I’m on the verge of launching a new story, which means introducing new protagonists and hoping they “play well” together. While their personalities are different than the characters from my first book, (i.e. the characters this post was about when I wrote it a few years ago) the lessons are essentially the same. I hope you find it a worthwhile read! -Anne
Playgrounds are difficult. Supervising three children on our morning excursions leaves me longing for my afternoon coffee.
My eldest is an organizer. Last week she had half a dozen kids using the wood chips that covered the ground as ‘ice cream’ in a makeshift shop, which they ‘sold’ to other children, stashing other wood chips in a hole in the playset for a bank… it was elaborate.
My middle child has followed his big sister around for years, allowing her to run the games. That era seems to be ending. He will still go along, when he wants to, but he is also beginning to assert his independence. He spent most of that day trying to time out a run up the slide between other children sliding down.
My youngest just wants to play. She wanders and dreams and I try to steer her away from wandering too close to the swings, again.
I…I try not to hover. I keep a sharp lookout that they are all safe, but I try not to worry about the bumps and bruises, the dirty faces and the woodchips in their hair and whether the other children like them.
‘Try’ is the key word. How can I love my little crazies so much and not worry about them?
I feel some of the same anxieties for the characters in my stories.
After all, I have given them life, in a way. I’d like them to be happy in the little world I’ve made for them, able to muddle through their story and hopefully come out better for the journey.
The trouble is, like my children, these fictional people don’t live in isolation. They need to be able to play well with others, but in their case, the others aren’t their peers. They are their readers.
No one wants their kid to be ‘that kid,’ the one left on the sidelines, the one desperate to be liked but forever lonely.
No author wants their creation to be ‘that character,’ the one readers write off as cliché or predictable or unlikeable.
However, my protagonists didn’t exactly come out of their first exposure to professional readers looking like the popular kids. My feedback from the Athanatos writing contest pointed out a number of weak points.
Please, don’t write this type of character- it’s overused.
She’s too sweet.
Avoid using this name- we see it all of the time.
And so on.
The critiques were kindly given, and meant to be helpful. Still, my first instinct was “Mama Bear.”
WHAT? Oh yeah? Well YOU don’t know them! And I deliberately tried not to write her that way- GRRRRRAAAA!
When calm returned, I skimmed through my draft. Ok, some of the criticisms fit, maybe, but there were reasons why the characters acted that way…
There was the problem.
I knew my characters backwards and forwards.
My readers didn’t.
I needed to do a better job of portraying my protagonists. Their motivations needed to be clear if they had any hope of being likeable. With a goal in mind, I got to work.
“Likeability” Can’t Be Forced
From childhood experience, I knew that if my characters seemed overeager to be liked, they would probably fail. (I mean, how can you NOT like him? Look, he speaks in poetry, saves puppies, volunteers every weekend, everyone in the BOOK likes him, you HAVE TO LIKE HIM!!!!!) Like the ‘cool kids’ on the playground, they’d need to come by it naturally.
But, What Do They DO?
If you’ve written at all, you’ve surely heard the advice, ‘show, don’t tell.’ I searched out any places in the books where I said nice things about the character. If they made sense to the story, I kept them, but otherwise they were chopped. I searched out scenes where the characters showed admirable qualities, and strengthened them.
Flaws are Good.
No one likes a show off. I knew that my characters had flaws, and that these flaws drove them. My female protagonist is so overeager to maintain good relationships with her remaining family that she bends over backwards and sacrifices happiness to keep the peace, and inadvertently puts herself and others in danger. My male protagonist is so hyper-responsible that he almost gets himself killed because he can’t handle the guilt of someone else being hurt on his watch. Re-reading, I realized that I hadn’t shown the darker sides of these traits, and as a result they both just came off as ‘goody-two-shoes.’
I wrote and rewrote, trying to give my paper people room to breathe, to be flawed, to interact with others in organic ways. Several drafts later, I hope that I am closer to realizing that goal!
A good character needs a balance of positive qualities and flaws, of personality quirks and inane normalcy to live and breathe and become more than just flat words on a page. They need these things, this attention to background to become likeable- more than that, to become relatable for their readers.
Writers- what tricks do you use to make your characters likeable? (Or at least interesting- whether a character needs to be likeable is another topic 🙂 )
Readers- what stands out about the story characters you love?