For my first post in this series, I focused on a common reason that readers might stop reading: Lack of a Clear Goal. If the main character doesn’t have a goal, or if it’s not revealed early on, readers don’t know where the story’s headed and may end up losing interest.
Today, I’m going to talk about a problem I ran into just last week. I was browsing the library shelves and came across a book I’d never read by one of my favorite authors when I was a teen. It was a companion novel to a series I’d devoured—the paperbacks are literally falling apart on my bookshelf at home. Needless to say, before I’d read a single word, I was fully prepped to love this book.
Sadly, I didn’t.
The main character was mentioned in the original series but never made an appearance. Now I know why. He was surly, incredibly cocky, apathetic to the feelings of others, mean to a homeless dog that kept turning up, and had a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas. Granted, he had a good reason for being so crabby. This, combined with my desire to love the story, kept me reading far longer than I normally would have. But by chapter four, I gave it up.
Character creation is tricky. Our heroes have to have flaws, but they can’t be so flawed that people would rather abandon them than share the journey. A book that achieves this balance flawlessly is one of my favorite reads of 2013: The Wicked and the Just. The story is incredibly well-written, but I also love it because it contains the most unlikable character I think I’ve ever read. And yet I cared about what happened to her. I not only finished the book, I now haunt the author’s website looking for the sequel. When I deconstruct Coats’ writing, I see some techniques she utilized to make her unlikable character not only bearable, but endearing:
High Stakes. The year is 1293, and Cecily’s father is moving them to occupied Wales, where tensions between the ruling English and subdued Welsh are high. It’s clear from the beginning that serious trouble is coming and Cecily will be smack in the middle of it. Though a character may be unlikable, readers can still empathize with her if her circumstances are dire. That danger doesn’t have to be physical, though. Circumstances that threaten a character’s emotional or mental wellbeing can be just as gripping. Look at John Nash from A Beautiful Mind. Whatever’s at stake, make sure it’s big and it’s clear, and readers may still root for an unlikable character.
Endearing Traits. Certain character traits are nearly universally admired by others: intelligence, wit or humor, feistiness. Cecily’s voice conveys all of these things. Though she’s selfish, manipulative, and sometimes mean, you’re drawn in because she’s funny, and though you don’t approve of her methods, you have to admire her for striving so hard for what she wants. To make a difficult character more palatable, give her some likable qualities, and readers just might buy in.
An Endearing Moment. Though Cecily’s admirable qualities are evident in her narrative, I don’t think that an entertaining voice is enough. Coats remedies this on page four by including a brief conversation between Cecily and two friends that reveals how brokenhearted they all are that Cecily is leaving. Though her good qualities are understated, the affection of her friends shows that someone truly likes her—that she’s worth liking. It’s downplayed, but it’s a classic Save The Cat moment. Show your character doing something likable or being likable in some way, and the reader will see that she’s not a lost cause.
One caveat: I’ve always believed that the main character has to be likable in some way for readers to make that magical connection. But after thinking on this for awhile, I think I’ve changed my tune. I mean, Scarlett O’Hara wasn’t likable at all. Will Hunting: not exactly a charmer. But these characters resonate with audiences. Why? Because they evoke an emotion that endears them somehow to audiences: they make them laugh, or elicit admiration, or evoke sympathy.
So if you’ve got a character that’s hard to love, utilize one or more of these techniques to draw out those endearing emotions, and you just might ensure that readers will keep on reading.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.