Thursday, May 15, 2008

Character growth versus likeability

Camy here, chatting about something I’ve been wondering about lately.

Most contests limit you to one chapter or the first 15-20 pages of your manuscript, which is understandable because how many contests could get judges willing to read an entire book?

But a judge only getting one chapter isn’t going to see the character’s growth from shallow heroine to loving heroine, or aggressive alpha-male to pussy-whipp—er, I mean, kind alpha-male who will do anything for the woman he loves.

Contest judges only get those first pages, which introduce an entire book! Even if they get a synopsis, it’s hard to see a character growing from a handful of single-spaced pages detailing a 60K or 100K word plot.

So, as contest entrants, we get comments like, “Your heroine is unlikable” and “Your hero is full of himself” or “Your heroine is too mean” or “Your hero is a wimp.”

Well, come on, you only get fifteen pages. The character does grow. If they didn’t grow, it would be a really boring book.

But on the other hand, when I’m in a bookstore, I give an author about five pages to decide if I want to buy the book. I admit it. I don’t have time to read more, and I don’t have unlimited funds to buy everything that looks remotely interesting.

My editor told me in my edits for Sushi for One? that my heroine was too mean. In the opening chapter, she’s running late into her cousin’s baby shower banquet, and she’s harassed on every side by her sniping Grandma and rude waiters and unruly children. She doesn’t handle the situation well, to put it mildly.

But my editor said that the conflict-filled chapter didn’t show anything likable or sympathetic in my heroine’s personality, and a reader wasn’t going to care about her enough to want to keep reading.

Hmm. Good point. I didn’t really want to lose my reader at the first chapter.

So, I had to make sure some of my heroine’s good qualities came out in those first 2 pages. Otherwise, a reader would pick up the book in a bookstore, skim a page or two, and put it back.

My heroine was going to go through some major character growth, sure—otherwise, like I said before, it would be a really boring book.

But my editor said that the heroine has to prove to the reader that she’s worthy of their time to read about her.

My heroine had to prove to the reader that while she had some problems, she was still likable enough that the reader would care about the things happening to her and care to see how she grew and changed as a character.

I added a few small things in those first two pages—I showed her fun, teasing, and caring relationship with her cousin Chester, rather than having her be so late and distracted that she just traded a few quips with him and moved on.

That showed the reader in the first two pages that she’s worth their time to read about. Her other character flaws become evident in the next few pages, but those first pages show her in a conflict-filled situation, yet taking time to be kind to a favorite cousin.

The combination of conflict and likeability ensure the reader is hooked for those first few pages.

I think the key is that the likeability actions have to be OBVIOUS and DELIBERATE. Nothing small or off-hand. Don’t just show her petting a dog, show her giving some small sacrifice (time, money, possessions) in order to be kind to someone or something else.

There’s a good section in Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias that talks about things that show a likable character in the first few pages. If you haven’t yet gotten that book, but you’ve gotten comments on how unlikable your character(s) are, go out and get it from Amazon. It’s totally worth it.


  1. I found this to be very interesting, Camy. I recently had a comment that the contest judge was unable to favorably rate my hero as he hadn't proved himself to be very heroic. The scene was in the heroines POV. So obviously I needed to stick in something to make this guy stand out at the main love interest.

    AND YOU REFERENCED A BOOK!! My favorite. I love concrete stuff I can read to make my work better.


    Did you bring an Asian breakfast delicacies today. Donuts? PopTarts? I'm starving.

  2. Excellent points, Camy! I actually experienced this with a manuscript. I knew the hero and what he'd gone through, but readers hated him because of the way he treated the heroine in the opening. But I loved the confrontation between the two and didn't want to lose it. By starting in his POV, giving a hint of his mental state and having him save the life of a child who'd run after his dog into the path of a wagon, readers cared about him and understood his over the top reaction. That manuscript went on to final in the Golden Heart.

  3. Very helpful, Camy! I'm still working through Iglesias's book.

    Too many areas to improve on at once for this writer.

    And I do recall that scene in Sushi for One. You're right, it made Lex likable and in a fun sort of way, too, amongst her harsher moments.

  4. Great post, Camy, and pretty timely for me as I am actually going into Book 3 of the Daughters of Boston series right now and making one final pass to deepen the heroine.

    I ran into this problem BIG TIME in Book 2 of the series, A Passion Redeemed, which is Charity's story, a Scarlett-O'Hara type woman who everybody loves to hate. Uh, I believe it was you, Camy, as a matter of fact, who wanted to see Charity "maimed."

