Friday, April 8, 2011

Do Your Readers Love Your Characters?

When I read a negative review—my own, a friend's, a best-selling author's—and learn why the reviewer did not like the book, often the reason is "I did not care for the protagonist." "The Heroine was not very likeable." "The Hero acted like a jerk."
Think about that. More often than not, the low rating concerns the likeability of the main characters. So, what characteristics make a protagonist empathetic? Why does one character resonate with the reader, but another turns her off?

The Protagonist has been treated unjustly. She loses her job because of a jealous co-worker; she was jilted at the altar; she was cut out of her father's will; she was physically abandoned, left alone to fend for herself; she is lied to but doesn't know it before it's too late.
This approach can work if we do not see her as a martyr—she must carry on with a brave face.
"Sharon's husband goes through a mid-life crisis, asks for a divorce, and wants to sell the house they've had for 25 years. Although she agrees—what else can she do?—she is angry and heartbroken. Stiffening her spine and lifting her chin, she seeks out a new life…with anger and resentment still burning in her heart."

The Protagonist displays a valued trait. She may be very loyal, loving, or courageous. This especially works if she makes or has made a bad choice. We forgive her, if we first see her tending a sick loved one, helping a child, or standing up to a bully for a friend.
"Jeanine dusts off her counseling certificate and works with battered wives. Knowing she made a fatal error by marrying Joel, she tries to settle her life by helping others."

The Protagonist is burdened with inner struggles. She may suffer depression, bitterness, jealousy, resentment, or hate. Perhaps she has shut down her emotions because of one of these reasons, but does not recognize her problem.
"Millie works 24/7, exhausting herself and threatening her health. If only her friend James would leave her alone and stop trying to help. She does not need help from anyone. Her life is under control. If only she could sleep…"

The Protagonist wishes for some basic human need. Perhaps she needs someone to love her, a purpose in life, or acceptance. This works well if we first see her as uncaring or selfish.
"Marcia cares for her dying mother for years, laying her own hopes and dreams aside. Now that her mother is gone, Marcia reaches out for acceptance in a world she doesn't understand."

The Protagonist grieves. She has lost a child, a beloved spouse, or her last living relative. A reader won't know why she grieves, but we don't want a bunch of back-story to explain her actions. Instead, we should learn more through the action and plot of the story.
"Jackie lost her baby and husband in one car accident…and she was driving. She meets Hal, and he wants her to live again…but webs of emotions keep her trapped, and even he might not be able to break through."

This is the short list of ideas to make the protagonist likeable. We want to cheer for her…but can't if she acts in a negative manner we don't like. At this moment, I'm in edits for my last contracted novel, The Stars at Night..
I had entered the first chapter in a contest, and got shot down. My critique partners did not like Katherine. I liked her…but others read something that made them feel negative toward her. What was wrong with her?

I sent the first chapter to a young woman with a degree in journalism and creative writing. What's wrong with my heroine, my protagonist? What is she doing that turns off readers?
Here's why:
Five year-old Nicky tugs at Katherine's jeans' leg to get his aunt's attention. Katherine pushes his hand away and says, "Don't do that, Nicky. Wait til I'm finished here."
This is one example of several in which I had Kate speaking to sad little Nicky a little harshly.
My friend said, "Instead of pushing his hand away and scolding, have Kate reach for his hand, hold it, rub her thumb over his, saying—'Just a minute, Sweetie. I promise we'll get a room with a television.'

I am happy to report I "fixed" Kate, and even though she is insecure about taking Nicky to raise, she is kind and sweet to him. She shows that she loves the little boy very much.

JULY RELEASE : The Stars at Night..a contemporary romance. Desert Breeze Publishing

Celia Yeary-Romance...and a little bit 'o Texas


  1. I really enjoyed this post. I think another important issue when choosing character traits is: Who is your audience? What types of characters are they accustomed to seeing? Are they readers who feel more comfortable reading about certain types of people? Or, are they people who are looking for the unexpected? Until recently, I never realized how important knowing your audience really is. Characters are the life of our writing, and it sounds like you have mastered your character well.

    Congrats on your book. I wish you many blessings and success on it!

  2. A basket full of food for thought here, Celia. Our characters do have to touch some emotion in our readrs or else they won't care what happens to them. I have heard it said by a prof. of a university counseling dept. that we don't have to expereince everything another person does in order to connect with them. But we have to relate to the emotion they are feeling. And there is a limited number of, anger, jealousy, etc.
    I have read your characters, both contemporary and historical, and I've related to every one of them so you draw them clearly so I "see" and empahtize with them. I that can't wait to read The Stars At Night. Linda

  3. Hi Celia:

    You hit it right on the head. I think the most sympathetic heroines in all of romance are Betty Neels. Her heroines pretty much have every stress that you mentioned above.

    I can’t read some authors because I don’t like their characters. If I don’t like the characters, I don't care what happens to them and I lose interest in the book.

    I feel a good test of characters is this:

    1) would I want to be this character? (After all, I may be spending hours in that character’s head).
    2) could I love this character?
    3) is this the kind of person I would want as a friend?

