Thursday, March 15, 2012

People don't like my character -- writing tip

Question from the e-mail: The guys in my writers' group all claim they don't like my main character and ask why would they buy the book? "Who wants to spend time with someone like that?" they ask. Okay, my main character is NOT a Mr. Nice Guy. He does some questionable things. But how does that make it a bad book? I wrote it to explore his warped psyche, not so people would love him!

Answer: Again, as in the last question you sent me (about motivation), the problem is probably in the reason he does the "questionable things" he does. The main character is called the PROtagonist, because the reader will (or should) identify with him and root for him. Or her.

I haven't read your book, so I can't comment directly. There are always exceptions, of course, but the main character in most books must be someone the reader can like. One they can feel they understand and might have done the same, if circumstances demanded it. At the very least, they must understand WHY the character acts as he does and sympathize with his need to do it and understand his motivation.

But he can do whatever you want him to do, if you give him a good enough reason (Motivation) to do it.

As an example, let's look at best-selling author Jeff Lindsay's popular character, Dexter Morgan:

Dexter is a serial killer. He has a whole box full of blood slides collected from people has murdered, gruesomely! Getting people to LIKE him as a character must have been a challenge. I know folks who won't even consider looking at the TV show because, "It's about that mass-murderer guy." Well....

But look at what we know about Dexter's character aside from his murderous tendencies. From his actions, this is what readers (and now thanks to SHO, TV viewers) can see about Dexter.

1. He's not a random killer. He never kills anyone NICE. Most of his victims are other serial killers. Well he did make a mistake once, but that guy was a child pornographer....

2. Though he believes himself to be a sociopath and to love no one, he obviously loved his adoptive father and loves his sister. In fact, he loved his father so much, that despite his murderous tendencies, he promised to follow "Harry's Code" and to kill only lawbreakers that the law couldn't touch due to technicalities. Though Harry is long dead, Dexter still keeps his he's loyal and a man of his word.

3. He had a horrible experience as a child, saw his mother murdered, and THAT's what caused him to have these irresistible urges to kill. So there's an understandable reason for what he does.

4. Though reluctant, Dexter married his girlfriend. When pressed he tries to do the "right" thing.

5. He loves his son, and his step-children and is a patient, loving and caring parent to them all.

6. He is efficient at his job as a blood-spatter analyst.

Finally, most of us have felt the urge to kill at least once. We can identify with the urge and that lets us forgive Dexter's inability to resist it. We accept him as a protagonist, despite his tendency for producing corpses at inconvenient moments.


  1. I identify with the questioner. My story is about the redemption of a not-so-likable character. Agents don't care for him in the first 20 pp. because I've only had time to allude to the backstory and his reasons for being as he is. Maybe the trick for her and for me is to rewrite starting in a different place? But then, how to handle the arc of the plot?

  2. Can you start with some present action and work the back story in as you go? Can you perhaps have him do something in the present scene that shows a redeeming quality, even as he is busily involved in doing something not admirable?

    For instance: I recall one scene in Dexter, where he is busy dismembering a body whom he has murdered, and his cell phone rings. His wife wants him to pick up more diapers and a prescription for the baby on his way home.

    He looks absolutely frustrated, then says, "I'm kind of tied up right now, honey. But I'll do it be home just as soon as I can." THEN he hides the body.

    Who among us has not received such a call?