Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Making bitter sweet

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!


  1. In the composition class I'm taking at the moment, we're learning to write by reading classic and modern classic novels. When I read this post the first "fun villain" I thought of was Lord Henry from THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY. Some people in our class hated him, others loved him, but all agreed that he was the most quotable and interesting character in the novel! (Of course, I thought of Vollys second.)

    Thanks for the post - it really made me think!

  2. "Nice Villain?"
    Definitely Ed the Shark from Diane Duane's Young Wizards series. He shows up in book 2. He's done bad things, he knows he's done bad things, we the readers know he's done bad things, and he intends to kill the main character...but somehow I find him quite likeable anyhow. I think this is because he comes off as rather dutiful about all the bad things he's done: "this is my destiny to be this way" - he doesn't really like it either, so we feel sorry for him instead of hating him. And in the end he is...well...very instrumental in everything coming out all right.

  3. Is it important to make your villains likable? It is common that in a good book I will both enjoy a villain's strategy and understand and relate to their desires. I never really thought about making my villains likable, though. They were just the bad guys, nothing more. Would it add more diversity to my writing to make my villains a little more human and easier to sympathize with?

  4. This is so interesting, Gail. I think about this a lot. You offered so many interesting thoughts about the heart of likable villians.

    For me it's always recognizing the gray. The thing about the supervisor you spoke of, I think the thing that would strike me about her is she has so much to learn. Her world is about to spin wildly out of her control and hopefully she will learn humility. (I'm not sure why but I always want everyone to have a satisfying ending, but I know it doesn't always work out that way.)

    I agree that humor will lighten up a character. I totally agree you have to leaven villians with love, kindness, long suffering, joy, good stuff to really to draw in the reader. A one note villian will weaken a story. For me I love stories where I can identify with the villian, and also see what a monster we're dealing with. It's like if I can convince my readers to walk a mile in the shoes of all my characters not just the hero's, then eyes will open and they will see.

    Just some random thoughts. Hope all is well. Molly Blaisdell
    Anyway thank you for the post.

  5. Oh, I really enjoyed reading this post, thanks for sharing your views, Ms. Levine!

  6. I very much enjoyed this post, for I have both bitter characters and villains in my book. You've given me so much more to think about.

    I have a bitter character. He's been through a lot, but my main character saves him. He starts out sort of secluded and quiet, but throughout the course of the book, he develops a friendship with my MC and gradually warms up to the rest of the world. The only problem is that I fear this "warming up" might be happening too quickly (the opposite of Bearcoon's problem). It's a complicated situation - while he's grateful to my MC, I don't what their friendship to come about too early before readers can see his bitterness and insecurity. Any thoughts?

    I also realize I might have to do some work on my villain, for I fear his character is a tad underdeveloped. However, he doesn't play a huge role in my book. He's the instigator of events, but we don't actually see him until the end of the book. From hearing about him, we know that he is smart, devious, and a traitor. He is also no coward. He might be evil, or he might just have some messed-up moral standards. But sometimes I wonder if his motives are enough to make his wrongdoings believable. He can't just be evil for the sake of being evil. Does anyone have ideas on how to craft a believable villain?

    Thank you Mrs. Levine for yet another marvelous post!

  7. :3 Very happy that my question was answered. It does help, though a lot of the answers were if the cynic were a secondary character. Mine is the MC, which seems to make it a whole lot harder to make her likable.
    My brain is already spinning with idea of how to use these tips though, thanks so much!

  8. For me, I always find it hard to give the villain good reasons for being villainous. All the ones I think of are used all the time: revenge, power, money. Some of them even seem kind of shallow or unrealistic. Usually I end up making my villain be doing his actions for a cause or a reason he believes is good, or maybe it's a group that just has different ideas. It's hard.

    My all-time favorite villain is Chauvelin from The Scarlet Pimpernel. I haven't read the book, but I know the musical. He is kind of leading the French Revolution, and is portrayed as a bloodthirsty killer at the guillotine, so everyone hates him. Sometimes I feel bad for him, because he just believes in a cause and is acting upon it. Also, he's in love with Marguerite (the main character), who rejects him for his enemy. I find him very interesting, and I really like the depth of personality he has, which is good for a villain. Often villains can be shallow.

    I find it better if the villain is more than just a villain, if there's more to his personality or intentions. Maybe the reason he lies all the time is because of his past, or he has a huge secret. Maybe he's ready to betray because he's never learned to love people. Maybe he wants to take over the world because he thinks it's better for everyone. If there are more of these things in the character, it can help balance the evil with good and make a more logical character.

  9. Jenna Royal and Silver the Wanderer--I'm adding your questions about writing villains to my list.

    Jenna Royal--I think some villains can be simply bad, and their unrelieved evil may be perfect for a particular story, but it's always good to have additional options to explore.

