One thing that I have discovered that I’m very, very good at is writing characters who no one likes. :) Well, that or writing characters who are so flawless that you hate them anyway. So while we’re talking about character development this month, I thought I’d chime in with a lesson well-learned, and that is that you want readers to not only sympathize with your protagonist, but you need readers to like him or her as well.
This might seem like the most obvious advice in the world, but frankly, given how much I struggled with it, I’m not sure that it is. Here, at least, is why in my first two manuscripts, I struggled: for me, as a writer, the entire point of a manuscript is to demonstrate the evolution of a character, to show that where she started off on the first page is not where she ends up on the last page…this is what readers expect, they expect (and deserve) to be taken on a journey in which both they and the protagonist emerge a little wiser/better/saner/happier/pick whatever adjective serves your plot or story. (It doesn’t always have to be a happy adjective, I should add, but nevertheless, your character shouldn’t be stagnant…what, then is the point of the past 300 pages that your reader has just in good faith read?) And so, for me, knowing that at the end of my book, my protagonist would be, say, more content, I would push her in the total opposite direction toward the beginning. And the result was often that I’d create these heroines who were, to be blunt, total bitches.
Now, I love to get my bitch on as much as the next gal, but readers don’t want to root for someone whom they don’t like, whom they don’t relate to, even in some small way. In order to suck readers in, you simply HAVE to make your characters somewhat redeeming, even if they’re making the wrong choices and screwing up left and right and are general pains in the ass. Somewhere, beneath all of that muck, they still have to be decent enough people that something will resonate with the reader.
Now, I make conscious choices in my character’s own choices. In the manuscript I just finished, I considered that one of the leads would have an affair, but knew this made her too shady for the empathy I needed from readers for the rest of the plot to work…so I ditched it. I’ve made conscious choices with their dialogue, trying to make them sound only as bitter or as angry as they needed to, not more, which I’d have done in the past. I’ve tried to guide them by thinking of them as friends (I know, hokey), who can make likeable choices even if the situations they’ve found themselves in aren’t particularly enjoyable.
I’m not saying that you sell out. I’m not suggesting that you write something just to please the reader. But let’s be honest here, part of our jobs, as published authors, is to sell books, good books, books that readers WANT to enjoy, and if you alienate them from the get-go, you’re not fulfilling part of your end of the bargain. And besides, as authors, we become so attached to our characters that it can almost feel personal if readers don’t like them. So work around this from the start – try to make them people you’d want to hang out with, even if their lives are falling apart while doing so.
photo courtesy Flickr’s I’mClaude