it emotionally consistent.

  • At least one character must be sincere, even if it’s only the narrator.

  • At least one character, even if it’s the narrator, must share more with the reader than with the other characters. This promotes trust with the reader.

My wife and I recently saw two movies at a movie theater. We went to the first one just because nothing else was showing. What we were really waiting for was the second movie, but it hadn’t come out yet. The first movie was Uncharted. The second was The Lost City.

It surprised us that we enjoyed Uncharted more than The Lost City because the characters in Uncharted felt sincere, and most of the lead characters in The Lost City did not. They’re similar movies with similar stories and budgets, but the difference between the two was sincerity, and that made all the difference for us.

It is almost impossible for a great character

to live in a boring story.

Do readers always want sincerity?

My biggest frustration with my teenage years was the girls my age went for the flashy, insensitive, self-gratifying boys instead of those who actually cared. And that was because the girls themselves felt vulnerable and were attracted to what they perceived as strength.

This is where charm comes in. Manifesting a bit of charm is a demonstration of strength. If I had discovered this principle earlier in life, I would have had more girlfriends.

Readers and girlfriends are the same. They’re both creatures seeking encouragement, inspiration, acceptance, and security. They both want a place where they’re welcomed and valued.

What are examples of popular but insincere, self-centered, and unreliable fictional characters? I’m excluding villains just doing their job, like Darth Vader, Severus Snape, and the Terminator. Instead, I’m considering popular characters who are just downright creeps for no apparent reason:

  1. Deadpool, Deadpool

  2. Loki, any Marvel movie

  3. Tyler Durden, Fight Club

  4. Shere Khan, The Jungle Book

  5. Dr. Gregory, House (TV series)

  6. Michael Scott, The Office (TV series)

  7. Ferris Bueller, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

  8. Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean

  9. Every main character, Seinfeld (TV series)

Which is it: sincerity or charm?

If we based the answer to that question on my youth, I’d say charm. The likable villains in the list above possess charm. But I don't think they're as beloved as the first list of characters entitled “Most Sincere Characters,” which possess more sincerity than charm. This tells me that sincerity is the winner.

Either way, I suggest you choose one of the two. Unless you can think of a third category. Is there one?

The world would be a better place if everyone chose sincerity. This is because sincerity produces better people. And we need more good people in this world.

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The entire March family in Little Women is sincere. As is the entire Ingalls family in Little House books. These books are excellent. Laurie, the next door neighbor in Little Women, is both sincere and charming.

J.J. Richardson
J.J. Richardson
Apr 06, 2022
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Thank you for these great suggestions!


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