    Well, my editor and agent felt the same way and were very concerned that readers would not want to read a book with Charity as the heroine. So just as you mentioned with Sushi for One, I had to go into the first few scenes and soften her -- A LOT. I attempted to do it as you mentioned, in ways that were "OBVIOUS and DELIBERATE," such as showing her being kind and sympathetic to a bumbling waiter and by softening her sharp tongue with not so blatant responses while revealing an insecurity and yes ... innocence ... in her internal monologue. I deepened her closeness with her Grandmother, making Charity very protective and loving toward her while underscoring the hurt she felt inside at not being her father's favorite. I was amazed at how just one word could shift her personality so completely ... from cocky to vulnerable, which I hope helps to engage the reader's sympathy. You did this really well in the first chapter of Sushi, ESPECIALLY at the end when she catches her dad in an awkward situation.

  5. Wow, excellent post! In my historical my heroine is too shallow. In my contemporary my hero is too harsh. Sighhhhh. You just gave me some great tips, and in fact, I think someone else talked about showing a character's main strength within the first page.
    Thanks for the advice!

  6. Let it not be said, I'm one to ignore a Craft of Writing book recommendation. :-)

    I liked how you mentioned OBVIOUS and DELIBERATE. I've often noticed how contest judges easily miss those not so obvious likeable moments because the harsher moments are so strong.

    I've had contest judges rave about how fiesty my heroine is. Yet for every five who like her, one says "she's childish and self-absorbed."

    Well, duh. She's supposed to be that way.

    But once I'd patted my back on the showing the heroine childish and self-absorbed, I then had to sit down and figure out how to layer in more likeable traits.

    Obvious and deliberate. Hmmm.

    When I'm crafting my characters, I like using The Birth Order Book by Kevin Leman and/or one of my spiritual gift assessment books. For every birth order spot or spiritual gift, there's positive and negative sides of the birth spot or spiritual gift.

    I also like the advice Michael Hauge gives on creating characters the reader will empathize with.

    1. Create sympathy for him (character victim of undeserved misfortune)

    2. Put him in jeopardy (in danger of losing something vitally important)

    3. Make character likeable (open story with friends who like him so readers will subconsciously be drawn to him too)

    4. Make character funny (This is why I like Dr. House no matter how rude he is.)

    5. Make character powerful, good at what he does, highly skilled (Again, House fits here.)

    Okay, I don't what's more annoying when trying to type: the dog licking my feet, the 5-yr-old wanting to know how to spell coloring book, or the 1 yr-old grabbing the keyboard.

    She's not laying on the dog and distracting him from my feet so I suppose I should be appreciative.

  7. I just reread an old favorite book and there's this sister to the heroine who is a Man Eater. Really heartless.

    The hero says something to the heroine, to the effect...your sister is SCARY...I'm wording this nicely. The sister wants this intruder in her sisters like dead and she's got a dull spoon ready to carve out his liver.

    The heroine glares at hero, makes it dead clear that if he's asking her to pick between between him and her sister NO CONTEST-GOODBYE.

    She says, "Her first husband, whom she adored, died suddenly, her second one slept with her best friend and the third one hit her. You BET she's learned to distrust men and be tough. Do NOT criticize Tina to me."

    Okay, despite the fact that Tina has, to this point been really nasty. (this is later in the book, NOT the first chapter, but that's okay because it's not the heroine) In one turn-around paragraph, we now LOVE Tina, root for her and want her to have her own book.

    Make an unlikeable character likeable by having a secondary character like them and be loyal to them. It's a simple way to draw the reader into the camp of a prickly character.

  8. Very interesting.

    Julie, you compared Charity to Scarlett O'Hara. I looove GWTW so I started thinking about that. Scarlett does two things in the very beginning that endear her to readers/viewers who may not even realize it.

    First, although obviously self-absorbed and spoiled, she laments when she discovers that Ashley is going to marry Melanie. "It can't be true...Ashley loves me." We don't know the extent of Scarlett's deviousness at this point but most women can sympathize with unrequired love or possible betrayal.

    Second, she shows concern for her father when Scarlett discovers he's been jumping his horse again but assures him she won't tell on him. "Oh, Paw, you know I'm no 'tattle like Sue Ellen." Obviously she cares deeply about her father so she's not quite as self-absorbed as she initially seems, and can be loyal when she chooses.

    But I agree there must be something no matter how small. Camy said OBVIOUS and DELIBERATE but I think subtle can work too. Gotta keep this in mind on current wip.

