Wednesday, June 1, 2011
One of the most dreaded things an author can hear is, “your heroine isn’t likeable.” Since your leading character is not a snarky bitch and she never kicks puppies, understanding why readers aren’t relating to her can be one of the Universe’s most puzzling mysteries. Worse, some readers will actually root for the conniving puppy-kicker, but hate your spunky heroine, who incidentally is searching for a cure for cancer and grows her own vegetables.
How can this be? Simple. Likeable is subjective. Determining what makes a heroine unlikeable is about as easy as figuring out why Paris Hilton is famous.
Let’s use Harry Potter as an example. He’s a ten-year-old boy, a bit moody, wears thick glasses and sports a scar on his forehead. He gets into fights easily and doesn’t listen to his guardians. Seriously, if you didn’t know the story, would your first thought be: “Wow. There’s a character who will make millions for his author.” However, mention Harry is a boy wizard who
can’t practice magic without supervision and we begin to relate. Not because we’re into abracadabra, but because frustration is something we’ve all experienced. Throw in his parents died fighting evil when Harry was just a baby and his guardians are the Dursleys, and we’re hooked.
Obviously, one key to a relatable character is making sure s/he is an understandable character. The advertising world frequently resorts to icons with universal likeability--puppies and babies. Beer commercials resort to the age-old appeal of sexuality (a.k.a. breasts). Unfortunately, giving your heroine a boob job, a newborn twin on each hip, and a basset gnawing on her new Louboutin heels probably won’t be enough to make contemporary women relate (although the shoes might help). Again, likeable is subjective.
So how do we fix unlikeable characters?
First, get feedback. Lots of feedback. Expand your critique group to non-writers. Just because the main character gets a less than stellar rating from one group doesn’t mean she won’t appeal to another demographic. If none of the readers find your heroine mediocre, fageddaboutit. A character who gets strong reactions, both positive and negative, is not going to be boring.
If however, you get mostly negative, or worse, blasé feedback, ask the reader, “What makes you think my heroine’s a bitch?” [Well, you’ll probably want to word that a bit better :-)]. Readers will be able to point out obvious flaws: the heroine is too perfect (what woman has time to cure cancer, organically kill tomato worms and still have a flawless manicure); she’s unfair; the witch comes across as preachy; etc., etc.
What if readers don’t like your heroine but can’t pinpoint why? Don’t despair, just dig deeper. Humans can be very forgiving creatures, so often they simply don’t understand your heroine. Is her motivation clear? Does she have depth or is she one-dimensional? Maybe her goals aren’t consistent with her actions.
The best approach may be to simply write characters you like. Listen to criticism with an objective ear and make changes only if the modifications feel right. If the character doesn’t work out, you can always start over. After all, this is fiction. Right??