Before I start, I want to point out the new link to the right, which will take you to my husband’s website for his beautiful photographs. If you need a break, it may be just the thing. In the galleries you’ll see photos on many subjects. The blog takes you through fall (so far) in southern upstate New York.
On June 30, 2010, Bearcoon wrote, How do you make rather dark characters still come across likable? I have several characters that have had a hard time previously in life and because of this are really bitter at everything, but I'd hoped people would at least sympathize with them. So far, no one really has. Are there any tips to making a lovable cynic?
Yesterday morning I took the train into New York City. I was meditating and snoozing when someone sat next to me. Her coworker took the seat behind her, and they talked. I drifted in and out of sleep and eavesdropped. The two were supervisors. My seat-mate went on about the flaws of each of her subordinates, detailing how she set them straight. I thanked my lucky stars she wasn’t my supervisor. When I opened my eyes I saw that she was young, pretty, perfectly attired for business. I hated her - in an impermanent way. I don’t wish her ill, but I really wish the people who work for her very well.
I’m being unfair, I'm sure. She may have been absolutely right in the way she handled each situation. She may also volunteer at a local hospital, take in injured pigeons, give half her salary to disaster assistance. And she may have to be perfect because a parent criticized her mercilessly when she was little. I still took no pleasure in her company.
This may be the crux of the problem. The bitter characters may not be fun to be around on the page. Even if the reader understands, for example, that Sean’s father beat him with a belt whenever he didn’t finish his string beans, if he whines on the page, the reader may have little sympathy. In fact, knowing about the beatings may make matters worse, because the reader may feel guilty for disliking Sean and may like him even less as a result, and may go so far as to put down the story he’s in.
When I was a young woman I knew a villain, a real life villain, who had no one’s best interest at heart but his own. It took me a while to figure this out, but thanks to my husband I escaped relatively unscathed. This guy probably had an awful childhood, although I know nothing about it. But, oh my, he was fun - funny, original. A conversation with him was always fascinating. When he wanted to, he could make me feel as brilliant as he was, and when he wanted, he could make me feel as dumb as a termite. He would make a great character on the page. The reader would enjoy being in his company even while recognizing his villainy.
So the first strategy would be to make your dark characters fun on the page. Bitterness can be expressed with humor, and humor is usually appealing. Self-awareness too. The cynic who knows she’s being unreasonable and says so often wins the reader's forgiveness.
In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, the dragon Vollys is evil. She intends to kill the main character Addie, who is in her clutches. The reader knows this and still loves her, possibly because he understands she's desperately lonely. Her tragedy is that she always annihilates the people she loves. She traps them, comes to adore them, then has to spend every minute in their company until they start to drive her crazy. Then she murders them and misses them instantly and mourns them eternally.
One reason the reader cares for Vollys is because she appreciates Addie, whom the reader identifies with. It’s as if Vollys loves the reader. It’s hard to dislike someone who loves you.
So that’s a second strategy. If your bitter character hates the world with one exception, your main, the reader will discount the world and be content.
Vollys is also expert at showing her side of things. Dragons and humans have battled for centuries. She reveals the dragon side of the conflict. In the way she tells it the reader has to sympathize. A human hero stabbed Vollys’s mother, and Vollys recites a moving poem about her death. Another strategy: show events from the bitter character’s perspective. In an old horror movie, Repulsion (definitely adult, and only for adults who like to be scared witless), the heroine is also the villain. She’s going mad and strikes out when she thinks she’s being threatened. The threats are imagined, but the viewer sees them too. She’s impossible to hate because we know she acts out of insane self-defense.
In my books about the fairies of Neverland, the fairy Vidia cares only about flying fast. She’s nasty and self-centered, but she’s funny, and occasionally the reader glimpses a better self. Those glimpses are enough to make her sympathetic. So, allow your bitter character an occasional moment of innocence.
Even a whiny, annoying character will be tolerated by the reader if your main character loves him. Let’s imagine that your main, Thea, babysits a troubled nine-year old, Ricky, who is in a terrible mood when the reader meets him. He torments Thea because he knows how to push her buttons. She may be mad at him, but she still loves him, and in her thoughts she tells the reader why. It could go something like this: Thea sat back in the couch, stunned. When she’d told Ricky about feeling stupid she never thought he’d use the information against her. From his triumphant face she saw he’d been saving it up. Then he ducked his head as if he expected her to strike him. She saw the curls at the nape of his neck and his tee shirt label sticking out. Her fury melted. The bonus here is that the reader winds up even more pro-Thea than before. You can try this.
Along the same lines - and this is one more strategy - a narrator’s affection for a character can make the reader like him. This is from Peter Pan by James M. Barrie, a few pages after Captain Hook has wantonly killed one of his own pirates: Hook heaved a heavy sigh; and I know not why it was, perhaps it was because of the soft beauty of the evening, but there came over him a desire to confide to his faithful bo’sun the story of his life. Later on, Peter fools Hook into thinking he’s a codfish. Who can hate such a silly man?
Consider fictional characters you know who are mixed blessings but beloved anyway. Think about how the author has reconciled you to them. Go back to the books and examine how it was done, the sentences and incidents that created the effect.
Possibly the best thing about this blog is the sharing. If you have ideas about making difficult characters likable, please chime in.
Here’s a prompt: Hazel has had an unhappy life--abuse, neglect; the few good people in her life have been lost to her. She began to form a connection with one of her teachers, but he just humiliated her in front of her classmates. In her journal (her only friend) she plots revenge. Write the journal entry, and make the reader like her.
Have fun, and save what you write!