I’ve been working on a scene this week that houses a few challenges. It’s toward the beginning of the book, so I’m still becoming acquainted with the ins and outs of the characters. There are some hidden agendas at play, so the unspoken is as pertinent as the spoken. However, chief among my scene goals is getting the introduction of a particular character just right.
Why is this such a concern?
Because this fellow is unscrupulous, dishonest, selfish, and can often be just a shade cruel.
And I want the reader to like him.
So how do you take a reprehensible character and make them likable? How do you evoke sympathy for the unsympathetic? Well, here are a few ways.
Humor is my personal favorite. Whether it’s a parade of bad puns, the repartee of witty banter, or a more self-deprecating gallows humor, everyone appreciates a character who can make them laugh. And, like the crowds of the Roman Colosseum, readers will forgive and excuse any number of vile offenses for the sake of being entertained.
Self-awareness is another excellent tool for helping the reader bond with your character. A character that knows about their shortcomings, perhaps is even open about them, is someone we will connect to more readily because self-knowledge is typically considered an admirable trait. And, of course, the first step in changing a trait or behavior is being aware of it. A character that can spot these things on their own gives us hope that they will take that knowledge and transform for the better.
The experience of trauma, either past or present, is another way to tweak a reader’s compassion. A traumatic past allows us to excuse all manner of things that would otherwise be inexcusable. Because we understand their past wounding, and perhaps why they behave the way they do, we are quicker to give them leeway in their current, unsavory state.
Comparative evil is the phrase I will use for the next concept. This is where you use the people around your character to make them look better than they are. Yes, we say to the reader, Darth Vader is bad, but look – the Emperor is so much worse. When propped up against an even more reprehensible specimen, suddenly my not-so-nice guy is looking pretty good.
A touch of genius, otherwise referred to as exceptional intelligence or skill, will also take the spotlight off of your character’s less-than-stellar personality. Think of Sherlock Holmes, Temperance Brennan, James Bond. Not exactly the most personable characters in the world, but they’re so good at what they do. Watching them work in their areas of genius keeps us coming back for more.
And, finally, a super proactive character is just endearing. They’re out there in the thick of it. They’re making the shots, taking the hits, and getting us right into the middle of the adventure and the story. And that is, after all, why we’re reading – to get into the middle of the story. These characters may not have the friendliest temperament. They may not be the most capable of folks. But, by golly, they have a goal and they just try so dang hard. Maybe they fail. In fact, it works even better if they fail – fail spectacularly even. Because who doesn’t love to root for the underdog?
So if you have a character that’s turning off your readers. Your darlings are being gilted by their audience. They’re not getting the warm, fuzzy reception that you’d hoped. Maybe they’re even causing folks to put the story down. Try giving them a makeover with some of these ideas. Just experiment with it until you find that delicate balance that keeps the character true to themselves while appealing to the readers all at the same time.