April 29, 2010 Gray wrote, I'm writing a medieval fantasy story with a large cast. I have this fear of making my main characters unlikable and completely outshined by my supporting characters. I've found this restricts me from creating lots of lovable characters that suck a reader into the story. How do you balance your characters' "lovableness?"
Sounds like the problem may mostly be making your main characters lovable, a problem I share. According to my editors’ comments after reading the manuscripts of all three of these, Fairest, Ever, and Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, I failed to create sympathetic heroines . Before I revised, I asked the editors to point out the places where the characters seemed unappealing because I couldn’t tell.
I vaguely remember what the difficulty was in Ever, and it went something like this: Kezi believes she has only a month to live. She brought her impending death down on herself by an act of extraordinary kindness, a perfect case of the expression, Let no good deed go unpunished. Olus loves her and wants to help her. She appreciates this, but she doesn’t know him well and she’s a tad angry, a little absorbed in her approaching demise. When she gets mad at him it’s because he’s the only person around. I expected this to be clear, but it wasn’t. The editor found her ungrateful, so in revision I softened her. The book works now and didn’t work then, and I always wanted the reader to love Kezi, but I may have sacrificed a little complexity.
In Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, Gwendolyn, my main character, is living with the fairies. If something bad happened to a fairy, she thought about the consequences for herself rather than about the poor fairy. I did this without realizing because the consequences for Gwendolyn were going to move the story forward, but, alas, she came off as selfish.
You might want to keep these two questions in mind as you write your main character: Are his feelings understandable? Is he reacting in a caring way to others?
It’s a balancing act, as writing so often is. We’re in our main characters’ heads more than we’re in the minds of lesser characters, even if we’re writing in omniscient third person. We don’t want a paragon for a main, or the reader won’t identify. And we don’t want a main whose interior monologue is mean, or the reader won’t identify. We can’t really reflect life, because if a mind-reading device were ever invented, most people would be unsympathetic, at least sometimes. I certainly have unacceptable thoughts and feelings on occasion that I keep to myself.
So how to achieve likability?
If Holly, your main character, is thinking mean thoughts you may want to make her aware of this and self-critical. I hate men who wear tee shirts with suit jackets, Holly thinks. It’s so pretentious. The reader begins to dislike her until her next thought, which is, How can I hate a whole class of people without knowing them? The reader starts forgiving her.
Or Holly can think something horrible and do something nice. She hates these tee-shirt-jacket guys, but when one of them asks her for directions, she helps him to his destination, going way out of her way to do so. The reader notices.
Your main character can be grateful when life is going well, even temporarily. Holly appreciates. The air smells like earth after rain. The sunset is the color of her favorite scarf. She thinks how lucky she is. The reader is happy to be in her company. She doesn’t think, I suppose this is just the beginning of another drought. Good things never last, and a sunset that beautiful means something bad is about to happen. Ugh! Let me out of this character’s head.
You can think of real people you like and what you like about them and insert their qualities into your main characters. Alice is completely dependable. Zelda thinks the best of everyone. Barry has the most astonishing insights. And so on. There are many ways for people and characters to please us.
It may be more difficult to show your main’s good sides than a secondary character’s. For example, if Holly tells Barry about a problem and he gets it instantly and shows it to Holly in a new way, she can think, How perceptive he is, and the reader will like Barry better - and Holly for noticing. But she can’t advise Barry about his problem and then think, How perceptive I am, without coming off as boastful and unlikable.
Not that a main character always has to be likable. For example, the main character, Titus, in M. T. Anderson’s young-adult novel Feed (middle school and up, I’d guess) is not likable, not to me anyway. I pitied him, felt for his limited life, and wished futilely that his world would change - and couldn’t put the book down. He’s not even interesting; he’s utterly shallow, which may be the point of the book. In this terrible world, no one can rise above circumstance to develop depth.
The characters in Christopher Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking (high school and up) are not admirable, but I laughed my way to the end. And is Hamlet likable? I’m not sure. He’s terrible to Ophelia and also to her father, Polonius, and yet we feel for him. Few people walk out in the middle of the play.
As for secondary characters, go ahead and make them lovable, as many as you like, in my opinion. You may need bad characters for tension, but you can still populate your pages with charmers. In Ella Enchanted, Mandy is a delight, and her delightfulness doesn’t lessen Ella’s appeal. Adorable secondary characters may even help your main be more adorable himself. In life we sometimes judge people by their friends. I’ve doubted people who seemed nice but whose friends made me uncomfortable. You may have had the same experience. And I may trust someone more if I like her friends. Besides, it can be enjoyable to travel through a book in pleasant company - not always possible; it depends on the story.
Here are three prompts:
• Your main character Yvette is popular. She’s with several of her friends at a school function. An odd, unpopular boy is there, too, and Yvette goes out of her way to be cruel to him. Write the scene and make Yvette sympathetic even while she’s behaving badly.
• Four friends are hiking together. Make each one likable in a different way.
• Same friends, same hike. They run out of trail mix. One sprains an ankle. Rain starts to fall. Camp is still three miles off. Make them all deteriorate into annoying people. Create a crisis and bring them back to likable.
Have fun, and save what you write!