Sympathetic Characters

A standard line in a rejection notice is that the agent or editor didn’t find the lead character compelling enough. That charming piece of boilerplate can be interpreted in many ways. The narrative approach might be too distant with its characters. The protagonist might have too many bouts of internal monologue, clogging up the action. Yet one possible reason stems from the simple fact that they didn’t like the main character. 

Dostoevsky had the right idea: as readers we are more interested in evil than good. From a character standpoint, good is dull. We spend the 800 pages of Brothers Karamazov enjoying Dmitri’s recklessness and Ivan’s coldness, not so much Alexei’s morality. When regarded from a writing standpoint, good leaves a character with no engaging flaws. 

People trying to write a novel are understandably confused by this conundrum. I frequently encounter books in which the hero is the baddest of the bad. The impulse to do this makes sense. Being an outright rebel is distinctive. In terms of a plot arc, someone who starts off bad can then make progress toward becoming good. 

So what’s the problem? In a nutshell, we may not want to spend an entire novel with her. The acts that a heroine commits add up in the reader’s emotional calculus. If we become repulsed enough by too many acts of wickedness, the book goes down on the night table and may never be reopened. 

How do you incorporate both good and evil? The answer lies in another facet of human nature: the hope that things will turn out all right. I’m all for evil, in terms of setting a character apart. That’s the fun part of life (just in novels, mind you). Yet I also want a lead character who has redeeming qualities. Maybe he is abrasive to his parents—but he is kind to a younger sister with ADHD. Your heroine may cast aspersions on her idiotic male work mates—but she looks up to a mentor who is helping her prepare for grad school. 

As readers, we just want someone to root for. If the protagonist already possesses a kernel of goodness, we know that can grow. A character, like a person, isn’t all one way. If a heroine has four defining qualities that are bad, make sure the fifth one is good.

Exercise: Early on in a novel is the best place to plant seeds of hope, and because of that, a two-step strategy can be effective. Start by inserting a short back story that displays the character’s goodness. Even if that encounter soured the character supposedly forever, the reader’s moral faculties are already whirring. Hey, that was a nice thing to do. If you then follow up with a glimmer of that same impulse in the ongoing story, you’ve cemented an article of faith.

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