As most of you probably know, I’ve been plugging away at a novel called All That is Gold Does Not Glitter for several months now. What’s unique about this story compared to others I’ve written is that the protagonist is a very broken, angry, bitter, guarded, and depressed teen girl. Because of certain circumstances in her life beyond her control, she has become hardened by hardship and formed defense mechanisms to protect herself, such as a slicing tongue. She complains a lot, has endless sassy remarks, and sees nothing but the negative in everything.
Why would I create a character such as this?
Because it’s true to life. I was once like her, and I know people like her. I could not take this character and attempt to make her sweet, kind, gentle, and sensitive. It would be fraudulent. But when I took the first chapter of my novel to a critique group, the group pretty unanimously hated my main character. They hated her. They told me they could find nothing redeeming or likable about her, no reason to keep reading about her. They didn’t care about her at all.
Has this ever happened to you – your readers hate your main character? Or are you worried they will?
Interestingly, the characters that the group loved, loved the main character. And the group told me that if their favorite characters loved this awful main character, then there had to be something likable about her. Otherwise how could such good characters love such a hate-able character?
There’s gotta be a way to get readers to fall in love with even a deeply flawed, unlikable MC. It’s like adding in a bit of sugar to sweeten tart lemonade. Here’s what you can do to transform a hate-able character into a relatable character:
1. A “save-the-cat” moment
A common literary trope is the misanthrope who ends up saving a cat stuck in a tree. Why is this important? Because it’s a moment, no matter how small, that shows the humanity of the character to the audience. It’s a moment of compassion. So think – is there something your character can do to show the reader they do possess compassion? Is there an instance you can write where the character freely acts in a selfless or brave manner?
Examples: Katniss taking her sister’s place at the Reaping (the famous “I volunteer as tribute!” line) in The Hunger Games
2. They love those who love them
A complication of writing my current MC is that she struggles to accept/receive love. But whereas words like “I love you” are not in her vocabulary, she has developed a kindness and fierce loyalty towards those whom she loves. Are there some instances you can write where the hate-able character shows love to her dearest friends and family? Tip: there are 5 love languages – physical touch, gift giving/receiving, words of affirmation, quality time, and acts of service. Sprinkle in some little moments where the MC shows she loves her friends and family using variations of these 5 languages.
Example: In Stranger Things, Eleven sees Mike (her crush) being picked on by the school bully, and she uses her telekinesis to make the bully pee his pants in front of the whole school while he’s picking on Mike.
3. Make ’em laugh
Something my critique group stressed was the need for my hate-able character to crack jokes and make people laugh. If she could say things to her best friend that were funny; if she could deal with all the hate she receives with funny sarcasm; even if she can mock other characters in a comedic way, it would make her more likable. So go ahead – add in dark humor and sassy comments. Your readers will appreciate it.
Example: Dwight Schrute from The Office
4. Be nice to the little guy
One of the biggest critiques I received was that my MC “pity-smiled” at a character with Autism. I think the problem was that my MC didn’t do enough to show that she sympathized with this underdog character. There is nothing redeeming about a character who belittles those who are already not socially accepted. So have your MC be nice to those whom most of the other characters reject. They don’t have to go out of their way; they just have to be kind in a chance encounter, in a little moment.
Example: In Beauty and The Beast, the Beast is a loathsome creature whom everyone runs from. But Belle is kind to him. She doesn’t like him at all (at first); but she is still nice to him.
Well, that’s all I’ve got! Are there any ways you can think of to take a hate-able character and make him more relatable? Let us know in the comments!
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