    If you are getting ‘no’ answers, then I think there is big trouble ahead. Of course, this changes if the character is a villain. Also, a hero or heroine can have faults, like you mentioned in pushing the child away, as long as the ARC provides for positive character growth. What made the woman more understanding of the child?

    I really like your characters in “Texas Promise”. I’ll be looking forward to “The Stars at Night”. The title makes me think of two of my favorite authors: Betty Neels, "Stars Through the Mist" and Maeve Binchy, "Nights of Rain and Stars".


  4. VANESSA--I think I just thought of another post: "Do You Write for Your Audience?" Haha. You've brought up an idea I've never thought about in detail. I've read "write for your audience," but it never made an impact on me like your comment did.
    Now, that I think on it, my readers usually say the most about my characters...not the plot or internal conflict...but something concerning the likeability of the protagonist.They do indeed seem comfortable with my characters.

    I almost made a drastic error with my very first novel. My heroine was "uppity" and it came through loud and clear. Reviewers and readers pointed out they did not like her at first, but since I redeemed her, they did in the end. That was my intent, but now I see that might not have been wise.
    Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. Celia

  5. LINDA--again, thank you for your kind, generous words. I love for you to read them because your insights alone have taught me much.
    If I could remember your one phrase: "We have to relate to the emotions of the characters."--I might be a best-selling author. In my dreams, of course. Celia

  6. VINCE--I liked your questions about characters. That alone is valuable to remember, for it spells out directions clearly. I've read novels with unlikeable characters, too...although I cannot recall any particular ones.
    Scarlet O'Hara is said to be the worst kind of heroine--she does everything against the book. And still, in the end, we do feel her emotions, whether we agree with all her many foibles or not.
    I'm so glad you like my Texas Promise characters. I've not heard of Betty Neels,but I read several by Maeve Binchy when she was in her heyday. I'll look up Betty.
    My all-time-favorite romance author is LaVyrle Spencer, who retired decades ago. She wrote 26 books and retired. By the time I found her novels, they were 10-15 years old.
    Still, if you want emotion from characters, she's the one. She, above all others, is my role model...but she was one of a kind. They're considered old-fashioned now, but I have a copy of every one of them in a cabinet--and have read and re-read them. And will again.
    Thanks, Vince..for your great comments, and as I've always teach me something. Celia

  7. I've learned that it's okay if the protagonist acts like a jerk but only if it's further into the book, after the readers have come to identify with the character and they are given a glimpse of the reason behind the behavior. Human traits and foibles are preferable to perfection but since most people read to escape, they don't want to see that imperfection as the leading edge of the character. And the story had better end on resolution of some of that edginess also. I love characters with deep emotion. But I like these to be well-rounded and the positive to have a negative balance.

  8. Celia--This is a great post. I know that I personally like a heroine when I can identify with her or when she reveals traits I long to have. When a protagonist has a plausible motivation for his/her actions then the character flows well and appears realistic and alive no matter what the situation.

  9. What a great thought provoking post and a nice example of the subtlities of characterization. Thanks for sharing, Sweetie.


  10. Great post. I struggle with my heroines, often rewritng them until they morph into someone likable. I have no problem writng's the ladies that give me fits.

  11. Celia,

    I enjoyed the post and the examples for the Protagonist.I've never really thought about it, but it's true. If you don't like the characters or you can't relate to them or understand their motives, the story fails. When I tell someone about the great book I've read, it's because I fell in love with the characters.

    Thanks for sharing.

  12. K. M.--you have a point, and a good one. My first hero--Ricardo Romero sort of acted like a jerk, but he was acting as his Spanish heritage taught him...don't give away much of yourself to your wife...stay in charge. He had a huge learning curve! However, a few readers pointed out that he did have his flaws--don't we all? Thanks for you comment--Celia

  13. MONA..well said.I do understand. My heroines usually stand up to the hero in some way, in a manner I'd like to think I do...or can do. In other words, I may have her acting in a manner I can't quite manage. Celia

  14. STEPH--THANK YOU..I appreciate your comment. Celia

  15. VONNIE--that's very true--I do the same thing. Heroes are much easier to write...they usually have simpler psyches. Females, though, can go so many ways, and we don't want to make them too aggressive, and don't want them passive, either. A fine line. Thanks for sharing! Celia

  16. KAREN--exactly. Most comments are about characters. I do get some, though, who liked the plot and couldn't stop reading to find out what happened next. Still...the characters carry the story. Celia

  17. Linda said it best - a basket full of food for thought, here. Great examples, Celia. And you're right, if readers don't like your characters, they won't read the book, plain and simple. To like them, readers have to be able to relate to them somehow. Not 100%, but at least on some level.

  18. Very good observations, Celia. Characterization is very important to me, one of the most important parts of writing fiction for me. I want to get my characters right, true-to-life but interesting for readers. One of the best pieces of advice I've ever received is to pay attention not only to your protagonists, but to the antagonists/villians, and don't make them total evil. Give them a reason for their anger and misdeeds. They may still be very unlikeable, but at least they'll be understandable, and they'll also make your antagonists (warts and all) look better by comparison.


