By Julie Wright
I have a confession to make. I write unlovable characters. I do it ALL the time. I like the growth that comes from a character who starts out with a bit of bite. And what's more, I think sarcasm is funny. If you stick with my characters long enough, you will find them softened and lovable by the end of the story, but some people think writing the unlovable is impossible.
I'm here to say it is very possible. To start out with someone who is reprehensible and then grow to love them makes for a fun journey for the reader as well as the character. It allows the reader access to understand other people, other motives, other walks of life. It allows the reader to grow and find compassion and comprehension within themselves.
I don't write the unlovable as a moral object lesson for readers. I think I write them because I was so unlovable for so many years of my youth and I can relate to the unlovable.
But how do you write snarky, ill-tempered characters and keep people from throwing your book across the room, or worse from writing you and demanding a refund?
Daphne Atkeson, someone I know from an online writer's group for YA novels, created what she calls a "cheat sheet" of ways to establish early empathy (not sympathy) for a character. She gathered this information from several craft books by Billy Mernitt, Michael Hague, Donald Maas and Orson Scott Card.
Here is her list with her permission:
-- undeserved misfortune
-- Liked or loved by someone else
-- Good at something, has a strength
-- Trying to improve or be good
-- Wit or boldness
-- Aware of his flaws
-- Has some power
-- Has a familiar flaw
-- Shows forgiveness
-- Self sacrifice.
Four keys. A character must have:
1) PURPOSE--most important--what he wants, must be specific
3) EMPATHY--not sympathy, don't feel sorry for him, identify with
4) COMPLEXITY--inner conflict, more than one side, surprise us with
unseen aspects, contradictions and quirks
To the degree that your character feels passionately invested in his own
life, the reader will feel invested, too.
CHARACTER TIPS from Blake Snyder (Save the Cat)
Character must be someone we can.
1) Identify with
2) Learn from
3) Compelling reason to follow
4) Deserves to win
5) Primal stakes that ring true (primal means sex, food, survival,
saving loved one, fear of death)
As I looked over the list, I realized that I incorporate these methods and tools in my writing all the time. With my characters being who they are, I have to. But seeing her list gave me an understanding into my characters that I'd never had before, and from now on, I'll be writing these characters a little better than they were before. If you lean towards the unloved characters, this list might just be what you need.