  9. Also thinking about characterization, and not having one-dimensional characters. Neither all evil or all good, although a character may lean more to one side and shift position over time. So it's about uncovering something, maybe the one thing, that keeps the character from being on either extreme.

  10. Patricia, of course subtle can work. Just make sure your subtlety is obvious and deliberate!!!!

  11. Thought-provoking topic, Camster. I've been getting comments all my (writing) life about my MCs not being likable enough right away. Just went back through my WIP and realized the heroine was kind of whiny in the beginning (which I know Mary just CANNOT stand). She (my character, not Mary) has very good reason, but I decided to have a neighbor thank the heroine for taking care of her when she had the flu. Is that subtly obvious and deliberate enough?

  12. oooo, Patricia, good points about Gone With the Wind!! And glad to meet another "Wind" freak!! I LOVE that book (and that heroine!!).


  13. Camy, your post is very interesting, but I don't know if I can comment knowledgeably on the topic!

    I mean, I know when opening chapters work or don't work when I'm reading published books, but I don't always know why.

    But to try to figure out what I've left out or how to fix it in my own work is just....unfathomable!

    So...can I just go on gut feeling and leave it at that?

  14. I too found it interesting. I actually go for the back cover and sometimes the blub in the front to see if i like a book.
    i dont read any of it at the shop.

    im beginning to think i must watch gone with the wind! its like pride and preduice not films i would normally watch but everyone raves about them. (i did see pride and preduice with Kira Knightly but I didn't like the ending. maybe I just different)

  15. Sorry, Scarlett, but Ashley loves me!!! Ha ha ha! Couldn't resist. And I also didn't like Scarlett at all the first time I read GWTW (I've read it 6 times, nowhere near Julie's number, I'm sure). But even though I didn't like Scarlett, I still loved the story!

    Anyway, it really isn't that hard to make your H/H likeable. Just give them a puppy to pet, or a child to save, or a servant to be nice to. Easy as pie. But I do think we need to make their actions true to their character. If it's something they wouldn't really do, then nix it.

  16. The very first scene in my hero's POV, I had him be kind to a servant. This was after judges complained they didn't know enough about my hero. Ever after, I've gotten comments about how much they love my hero! Just that one little thing endeared them to him.

  17. HI guys,
    Sorry I'm late! I blame it on Blogger--I had scheduled the blog to post a few days ago, so by today I forgot I was on!

    Tina, I looooooove that book. I think you will, too.

    Janet, I remember you telling me how you changed your ms to start in the hero's POV so that readers could understand him better--that's brilliant!

    Eileen, don't be discouraged, that book is like Swain's book--there's a LOT to absorb, but once you do, it comes easier as you write. And I still reference Swain and Iglesias's books while I'm writing.

    Julie, yes, I admit, I publically said I was hoping Charity would have been maimed. :) But I know you understand the whole "make my character likable" thing since you HAD to find a way to make Charity a likable character for book 2!

    Thanks, Jessica! The key is to insert something to make the character likable within a page or two. My likable insert was on page one of Sushi for One.

    Gina, that list is great! It's similar to a list Iglesias gives in his book. Iglesias breaks it down into more detail and gives more specific examples, though, to apply to a variety of story types. There's bound to be an example that will apply to almost anyone's story.

    Mary, that is a GREAT example! I have to remember that one.

    Patricia, it's true, it can be subtle, but don't make it TOO subtle or your reader doesn't catch it!

    Myra, having the neighbor thank her for taking care of her during her flu is PERFECT! It shows the heroine has a self-sacrificing streak that immediately will make her worthy of being the book's heroine.

    Pam, sometimes gut feeling is the best!

    Ausjenny, I also rely heavily on the back cover blurbs!

    Melanie, you bring up a good point--the action has to be completely in line with the character's personality or it just seems disjointed. Also, you did what I did--create something very small right at the beginning, which changes your reader's perspective for the entire chapter! It's so easy!


  18. Not that it matters, but after I went to bed last night, I remembered that the first time I read GWTW I disliked Melanie, not Scarlett! I was 13 years old and thought Scarlett was great and Melanie was just yuck. It's funny how when you're that young, you're so impressionable and I was taking everything in Scarlett's viewpoint as being the way things really were. Well, not funny, but scary!

  19. Melanie! I hated Mellie and Ashley. They were such wimpie characters.

  20. They were wimpy characters, especially Ashley!, but who would you rather your 13-yr-old daughter emulate: Scarlett or Melanie?

    I don't know what my point is with that.