HOW TO FIX UNLIKEABLE CHARACTERS – TUESDAY WRITING TIP

WHY I WROTE THIS POST

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.

In my YA novel with the unlikeable heroine, I  had created plenty of problems for people to sympathise with, but clearly that wasn’t enough.

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 went back and did some serious work on both my MC and her mother (who was the other ‘accidentally’ unlikeable character in the book).

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:)

Dee

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18 thoughts on “HOW TO FIX UNLIKEABLE CHARACTERS – TUESDAY WRITING TIP

  1. I like this post because I have a goody two shoes character in my wip. Thank you for the suggestions on names. I’ve tried several but they just add to her goody two shoe-ness. I’m going to go try finding a name for her that gives her more depth.

  2. What a great post, Dee! In trying to make a character layered and interesting (which often means showing their dark side) one runs the risk of putting off readers.

    Justifying their actions is a good suggestion, and the name change is brilliant, prompting a shift in our perception of the character as we write them. Lots of food for thought, there!

  3. Hi Dee,

    It’s true how we writers forget sometimes that the reader doesn’t know what’s in our head. Does that mean we’re all self-centred? Heehee. LOL. I have the opposite problem of telling the reader too much back story sometimes, then I have to chop most of it out. I agree about the name of a character affecting the way we write. If we’ve known a likeable person with a particular name, we would probably add some traits of that person to the character. That’s a great tip, Dee. I’ll try and remember that one.

    In my story Star-Crossed Rascals, I was told by some other writers that Polly was an unlikeable and cheeky brat, but others thought her hilarious and empathised with her. She’s mischievous, but not mean, though she’s cheeky to her babysitter, Great Aunt Mabel. In her mind, it’s justified. This story is memories of me as a seven-year-old, so I know her well. However, I wasn’t as bold or outspoken as my character, though I did do the things she did, well, 99% of them. I was just an accident prone, fickle child, whereas my MC is that, but also stands up to bullies more than I ever did, and that seemed to make her less endearing. I couldn’t understand why some readers didn’t find Polly funny like others did. Then one day, a great gal came along and told me what the problem was. She said I had to make the protagonist much meaner so that the readers would sympathise more with Polly and less with the Aunt. She said some readers were sympathising more with the poor old aunt who had to put up with all the disasters that Polly caused.

    I realised then that I hadn’t made Aunt Mabel mean enough, that was because all my aunts’ were lovely and kind. So I left Pollyweena’s character the same, and turned Great Aunt Mabel into a selfish, impatient and mean old woman who’d forgotten what it feels like to be a child. I modelled her after a mean teacher I had as a child, but still kept her real. I’m still not sure if I’ve done enough as it’s published now. Polly is still a disobedient, accident-prone brat who caused catastrophes at home and school, and though she’s learned a big lesson in this book, at the end she’s dared by her best friend to do more naughty things. (I did that to set up the sequel.) As It’s a chapter book for reluctant readers, I hope I haven’t made Polly too unlikeable. I’ll have to wait and see.

    Thanks for a another great tip, Dee, sorry for the rather long post.

  4. Great post, Dee.
    I found I related to all of it, which won’t surprise you.

    I wonder if sometimes I want to create a heroine who says and does what she wants, but unfortunately it is just as unlikeable in fiction as it is in true life.

    Alison

  5. Hi Dee

    Thanks for your post. I once heard an actor speak about the techniques she employs when playing a negative character convincingly. A lot of it has to do with finding out why the character is acting the way they are. It’s as you say – knowing a character’s motivation is key to making them more accessible/likeable to the reader.

    Cheers,
    Marianne

  6. Thanks for your post, Trish,

    It’s a great point you make – by making the baddy ‘badder’ it can show the MC in a better light. It’s really a matter of communicating what’s in our head to the reader isn’t it?

    Happy writing:)

    Dee

  7. Thanks, Alison,

    And thanks for inspiring me and suggesting I write this post. I think you’re right that if we don’t like characteristics in a person, we’re not going to like them in an MC either. I think that if you show the good side of a bad character trait it can also make your MC more acceptable to the reader.

    I’m looking forward to reading the next version of BB:)

    Dee

  8. Thanks, Marianne

    Interesting to know that this is a a technique that actors use too. I think with real people we also empathise more when we understand what has made someone behave the way they have.

    Dee:)

  9. Hi Dee, very relateable post. I think we’ve all fallen into this trap – especially when creating YA characters, who almost by definition need to have that edge. Getting it right is like balancing on a tightrope.

    One of my US releases was fixed by adding a prologue (editor’s suggestion)and I admit I wasn’t keen, tho I did it. But in the end it was the right decision.

    For the story to work and for her to evolve, she had to be spoiled and hard. But for her to sustain that and still have any hope of eliciting reader sympathy, we had to show why much earlier than I’d planned – and they had to be strong reasons.

    Just as someone above said, motivation is key. My problem was not revealing it soon enough. (Sometimes I feel like such a slow learner!!!!!)

    Sounds like you’ve got it sorted. Great topic and discussion. Thankyou!

  10. Thanks, Kerri,

    Great to see you here and thanks for sharing your experience. It can be a hard decision working out what to reveal when, can’t it? But letting the reader know motivations and just enough backstory seems to make all the difference.

    Hope your rewrites are going well.

    Dee:)

  11. Motivation is definitely a key and getting the balance of positive qualities right. A lot of the time it depends on what the reader’s background and what they bring with them to the reading. Sometimes they are comparing them to someone they know. Someone recently said they found Joel in Streets on a Map hard to like. I was a bit surprised.I came to the conclusion it was because he wasn’t acting the way her husband would have in similar circumstances.

  12. Hi Dale,

    People certainly take different things away from a book and they do relate people and events to their own experiences.. I don’t think all characters have to be likeable. The main thing is that readers have to care about what happens to the main character.

    Dee:)

  13. Hi Dee, thanks for a great and very timely post. I’m in the middle of a similar dilemma, only I have two unlikeable characters. I tried so hard to show how and why #1 was the way he was, but neglected to ever show the positives of his personality, or how he was before he turned into a bitter man. Rewriting earlier scenes to reflect some of his kindness, which I knew of, but forgot to show the reader, is helping to soften him. The odd physical response/action helps too. Adding a wink or a smile, or even a gentle touch. I thought #2 was just a strict, cranky mother, but turns out she comes across as downright mean to her daughter. So some softening and a bit of backstory planted to show why she is the woman she is, and who she was before, are reforming her “meanness” into justifiable actions and attitudes. We writers know our characters so well that we often forget to show “all” of them to our readers. It’s fascinating, and definitely a balancing act. It also show the great benefit in having trusted others critique our work. Best wishes, Chris. 🙂

  14. Thanks, Chris,

    Sometimes it can be the little things we forget to show the reader that make all the difference. I had a mother who came across as mean when I just wanted her to seem repressed. By divulging to the reader what had made her that way, she elicited more reader sympathy straight away. By interweaving the past with the present, I was able to make her character more likeable and add more layers to the story.

    Happy writing and editing.

    Dee:)

  15. Hi Dee,
    A great post which is already making me think of the MC in my crime story Sayonara. Next month when I’m rewriting it , I’ll have your suggestions printed out in front of me.

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