Softening a Hard Character To Make Them Likable

We see lots of fiction infused with tough, edgy characters…especially in YA novels. Readers love a protagonist who wears life’s battle scars out in the open, but such gritty characters force authors to walk a fine line. An action that is out of character due to poor delivery of backstory, too much negativity, or flaws that go too far and a character can jump from likable to loathed. Author Julie Musil is here with some great tips on how to handle our hard characters.

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Julie MusilHave you ever done something you regretted? Spoke harshly when you wished you’d held your tongue? Me too. If we were to look back at those moments—study them—could we single out what we felt at that moment? Anger? Fear? Insecurity?

The main character in my YA novel, The Boy Who Loved Fire, is modeled after Scrooge from A Christmas Carol. While writing the first draft, I put my mean hat on and got busy. After I signed with my agent, we went through hearty revisions. I had to dismantle Manny, the main character, and rebuilt him by softening him up. Sure, sometimes he acted cruelly and said things he shouldn’t, but I had to dig deeper into why he acted this way. How did I tackle this task?

Research

Although Manny is not a bully, I researched bullies to get to the core of why they act as they do. Many times it’s their own insecurities rising to the surface. Is their popularity fragile? Do they feel inferior when it comes to athletics or academics? Are they bullied at home? Are they afraid of being alone? When revising my book, I used this study material to dig deeper into Manny’s backstory and understand him better.

Read

There are some great books out there that feature anti-heroes, or characters who should be difficult to root for. Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver. Hate List, by Jennifer Brown.  19 Minutes, by Jodi Picoult. Each of these books feature a character who isn’t always nice. Even though we shouldn’t like this person or root for them, we do. Why?

In each case, the author did a great job of scratching the surface and illustrating why the characters are the way they are. For instance, in 19 Minutes the unlikable character has been bullied since his first day of school. Not ordinary bullying, either. His life was a string of humiliation at the hands of others. This was shown not told. When this character does something awful, we understand his motives.

With Scrooge, he was distant because he’d grown up alone. He was miserly because he grew up poor. He was cruel because he’d hardened his heart in order to avoid getting hurt. Once we learn this about him, we root for him.

Contrast Inner vs. Outer

As fiction writers we have the opportunity to show readers more than a movie could. We’re able to show the character’s inner thoughts and emotions. Better yet, we’re able to contrast their inner turmoil against their outward acts of confidence. Manny may act cocky and speak with confidence, but the reader knows his deepest fears. His family is in turmoil. His love life has been an epic fail. His place at the top of the high school food chain is fragile.

Writing a hardened but sympathetic character is not an easy task. Through research, reading books with similar characters, and contrasting outer actions vs. inner turmoil, the reader understands and roots for the anti-hero.

*** And if I can add a link, another way to soften a hard character is to show them experiencing something that makes them feel vulnerable. Vulnerability is difficult for everyone, but especially tough heroes bent on protecting themselves from emotional pain. 8 Ways To Make Your Character Feel Vulnerable might give you some additional ideas on how to use vulnerability to cast your hero in a new light with readers.

Have you ever written an anti-hero, or read books with unsympathetic characters? Did the author persuade you to root for him? Any tips for writing an anti-hero? Please share!

The BWLFJulie Musil writes Young Adult novels from her rural home in Southern California, where she lives with her husband and three sons. She’s an obsessive reader who loves stories that grab the heart and won’t let go. Her novel The Boy Who Loved Fire is available now. For more information, or to stop by and say Hi, please visit Julie on her blog, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

The Boy Who Loved Fire (Goodreads): 

Manny, a modern teen Scrooge, faces 3 ghosts as he outruns arson charges, falls for his fire victim, & battles for redemption.

(How’s that for a compelling pitch line? I have this book on my iPad and can’t wait to read it!)

About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Characters, Guest Post, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Softening a Hard Character To Make Them Likable

  1. Pingback: February Recap: Lit News & Links! | The Red Door Blog

  2. great article, very helpful tips on making a potentially unlikable character more likable.

  3. Good post Julie. We often forget that our villains can’t be too cartoonishly evil. We wrote about that too:
    http://www.nownovel.com/blog/how-to-make-the-villain-in-your-story-more-human/

  4. Julie Glover says:

    This is perfect timing since I just read through the first draft of my novel and realized the main character came across too snarky, too mean at times. I’m looking for ways to soften her and make her more appealing to the reader. Thanks!

