I’ve recently been having discussions with a number of writer friends about the dilemma of creating a main character that readers don’t care about.
I feel like I had a breakthrough recently in turning an unlikeable character into one that a reader could love. One of my writer friends suggested I share my discoveries in a blog post – so here it is.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
A few years ago I came up with a YA plot and a main character (MC) I really liked. I wrote her story, but it soon became apparent that I was the only one (apart from her mum and her best friend) who actually liked her.
Particularly when writing YA and we are trying to make our MC’s angst ridden but feisty, it’s too easy to create a character that nobody likes or cares about.
Your main character doesn’t have to be sugar sweet, but they have to be someone you and your readers can empathise with. In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter is appalling, but in my mind, it’s really FBI agent, Clarice Starling who is the MC and carries the reader through the story because of her vulnerability and determination.
WHY READERS DIDN’T SYMPATHISE WITH MY CHARACTER
In real life, do we sympathise with the drunk driver who keeps getting in their car and having accidents? Do we sympathise with anyone who keeps making the same mistakes again and doesn’t heed anyone’s advice?
OTHER MISTAKES I MADE
1. I thought I had made her angst ridden, but I had just made her irritating.
2. I thought she was feisty but she was just plain aggressive.
3. I thought she had enough problems to make readers sympathise but they felt she had brought her own hardship on herself.
(You might recognise some of these problems in your own stories:)
When I looked for ways to fix the problems with my story, it came back to character development – not just my MC but her supporting cast too.
HOW TO MAKE YOUR CHARACTER LIKEABLE
1. They have to have some normality in their life so that readers can relate to them.
2. They have to have understandable reasons or motivations for what they do.
3. They have to have character traits that are both qualities and flaws – this makes them believable and strong. For example, in my current work in progress, my character’s determination and tenacity are her strengths, but they’re also her downfall because they are the traits that stop her from letting go of the past, even when it puts her life at risk.
I discovered that both my MC and her mother’s characters had good motives and reasons for their actions. The problem was that I hadn’t actually conveyed this to the reader. It was clear in my head so I thought they’d understand, but of course they couldn’t make the connection if I hadn’t put the necessary pieces in the story.
As writers, so much of the backstory is in our head and we have to be discerning about what we reveal, but sometimes we have to give our secrets away.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
I recently discovered that there’s a lot more in a name than I thought. Just by changing my MCs name from Tara to Sarah, she emerged as a completely different character in my mind – somebody softer, more gentle, more ethereal. She became the character I always wanted her to be – someone my readers could empathise with. Somebody they would want to see succeed.
I’m not saying that Sarah is a better name than Tara, I’m talking about what the names meant to me as the creator of the story.
So if you have people who need to be more likeable in your story, my tips would be to look at their name, develop their character more, and give the reader enough information so they can make the right connections in your story.
I’d love to hear about your unlikeable character dilemmas.
Feel free to share them in the comments section of this post.
Happy writing and character rebuilding:)