Updated: Sep 17
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 what separates a true star from a regular performer. She said,
“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 think 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 when he 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 heartfelt, sincerity, as if he were singing to only one individual.
Watch the following video of Barbara Streisand and Barry Gibb. Does she sound like she's singing to just one person?
We should consider writing as if we had only one reader.
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 his 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 sounds sincere.
I believe that sincerity in fiction is the key. It opens the door for trust. And with trust comes loyalty. A reader’s loyalty is the Holy Grail for authors.
Sincerity in real life
Is it possible to impart knowledge, wisdom, and kindness to our relatives, friends, neighbors, and coworkers, without sincerity?
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:
Laurie, Little Women
Jane Eyre, Jane Eyre
Maria, West Side Story
Mrs. De Winter, Rebecca
Philip Ashley, My Cousin Rachel
Laura, Little House on the Prairie
Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games
Elinor Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility
Don Quixote, Don Quixote de la Mancha
In every case, the reader feels so much trust in the character that the reader would be willing to offer all his or her emotional energy and resources to help the character succeed.
What can we do in real life to help us connect with each other? We can:
Make eye contact
Put your phone away
Don’t be a know-it-all
Take people as they are
Interact without an “end game”
Be present and focused on the other person
Greet people as if they’re already your friends
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. Bad guys aren’t very good at loving, and they nearly always have an “end game” in mind. But good guys have “end games” too because they want to get the girl or win the battle.
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. 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, but 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.
Most people go around in public covered with protective emotional layers. These blankets of emotional dullness are worn by people their entire lives. Consequently, when someone comes along manifesting any degree of charm, some of the layers come off and 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 when she’s in a good mood.
If two or three characters from the Star Wars stories are charming, are the other five hundred or so forgettable?
No. But I believe all of them must 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’s sincere is someone who’s behaving genuinely?
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. The first one we went to 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 some 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.
It is almost impossible for a great character
to live in a boring story.
-- P.S. Hoffman
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.
Of course, that was because the girls themselves felt vulnerable, and were therefore attracted to what they perceived as strength.
This is where charm comes in. Manifesting a bit of charm is a demonstration of strength. Had I discovered this principle earlier in life, I would have had many more girlfriends.
Readers and girlfriends are the same. They’re both creatures seeking encouragement, inspiration, and acceptance. 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 who are just doing their job like Darth Vader, Severus Snape, and the Terminator. Rather, I’m considering popular characters who are just downright creeps for no apparent reason:
Loki, any Marvel movie
Tyler Durden, Fight Club
Shere Khan, The Jungle Book
Dr. Gregory, House (TV series)
Michael Scott, The Office (TV series)
Ferris Bueller, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean
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 list of villains shown above also suggests charm. But the first list of characters entitled “Most Sincere Characters” suggests sincerity as the winner.
So, which is it? Do readers want sincerity or charm?
I wish I knew. I suggest you choose one or the other, 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.