    • Julie Musil says:

      Julie…I had the same exact problem! I think it’s easy to go too far when writing the first draft. Thankfully we have revision, where we can dig even deeper and develop stronger backstory. Good luck!

  5. Yes! I just finished a manuscript that featured an anti-hero. The fun part was rehashing series scenes where we’d seen him through another character’s eyes and questioned his choices. Now, in his POV, we realize what a load he’d been carrying around–and just how close he is to snapping. 😉

    Great post, Julie!

  6. Rosi says:

    This is a terrific post with lots of good tips and a great link. Thanks for all of this. It’s so important to show this side of unlikable characters.

  7. Great post, Julie. Hard characters are ones who have been through much and it has damaged them. Michael Hauge puts it beautifully when he talks about the emotional armor characters wear to harden themselves in order to avoid emotional pain and how if they can achieve growth and love and learn, they can shed it to live within their essence (who they truly are, free from pain and hurt).

  8. Sometimes I end up redeeming hard characters in my stories. I do it because I want others to realize, no matter how dark a life someone has led, there is a point where they can choose to turn things around, to begin anew, to change.

  9. Diana Beebe says:

    Thanks for this insightful post! I’m revising a story with a hard character who needs to be more likeable. My beta readers and critique partners were split on how they felt about her, and an agent rejected the ms because she couldn’t like her (it was the most thoughtful and lovely rejection letter I’ve ever gotten!). I let the story sit for awhile and worked on other projects. Now it’s time to revise this one. Off to check out the eight ways…

    • Julie Musil says:

      Diana, it’s definitely a challenge! I struggled with it for a while. But now that the changes are made, I’m so glad I took the time to learn how to make it better. I wish you good luck with your revision!

  10. michael bryk says:

    Hello.
    Yes I write moral villains often. If you do not know what a Lilin is: she is a daughter of one of the Queens of Hell (Lilith, Agrat bat Mahlat, Eiseth Zenuim, and Naamah) + a high ranking Demon, usually defined as Samael.

    These foul creatures, having only 1/2 mortal soul, sometimes listen to their “inner voice” and wish not to be damned for all eternity.

  11. Susan says:

    This is so important. Tough characters can easily get out of hand and become alienating, unsympathetic. They also present a unique opportunity to become more sympathetic than a “soft” character if handled well because of the opposition between inner/outer life that this post mentions. We tend to feel more drawn to characters that we can understand, even though others can’t.

    That said, the prevalence of tough characters in YA is something that’s been grating on me lately. It seems to be the standard, now, especially with female protagonists. While I can appreciate a tough girl, Katniss seems to have unleashed a whole lot of slightly less inspired, less complex irritatingly adept, tough, cold, and a little (or more than a little) mean copycats.

    I would love to see a resurgence of some softer characters in YA who show a different kind of strength than hard edge and attitude.

  12. Lori Schafer says:

    I agree absolutely on the importance of revealing the “bad” character’s motivations and delving into the experiences that have shaped him or her in order to make the protagonist likable. However, I tend to stumble on methodology. I rarely begin a story with the precipitating event (which often occurred long before the main action of the story), and I tire of revealing backstory through flashbacks and such. Is there another way to weave this information deftly into the modern-day plot? I’d be interested in hearing any suggestions for another way to tackle this.

    • Julie Musil says:

      Lori…hmmm…inner thought might be a good way, which can reveal snaps of memories without a full flashback. Have your read James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure? He offers great ideas to make this work. Flashbacks should be rare. Small little “backflashes” (I think that’s what he calls them) work well. Brief insight to why a character thinks a certain way without boring the reader with massive backstory.

  13. Julie Musil says:

    Thanks so much for letting me hang out here today! And thanks for that additional link. I’m checking that one out today.

  14. Great tips on softening a character that may not be sympathetic. Awesome how you studied books who had to do this and did it well. Good luck with your book.

    • Julie Musil says:

      Natalie—thanks so much! Reading books with similar character or plot structure was a HUGE help. I mean seriously, making me feel sorry for a boy who shot up a high school? That’s talent (19 Minutes—awesome book)

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