Tuesday, May 7, 2013

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 main character."
"The Heroine was not very likeable."
"The Heroine is Too Stupid To Live."
"The plot was thin because the Heroine had nothing to make the story work."
"The Heroine acted like a sixteen-year-old."
"The Heroine was a whiner and a loser."

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 Main Character 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 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 caring or unselfish.

"Marcia cares for her dying mother for years, laying her own hopes and dreams aside. Now that he 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.
I had entered the first chapter of a complete manuscript in a contest, and got shot down. My critique partners did not like my heroine. 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 her answer:
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 until 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.

The Stars at Night..a contemporary romance--SOON to be re-released with Publishing by Rebecca J. Vickery.
Celia Yeary-Romance...and a little bit 'o Texas
Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/author/celiayeary
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  1. It's interesting (and maybe a little frightening) that a very small thing can turn readers off a character.
    I think you've summed up the positive aspects very well :-)

  2. It's something to keep in mind.

    After that first experience with the book I mentioned, I've forever after tried to keep my heroines likable, brave, and true.
    I just closed a thick novel--paper book--at about page 90. The Heroine had been hurt in a stage coach robbery, and while it was bad, page after page, this heroine cowered, and cried, and jumped, and screamed, and hid, and....it became so tiresome. I lost all sympathy for her...and stopped reading.
    So, we never know--in this novel, the author just carried it way too far and it became tiresome.

    I learned a huge lesson from the few things my heroine was doing.
    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Hi Celia.

    I love this post! Well written and as I read them I checked off various heroines I have from various stories waiting in the wings to see the light of day.

    And I'm happy to report, all my girls seem to have made the "likeability" cut...:D

    Thanks for affirming I'm doin' something write after all!


  4. Margaret--I recal a few novels I read..or tried to read..in which I couldn't stand the heroine. Of course, they can't all be alike, but we can make them likeable in their own way.
    I'm glad the post reaffirmed your faith in your own writing!
    Thanks so much for your comment.

  5. I think (hope!) most of my heroines have been likeable. Like you, I can't stand heroines who cry all the time!
    I especially loved the comment by one UK reviewer of 'Her Only Option' who said "Neve is a very appealing character and I did not want to finish the book and leave her."
    It doesn't come much better than that, does it?

  6. Paula--no, that lovely sentiment doesn't get much better. I closed a book at page 90 out of 300 and returned it to the library. Good author, known name, but her heroine just made me cringe. That's why I wrote this blog. I liked the hero-to-be, but she, even though she'd been terribly mistreated, just made me ill. Couldn't read another page of her hand-wringing and jumping at every sound.

  7. I really enjoyed your post and your pictures, Celia.

    One of my heroines, Maddy, in a book I rewrote from start to finish 3 times, was mad at the world. And I made her so mad that nobody liked her. By the 3rd rewrite, I hated her. Lesson learned. You have to like your character and the story, or the whole thing won't hang together. Maddy's book is forever deep-sixed.

  8. Maggie--I do understand. I have a novel, too, that is deep-sixed, not exactly because of the heroine, but because all the characters are "too stupid to live." Yet, I will not delete that ms. Don't we always think we can redeem and revive a ms and its charactets? I know you understand this.

  9. Great blog, Celia. Very good info here. My first published book had a heroine who was described by my agent as a "doormat" and at his suggestion, I gave her more grit along the way. I learned a lesson from that.

  10. Hi Celia, yes the heroine needs to have some likeable features. BUT,let me play the devil's advocate. In any story the heroine --and the hero-- has to go through a growing curve. If she's likeable and perfect from page one, where is the growth? Where is the conflict? Where is the story?

    There are some features that may turn a reader off though, as in the example you gave. No matter how upset or frustrated, she shouldn't take it on a kid. Or better even, she can do it , but right away realize her mistake and hug the child and say, 'Jeez, I must do something and learn to control myself'. That makes her human and vulnerable. Then the reader realizes she's hitting a bottom but will try to struggle.

    Also in MHO her weakness gives the hero an opportunity to help, and vice versa.

    The things I hate in a heroine: too passive; her thoughts don't match her attitude and reactions; she claims she's strong but acts like a teenager; she's selfish unless it's part of her growing up; too rigid, in real life women are not rigid. In other words I like a heroine who's a woman I can recognize.

    Sorry that was long. LOL

  11. I ran across a terrible heroine once when I was judging a beginner writing contest. The heroine was in love with a married man. He was a whiner and, at every turn, she comforted him and found fault with the man's wife. A male friend showed her sincere interest and I thought, aha, here is where she finally finds the voice of reason and sees her enabling ways are crippling her future and the married man is using her. But nope, she gave up an available man who appreciated her for the sorry weakling who was married. I learned right then that heroines need to be honorable to be liked. They also need to grow in the story and change their bad ways.
    I always like a heroine who loves dogs and kids. I like her to suck up the hardship and show me some backbone, but I despise a bossy, know-it-all.
    Great blog!

  12. Linda--I've seen that before, someone saying.."your heroine is a doormat." I know a real life person who has been called that for many years, but only because she is a caretaker at heart--no children of her own, so the took care of her mother, her father, her MIL and her FIL, and then her husband. They all passed away, and she's alone...but now taking care of a very sick brother.
    What can I say? There is a difference.
    But no, I don't like a doormat, either. I want a heroine who is basically strong, even if she's hurting or if she's been abandoned.

    I'm glad you fixed your heroine...like I fixed Kate in The Stars at Night.

  13. Mona..you made excellent points. No one really likes a perfect heroine...of course she must have some failings to be a good one when she grows.

    The best kind of story is that kind you described. The hero and heroine must both have some problem...or there's no story!
    And the telling of their story becomes engrossing and enticing...how they come together and help each other.
    Thanks for your long comment--I love this kind--it's like a conversation.

  14. Sarah--now that heroine is the kind we say "is too stupid to live."
    Sure, our heroine need to have a problem...but somewhere along the way, she need to make good choices...not the kind this one did in the ms you judged. That was just off the chart stupid.
    Thanks so much for your thoughts. I do enjoy them.

  15. Ah yes, there's not much better way to make someone unlikeable than to have them treat a child badly!

    My biggest pet peeve is whiny heroines. Truly. Everyone has problems so if they make too much of them, I'm done. There is a long, long road between whiny and needy and so strongly independent she needs (and likes) no one. I want those in betweens.