How “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy hooks readers

Rooting for the underdog

Photo by Jose Murillo on Unsplash

(This essay is also available as a video on YouTube.)

I’m exploring the craft behind the openings of successful novels, so I can learn how to write a great first chapter for my own book. Today, I’m looking at how Cormac McCarthy creates vulnerable characters that engage our emotions. Let’s see how he hooks us in his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Road.

Plot summary

A man and his son walk through America after a disaster has burned the world away. Like characters in an ancient parable, they don’t even have names: they’re just “the man” and “the boy.”

Nothing is left except the ruins of civilization, dead forests, and scraps. The man remembers what it was like when the world ended and the survivors fought over what was left. He remembers the refugees, the massacres, and the screams of the murdered in the night. But that’s in the past. What matters right now is keeping his son alive in this world of ash.

They walk south along a highway to escape the approach of winter. On the way, their greatest concerns are the most basic ones: food; shelter from the cold; and safety from the other survivors of the disaster. But, for now, the road is devoid of life. The man supposes that the so-called “bloodcults” must have all consumed one another.

So the man and the boy search abandoned malls, grocery stores, gas stations, and homes, for whatever they can find: tins of food; a can of Coke; a few drops of oil for their campfires; ratty blankets; any other odds and ends that might help them survive.

The man wonders where God is in such a world. He wonders about his own soul. He tries to forget his dead wife. He doesn’t want to hold on to any bright memories. They’ll only weaken his resolve.

His son, meanwhile, has nightmares. He’s sensitive and pure, an icon of childhood. The man compares to the boy to “the word of God.” The boy wants them both to stick to their promises, even the little ones. No compromises. He wants them to be like the “good guys” from his father’s old stories.

They eventually make their way across a mountain pass. And, along the road, they find footprints. They catch up to the person leaving them. He’s charred and limping: he was struck by lightning.

“Can’t we help him Papa?” the boy says.

“No. We can’t help him. There’s nothing to be done for him.”

Pity and fear

That scene with the lightning survivor happens about forty pages into the story. That’s relatively late if we’re looking for an action-packed or punchy opening. This is a slow, meditative journey.

But what I want to focus on instead of plot structure is how Cormac McCarthy builds character during that journey. It’s our connection to those characters that keeps us turning the page.

And for that, I want to go back to the grand-daddy of all literary theorists: the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. For him, storytelling had a spiritual function. It had to purge the audience of their anxieties and imperfections. And that purging, that catharsis, happened when people related to characters through what he called “pity and fear.” Noble or heroic characters who had life figured out could still make a few tragic mistakes that led to their downfall. Their stories might even be driven by them hiding, protecting, or trying to overcome their flaws. Some of the classic examples are Oedipus and Hamlet. They aren’t interesting because they’re ultimate bad-asses, but because they’re imperfect.

I actually find Michael Scott in The Office to be a great example, too. In the early seasons of the show, he’s strictly the bad guy. He projects the image of a macho jerk, an alpha male–wannabe. But as the series progresses, he evolves into a more sympathetic figure. We understand he’s hopelessly naive, and that he’s desperate for attention and connection. So he stops being a caricature. Instead, he becomes someone we root for — because of his vulnerabilities and weaknesses.

So how do you show weakness in the early pages of a story, when readers are actively looking for someone to root for? Well, in The Road, weakness manifests in two ways. For the man, weakness means his emotional turmoil and his behavioural flaws. He’s still grieving for his old life. And in the present, he makes bad decisions and moral compromises as a parent, all for the sake of survival.

For the boy, meanwhile, weakness is physical powerlessness. He can’t defend himself, or find food or shelter on his own. His weakness puts both him and his father at risk.

A character that pure and weak triggers something in our DNA. Animators know that characters with large eyes, round faces and prominent foreheads remind us of babies. Those features activate our mammalian instincts. We want to hold and nurture the weaker members of the herd. In an instant, we feel attached to those kinds of characters.

The anti-hero

That drive to protect is also embedded in the popular anti-hero archetype. I once heard one of the early showrunners for The Walking Dead, Glen Mazzara, talk about anti-heroes. He said the stoic, violent anti-hero isn’t only a power fantasy for middle-aged men and teenage boys — though it is that. It’s also an American ideal, the ideal of the frontier, of a cowboy who isn’t restrained by civilization’s rules. He follows his own code, and whoever breaks that code ends up in the ground. That brutal masculinity supposedly allows civilization to survive. And that brutality is often triggered by the threat of violence — and especially of sexual violence.

The man in The Road recalls what his wife said when their boy was young. She knew the kind of people who were left in the world after the disaster.

“Sooner or later they will catch us and they will kill us. They will rape me. They will rape him. They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont face it.”

Of course, that trope of sexual violence motivating a hero has become a tasteless cliché. And in his talk, Glen Mazzara highlighted the trope to encourage writers to think beyond it. But I think the important lesson is that some tropes affect readers at an instinctual level.

I’m talking about those big emotions: fear, surprise, anger, joy, shame, love, grief, and so on. I don’t mean that your characters have to be bombastic, showy extraverts. The writing in The Road is subdued and sparse, and the emotion is controlled. But the characters deal with powerful, fundamental human emotions.

Cormac McCarthy strips away the everyday world, and brings the characters down to that primal level of fight-or-flight. All they have on their side are a cart full of junk, a pistol with two bullets, and each other. The man coughs up blood when his son isn’t looking. The boy is a helpless child who falls asleep to bedtime stories. They’re underdogs.

Authors relating to readers

Now, there’s another story about helpless underdogs on a difficult journey: The Lord of the Rings. The hobbits are the very people who are least able to protect the Ring, but they’re the heroes, not Elrond and Gandalf.

But even if the premise is vaguely similar, the message in The Lord of the Rings is vastly different from the one in The Road. It’s a different experience for a different reader.

The Road is about parenthood, and it’s dedicated to the author’s son. And on Page 1 of the story, we see the world through the eyes of a father. And when we follow his vulnerabilities and fears, we see who the novel is talking to, who it’s for, and what it’s saying. So the novel isn’t only about a relationship between the man and the boy. It’s also a relationship between the characters and the readers. It’s about a writer opening up from their own vulnerability and saying, “I know what you worry about. I know what you’re going through.”

So, when you’re writing your story, see if you can find and follow the vulnerability. That’s where the central emotional concern of the story will be. And don’t make it too abstract. Instead, like Cormac McCarthy, make that concern instinctual and tangible—because that’s how he engages our emotions and makes us turn the page.


I hope this look at The Road motivates you explore vulnerability with your own characters. If so, I’d love to hear how. Leave a response or Applause, or Follow me to be notified of my future essays, where I’ll look at opening chapters from other great books. Or drop by my YouTube channel to see this essay as a video.