  19. LIANA--true. Oh, and Linda is always a fount of information. She's already forgotten more than I'll ever know. I don't remember any particular books in which I did not like the protagonists, only that there have been some. Thanks...Celia

  20. CONNIE--I hadn't thought about the villian in relation to the heroine, but what you say makes sense. My first release has a terrible MIL, and she does everything underhanded she can think of to get her son's new wife to leave and go back home. She just about stole the show, too-Thanks for sharing your thoughts...Celia

  21. Hi Celia,

    Your one example is exactly what I used in No Greater Loss - Dr. Jennifer Hunter blames herself for the deaths of her husband and infant son. All your examples are very insightful.

    The funny thing is I received a contract from a publisher and she said how much she liked my manuscript. A short time before the release date, she asked me to rewrite it. She found the heroine annoying because of something my character felt compelled to do. Of course, I rewrote it.

  22. I know this is late, but I wanted to say this was a great post. Making your hero or heroine likeable or empathetic is a tight balancing act. I enjoyed reading your examples.

  23. Great post, Celia. Your friend was right on with her logic for making Katherine more likeable.

    BTW, my mother's name was Katherine and spelled the same way.

  24. Celia,

    As always you've given great tips and advice--this time for creating likable protagonists.

    In a couple of scenes in "Journey To Forgiveness" I was directed by my editor to soften Jenny's character. If you remember, Jenny was bitter and angry from the abuse her father inflicted.

    In a way I thought it seemed natural she would be bitter and distrustful. But, bitterness and anger won't sell a romance novel--even though it's the natural way for the character to react.

    I'm glad I took my editor's advice and softened my heroine to some degree. I still received a couple of reviews complaining they were put off by the way Jenny treated Austin.

  25. DIANE...REALLY? Interesting. I made it up, but anything we make up probably has been in a story somewhere. I think it might be one of the most painful kind of stories.
    About your heroine...odd your editor didn't pick up on it right away. It sounds as though someone else might have read it and pointed it out.That would be my guess. Thanks for sharing...Celia

  26. DELANEY--love your name! It is a tight balancing act. I don't like my heroines to be too good--do you? So they must have some kind of flaw. I know, I know...editors don't like her to have something wrong with her, but none of us is perfect. I just don't get it, really. Personally, I like a heroine that's a little screwed up and needs straightening out. Thanks for you comment...Celia

  27. Hi, Sandy. I have another heroine named Katherin, too. I love the name, but hers is spelled Kathryn, which I love, too. And yes, my young friend immediately pointed out the problem. So smart. Thanks for visiting...Celia

  28. LAUREN.. of course, I remember Jenny. I understood her bitterness, but I also appreciated the fact she had a right to be bitter. I guess I understand why editors want our heorines to be so good, but...Jenny had her right. However,even so, I knew Jenny was a very good, kind-hearted soul who would do anything for anybody.
    I liked the hero very much, but we knew he was a wonderful man. Jenny was only going on what she saw and else could she feel?
    Journey to Forgiveness was a wonderful story--you did a great job. Celia

  29. Everyone has said it already, but I agree, of course. Characters ARE the story, at least in romance they are, maybe not always in some genres, but they always are to me.

    There's a very popular historical romance series readers rave about. I read the first one and the heroine turned me off within the first chapter by being uppity and self-centered (it was written in first person) and I nearly didn't finish it. But someone gave me the book and raved, so I kept going. I still don't like the heroine, although I love the hero and the setting, so I don't know if I'll read more of the series I have here waiting.

    I think if your heroine is uppity at all, you shouldn't write first person, and like someone else said, make us like her first! And then give her quirks and annoyances.

  30. Celia,

    I must have been in a time warp when you annoucned this post. It is excellent! You have such a way of presenting information that keeps drawing the eye down the page. I always have a feeling of "don't skim because you might miss something!"

    I love that you had the courage and conviction to get a character upgrade from a trusted source. I often have unlikeable characters in my first draft and have to "fix" them, rounding out the harsh edges but still keeping the story and character true to form.

    Enjoyed the post!!!


  31. LORAINE--I don't generally like anything written in 1st person, although there are exceptions. A novel that is humorous or funny can do well in 1st person, if, as you say, we like the heroine.
    I do know what you mean about not continuing a book or a series if we just don't like the protagnist. Writers should make that a #1 priority--a likeable protagonist.
    Even worse, if a protagonist that makes no impression on us. Celia

  32. MAGGIE--thank you so much. A good word from you means so much. I am a visual person--I need color and action. Sometimes I think I over do it, but...I like it.
    I can't imagine your writing an unlikeable character, but maybe it's easier to do than we think. Certainly, there are too many books out there with unlikeable characters.
    Thanks for making it here! Celia

  33. Thanks for posting this - it's a great post. Love the picures too. I drove to Ennis last spring and loved the flowers. They seemed to go on forever.

  34. Hi, Ann...We didn't get bluebonnets this year. Last year was a bumper crop...they were thick everywhere. This years in those same areas...grass. But the seeds are down there waiting for the right conditions.
    Your area is familiar to me...born in North Texas and still go there to visit relative.
    Best wishes on your cozy mysteries....and thanks for stopping by. Celia