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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Have 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?
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.
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!
Julie 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.
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!)
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.