Thursday, April 24, 2014
Making Unlikable Characters Likable
When I first started to write I used to create unlikable heroines, although I didn’t know they were unlikable. In the interest of making them ‘real’ I’d give them too many faults and weaknesses too early in the story. Their virtues and strengths came too late -- after a reader already made up her mind about the character. Most readers don’t want to slog through a story with an overly-flawed heroine. We want our readers to identify with the main character and no one relates well to an unlikable person, real or imagined.
Some characters, like villains, are deeply flawed but they’re supposed to be. We expect that. But readers like heroes and heroines who are heroic, good, kind, virtuous etc. A weakness or two makes them human (like us) and draws the reader in because she can relate to a good person with an imperfection or two. My mistake: my heroines weren’t heroic enough. Also, they weren’t nice enough.
My critique partners clued me in. I’m sure I eventually would’ve found my heroines too flawed to live even on paper, but my crit partners saved me a lot of time and effort. No writer wants to spend countless hours writing about a unlikable heroine and no readers want to read about her.
Readers dislike certain types of characters.
The Sadist, usually a male (please don’t throw rotten tomatoes at me, guys) and often the hero, is sometimes found in romances, though this type of character was more popular in the past than in the present. He was rude, arrogant, and insensitive until the heroine came along to change him. Our modern day heroines usually don’t put up with this nasty kind of man anymore, so for the most part he’s faded away. Good riddance.
The ‘bad boy’ who changes because of love still works as long as he wasn’t a sociopath or really evil to begin with. Personally, I won’t read a book where the hero was once a rapist or child molester.
I’m afraid most fictional whiners are women. Whiners bemoan their lot in life and feel sorry for themselves. They often don’t keep their self-pity locked up inside. We wish they would. But whether they keep silent or complain to their friends, they’re unpleasant to read about.
Even if they have something legitimate to whine about we want them to struggle and rally, not collapse in despair. We like fighters, women who’ll struggle to beat the odds. We don’t want them to give in easily and make excuses. Whiners certainly aren’t heroic and readers don’t like them, especially in the role of heroine.
A story can handle a fictional bore now and then as long as she doesn’t bore the reader. If I lose interest in a story because a main character rambles on and on, I’ll stop reading. In real life people sometimes babble too much, unable or unwilling to finish a sentence and take a breath so someone else can say a word or two. Who wants to waste money on a book filled with the type of people we try to avoid in real life?
Today’s fiction often has tough, jaded characters who are cynical, sarcastic and rude. On the other hand, they’re ready for any challenge no matter how difficult. Many readers find anti-heroes compelling, despite their faults.
A writer has to work hard to keep such flawed characters likable. There’s a thin line between likable and unlikable. If you step over the tipping point the character repels readers instead of attracting them. It’s easy to go too far.
Here are a few ways to keep your heroes in balance:
Show there’s more beneath the surface. No matter how flawed your character is show through a small action or internalization there’s something positive about him. Do this in the first scene before the reader gets a completely negative picture of your hero.
Carefully weave in backstory. Through judicious use of backstory, show why the character came to be unfriendly, obnoxious etc. He’s flawed because of a negative past experience (a wound), probably as a child. Emotional trauma explains a lot about his current actions. Readers forgive an annoying, unpleasant character if they understand why he’s the way he is. A great backstory is really important.
I wonder if these gangsters have backstories that would elicit sympathy or are they bad through and through?
Create big obstacles. Fighting against stronger forces doesn’t create empathy for the hero, but how he reacts to those forces does. It shows us who he really is. The true man or woman emerges during a crisis. Is he strong or weak?
Balance strengths and weaknesses. Even if the character has more than her fair share of faults, her positive qualities should dominate and lead her to her goal.
According to Marg McAlister (Writing4Sucess) readers become irritated with characters (especially heroes) who:
Pick on those weaker than themselves
Employ violence to get their own way
Get pleasure from ruining the lives of others
Moan and groan about their bad luck in life without trying to improve it
Are constantly depressed, negative or self-pitying
Jump to the wrong conclusion and don’t let others explain themselves
Gossip and spread rumors that are damaging to others
Make your hero or heroine someone with whom you’d like to spend time.
If you’re the writer and you don’t enjoy your main character, you can be sure readers won’t want to be around your hero for the length of an entire book either. So think about the type of person you like to hang around with and why that person attracts you. Is it personality, sense of humor, selflessness? Give your hero some of those same qualities.
Readers often like nasty villains, but not nasty heroes or heroines.
Give your main character challenges, but give her enough inner strength to deal with them.
Be careful of the kind of faults you give your hero and how he handles them. For example, if he has a quick temper, he should work to control it. He usually keeps it in check. But every once in a while he flies off the handle.
How he handles his failure is crucial. He should be filled with regret. He might remember what it’s like to live with a person who never attempts to curb his bad temper. This bit of backstory helps us understand the hero. We’re sympathetic toward him because we understand what it’s like to fail.
But if the hero often loses his temper and doesn’t try to control it, we’d lose our sympathy.
I hope you can quickly tell these girls are likable and heroine material.
We like characters who:
Keep on trying, despite all the problems live throws at them
Put others first
Face up to bullies
Stand up for people who are weaker than themselves
Have overcome many obstacles to attain a goal
Try to right a wrong
Here are a few tips to make your hero sympathetic:
Give her something or someone to love or fight for. (Strong motivation)
She’s willing to make sacrifices for her goal or for other people.
Provide her with a special skill or ability.
Make him an underdog.
Give the characters flaws we can all relate to and forgive.
Show her motivation. It should be easily understood.
Give him wit, courage, integrity and a sense of humor.
What are other important attributes in a main character?
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