    Silver the Wanderer--About your bitter character, I suggest you keep going and figure out the progression of the relationship when you revise.

    Hey, Molly! Great to hear from you. I'm sure you're right about the supervisor, and you're very kind to her, naturally. All well here.

    Bearcoon--You may find my post of August 25, 2010, helpful.

  10. This was really helpful! All of your suggestions are great, and I love the prompt. I can't wait to start working on it.

    From my experience playing a "villain," I have learned that it always helps to remember that every character has a reason for what he or she says or does. If the reader understands the "villain's" motive which may not actually be evil, the character may be more likable. Ms. Levine, I think you do a great job of doing that with Bombina. Another great example (for older readers) is Elphaba from Gregory Maguire's novel Wicked.

  11. The woman on the train sounds like a real villain. I'd love to sit beside her anytime though, since I'm currently in a place where English is not the first language, so even a mean lady would be a godsend. I sit in the buses and trains, feeling grumpy at the people around me, chattering away in exciting tones, all in tongues I just cannot understand. I feel like I'm missing a treasure trove of dialogue.=)

    Anyway, great post! I find balancing a villain's 'evilness' rather hard sometimes. More frequently though, its the opposite. I make the villians too nice, and can't help but forgive, or let them be humbled at the end. Is there ways I can be more awful to them? =)

  12. Oh my! I have not commented yet, I better do that.
    Great great great post. This will help me immensley. When currently editing a past project, I have a character who is on the "good side" technically but she's very bitter, unreliable, and a bit self-centered. I really need her to come across as likeable, since she does have an excuse for being all these things, and the reader needs to like her since she is in there a lot. This post has sparked many ideas...I think its time for her to get a makeover...
    This will also help me shape my villan for my Nano this year, a double win! ^.^

    As for awesome villans in other books, if anyone has ever read "The Mysterious Benedict Society" Mr. Curtain is a great villan. He's so human, but evil, and well-rounded and just...well-written and awesome, even though I don't like him (he is the villan after all) I respect him, and like reading about him. I also love his bumbling foolish side-kick S.Q. Pedallion. Both great.
    Thanks again for the post Ms. Levine, very thought provoking...

  13. Oooh! Another NaNo! Hey, Grace.. T minus - ulp - 3 days till the quest begins!
    And I just read _Hunger Games_ so I feel a bit jaded and like a very bad, clunky writer. Not perhaps the best mindset for November. :)

  14. @Grace- I've read Mysterious Benedict Society! My younger sister loves them. Mr Curtain is certainly a great villian. Btw, what's your NaNo username?

  15. @ Mya My Nano username is candlelightwriter,what's yours? Gosh, only two days until Nano now *bites nails*...

  16. I've read the Mysterious Benedict Society, too. Mr. Curtain is very entertaining, and you can understand him. I might read it again for more help with my villains . . . in the story I'm writing, my villain has some reason for her evilness, but I never put much thought into it. It would be interesting to add some personality to her. I want her to be likable, but I want my MC to be the obvious choice of who the reader wants to succeed. I find some books frustrating when you don't know who to cheer for. It's like watching a sports game and you can't decide who you want to win, and you end up cheering for the underdog. It works for sports, but not so much for books. It's more fun (at least for me) when there's an obvious desired outcome.

    Oh my gosh, only two days until NanoWriMo? :0 I'm not ready yet!

  17. @Grace- Its Childgrove, I'll send you a message=) Sorry Mrs Levine, for hijacking your blog!

  18. @Bearcoon

    Have you seen Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog? The main character is the villain, and he can be whiney and bitter, but is still very likable. Middle school and up.

    It's not posted on the official site in one long piece anymore, so here it is in parts on YouTube:


    Each part is about 7 minutes long, give or take.

  19. @Gail

    Will you be writing a pep talk for NaNoWriMo this year? I can't believe it's been a year already since then.

  20. TWENTY-FIVE MINUTES TO GO!! To NaNoWriMo officially starting for me, in case you're wondering. I'm very sleepy, but I'm going to write a few hundred words before I go to bed! :D I can't believe it's been an year since I've found this blog and read your pep-talk, Ms. awesome.

    @April: They've released a list of authors writing a pep-talk, and Ms. Levine isn't one of them. But perhaps she could drop a few words here and there to spur us on anyway? :P

  21. We should totally have a GCLevine commenter's club over at the NaNo forums. *chuckles*

  22. Mya--I've grouped your question with the others about villains.

    F--Certainly I'll say something about NaNoWriMo!

  23. F, if this were Facebook, I'd "like" your last comment. ;)

  24. @Ms.Levine - YAY! Thank you! :D I can't wait, seriously!

    @April - thanks! LOL! :D

    I'm hard at typing away...I'm keeping up if I'm aiming for 50K, but like a fool, I challenged someone else and am now aiming for 150K. :/