Monday, February 28, 2011

Redeeming Unlikable Main Characters

One of my writing weaknesses seems to be creating main characters that readers don't like. I blogged about this problem back in January. Sure enough, I'm currently revising an old project, and reviewers are noticing this problem. My MC, Jo, has some emotional issues with her family that affect how she deals with everyone. How she grows past her issues is a important character arc in this story; while she does change, I need to keep readers around long enough to see her change. So I wrote a short list of my main character's strengths and weaknesses, then I made the following changes in my manuscript:

I cleaned my MC up. Well, not literally, but I toned down her cursing habit and removed a description of Jo in tattered clothes.

I made her interactions with other characters less negative. Instead of making Jo perpetually mad at the whole world, I decided to let focus her rage at her family--or at least, the ones who most deserve it. I may tweak this a bit to match up with a plot twist I came up with this afternoon.

Make other characters seem even worse. The plot twist I came up with involves her least favorite uncle using his power to manipulate Jo's life to make her do something she doesn't agree with.

So far, I've avoided a very obvious change: showing more of Jo's good traits. I haven't figured out yet how to incorporate those in the beginning, but doing so would definitely tip the balance toward the more sympathetic end of the scale.

How important is protagonist likability to you when you read?


Elizabeth Briggs said...

Maybe you need a "save the cat" moment?

Trisha said...

I definitely want my characters to be likeable. But I don't want no Mary Sues! I want them to be imperfect, but lovable. And I was told by one person about my opening chapters that she had a hard time really liking my MC. So I've had to tone down the emo a little and inject some happy moments. ;)

LM Preston said...

Welcome to my world. My characters start off with a whole lot of issues and overcome them in the end. However, I hope they do have some likeable traits that shine through even in the beginning. Maybe that's what you have to do, find ways to put in those likeable traits early on.

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

Elizabeth--thanks for the link! I have a sample of Save the Cat! on my Kindle, but I haven't had a chance to read it yet. I might need to bump it up on the TBR queue.

Trisha--Imperfect but lovable sounds like a good compromise. That's what we're like in real life, after all. I'm also trying to tone down the emo with Jo.

LM--Yes, I guess a lot of us have this problem! Humm, maybe there is a way to tweak the opening and make Jo more likable...

Barbara Ann Wright said...

I've discovered that likability takes a backseat to how interesting the character is. I'm reading a fantasy book right now in which none of the characters are likable, but they're all very interesting.

Maria Zannini said...

The 'save the cat' idea is an excellent device to redeem an unlikable character. I don't mind if they're a little unlikable at first, as long as I can see the transformation along the way. I also want to know why s/he is unlikable.

Donna Hole said...

. . but not every MC needs to start out as the good guy. Not all readers need to adore a character right away.

Be connected somehow, yes; but not necessarily like. Redeeming qualities do not have to be over-emphasized or dramatic; and other characters do not need to deserve (or be worse than) the MC temperament. If the characters around the MC are obviously showing indifference to the high maintenance family member, acting as if this is usual, even if they are uncomfortable with the attitude it will allow the reader a pause to say: What am I not getting.

Its a lot more work to write an unlikeable character turn him/her into someone you can at least sympathize with and understand. You just need at least one supporting character to not give up, and the antagonistic MC to show remorse/guilt occasionally. And a strong, believable reason for the animosity.

I think - - oh, I guess I should have prefaced this comment with "all this is just my opinion." However, I think writers get too caught up on the concept of "liking" the MC and forget that you can also "like" the bad guy. Or someone not completely heroic.

I like anti-hero's. Not always, but if well done. Stephen R Donaldson created a highly successful anti-hero in Thomas Covenant (The Chronicle of ..); and The Man in Cormack McCarthy's THE ROAD was a bit of an anti-hero.

And if you really look at Stephen Kings work, a lot of his MC's display a lot of untrustworthy characteristics within the first few paragraphs.

My two cents worth anyway. Nice to meet you Sandra :)


Kari Marie said...

I generally want to like the MCs. However if they are flawed and less than likable, they need to have a strongly compeling story and I need to see their ability to grow early in the book or I'll lose interest.

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