Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Unlovable Character

A popular post from December 2009

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

2) CREDIBILITY--believable

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.


Stephanie Black said...

Thanks, Julie, this is really helpful. I'm writing a character right now who kind of fits in the unlikable category, so this was a timely post for me!

Josi said...

What a great summation, cool. Thanks for the resources.

Jordan McCollum said...

That's a great resource! I had this problem with one of my first manuscripts, so I went back and did a lot of research on making characters more sympathetic. I'm working on a blog series about the topic for next month, too--I'll be sure to link back here!

Annette Lyon said...

Yes! This is exactly why your unlovable characters work!

Books where characters lack those elements are the ones where I want to huck them against the wall--they don't have those redeeming qualities that keep us going.

Great post.

LexiconLuvr said...

THANK YOU! I totally need this. I kind of aimed for a character who was weak and timid (to start with) on purpose. Some people get that and end up liking her and some people just hate her. With this list, I may be able to sway more of them to the liking side of things. Thank you!

Fiauna said...

I, too, write unloveable character; however, not in the redeemable, Mr. Darcy sort of way. I must learn from the compiled list and start writing compelling characters. Thanks for the tip.

Anonymous said...

I will confess, about four chapters in, I almost stopped reading one of your books because the main character seemed so shrill. At first I couldn't see a single redeeming quality and wanted to slap her. But I persisted and just as you said, she was eventually redeemed and softened in a believable way. The book turned out to be quite good.

I think its a fine line - deciding how far you can push a reader before they will just say forget it, not worth it.

Julie Wright said...

Anon, your confession made me smile. Don't feel bad about it; my own editor wasn't too pleased with DB's decision to publish the book. Like you, he ended up being glad for the book, but my first time meeting him, he scowled at me and said, "Well, I don't know that I approve. This is a lot darker than I feel our company should be publishing." He was somewhere between pages 40 and 50. He wrote me a week later and told me he'd changed his mind, but I did a lot of fretting and panicking for that week!

Kimberly said...

Much like for Stephanie, this is a very timely post for me as well. Having seen authors like you pull it off so beautifully, I knew the unlovable character could be done and done well, but seeing it broken down like this is so helpful.

Heather B. Moore said...

It's amazing to see it all broken down. Great lists!

Terresa said...

Lovely tips, as always. Thank you.

Eowyn said...

As I just finished "My Not So Fairy Tale Life" I can see these things in your heroine. Well done and thanks for sharing!

Anna Maria Junus said...

I loved "My Not-So-Fairy-Tale Life because your character was so believable and sarcastic.

Hey, for me, humor forgives lots of imperfections.

Great post! This is a keeper.