Weekly Musing: I Don’t Like You

A subject which has been floating around in my head for a while is what is the difference between unlikeable vs. unlikeable as it relates to a character? What I mean by this is what is it about a character that makes a reader want to go along on their journey even if that character isn’t easy to root for or like? The easy answer is it is all subjective. Each reader and each writer responds differently to a character. It’s why some people love the villains more than the hero. Or why some people prefer the girl pick the billionaire over the sweet, but broke, guy. Or why we can root for a character like Dexter Morgan even though he’s a serial killer.

So why does the piece of advice frequently given to newer writers to not have an unlikeable protagonist exist? Or at the very least don’t make them so unlikeable at the beginning because then the reader won’t want to take a journey with them. It makes me wonder how valid this piece of advice is. Is there an assumption that a majority of readers only want a “perfect” protagonist? I think this leads to many writers believing the protagonist has to be a good person who has bad stuff happen to them. Or somehow a less than pristine character cannot possibly resonate with readers. Or if those goods are damaged then the expectation is our imperfect protagonist will be made more perfect by the conclusion of the story.

Since we are dealing with fiction shouldn’t the characters in those stories reflect the variety of people we know and interact with in our daily lives? In my opinion, the answer is yes and that means telling the story of an “unlikeable” character. After all, isn’t his or her life and story just as valid as someone who is more universally agreeable? Yes, fiction is escapism, but that shouldn’t mean a less than agreeable character shouldn’t be the star. Also, it can be boring to have a protagonist who is just so gosh darn likeable all the time. Please have a wart or a bunch, please!

Yet there are times I sit in my critique group and listen to feedback giving, the word unlikeable comes out and often in a negative way. Or as I listen to people discuss a show, movie, or book and complain how unlikeable a main character is. Many times when I hear the reasons why someone finds a character unlikeable it is clear to me it’s a purely subjective thing. This is fine as we all have types we don’t like.

But what floors me is when people take it a step further. What I mean by this is when people express that kind of unlikeable character shouldn’t be in anything, ever. Take a character like Dexter Morgan. Serial killer of killers. Taker out of the trash. Hard to like a person like that yet Dexter Morgan does click with readers, and later TV viewers until the show got ruined. But there is also a large group of people who read the first few chapters of a book and went, “Nope, not for me.”

What concerns me as a writer is when I hear fellow writers give feedback that a character isn’t likeable and offer suggestions to soften the character to be more likeable. Granted, suggestions made after only reading the first chapter or two of a story in general tends to be a bit nebulous as we don’t know what kind of character development will take place. Sometimes it’s intentional and when I’ve not liked a character I try to explain why beyond “I just didn’t like this person.” Sometimes the writer has written a character too extreme without realizing it so it can be good to hear how a character is coming across.

Another reason why it concerns me is because perhaps it’s a reflection of this notion that nothing can be offensive or negative. It’s like living inside a Disney movie where everyone is so good with the exception of one or two people who are cartoony and unrealistic villains. Life isn’t a Disney movie and again, people exist in the world who aren’t good people, who you aren’t going to want to be friends with, and who view life differently. For some I guess that makes a character too unlikeable to read.

And how is an unlikeable character different from a villain? Some villains are easy to like, even love, and easy to root for yet a character that isn’t evil or have ill intent may not be someone you like. It comes down to motivation. A well-constructed villain views himself or herself as the hero of their own story. Perhaps there is something in their past that in a perverse way justifies what bad they are doing. Other times it’s plain fun rooting for the baddie.

I know that worrying about if my main character is likeable or not has given me pause many times. But a piece of advice I frequently come back to is everything comes back to being true to the character and the story. None of us are likeable all of the time. The trick then is to make the unlikeable character relatable in some way. Keep in mind many readers will “get” it even if the character isn’t someone they would normally like in real life. If their story is interesting, the reader will stick with them. Then there are those readers who truly won’t understand or care if a character is not absolutely likeable from the beginning. That’s okay. Losing readers because of reader preference is not the end of the world despite what some may say.


Weekly Musing: Quite a Character

Something any writer must be able to do is have the ability to create characters. Or at least have good enough hearing to pay attention to when a character pops into your head with a story to tell. Character creation is one thing I’m not sure a lot of readers realize can come from anywhere. Some are created from scratch by the author while others come to the author. A big reason why it’s never a good idea to think a story is a reflection of the author as a person unless noted otherwise.

For me, it seems most of my characters just come to me. I even hesitate using the phrase “my characters” as I don’t think I own these characters. Even though they live in a fictional world, they are still real to some degree. What I mean by characters come to me is either I’ll be trying to sleep or reading, watching TV, or doing something else when a complete stranger pops into my head to say hello. If I’m lucky then maybe they bring me a gift, or curse, depends on the situation, of a story they’d like to have told.

Most of the time I’m not so lucky. The stranger just presents himself or herself to me and it’s up to me to figure out what to do with them. When it’s up to me to figure out what a character wants, it takes a lot of “talking” to figure out what he or she wants to say. Even when the character comes with a story, it’s still up to me to interview him or her so we can get to know each other better.

Other times, though, I’ll have an idea for a story and what kind of main character it should be about. When this happens, I naturally start with the basics of gender, age, and physical appearance but beyond the superficial I rely upon the character’s actions in the story to show me who they are.

Rarely do I sit down and say that I am going to have a story with a certain type of character. This is something I have been considering more as I think about how to push myself creatively. Sometimes it’s something like having a character of a different ethnic background from previous works. Sometimes it is creating a character based upon a piece of history I read. Sometimes it’s as simple as wanting to see certain kind of character more in literature and I don’t think I’m reading enough of that particular kind.

In the past I’ve tried using character sheets since it appeals to my natural organized personality, but I found them too tedious. Previously I’ve discussed some of the other reasons why I don’t care for them. A couple of years later and I still feel many of the questions are characters sheets are irrelevant to discovering who the character is. Yes, experiences shape a person but I failed to see how being the oldest child in a family had anything to do with a story in which family wasn’t a theme. Another problem I have with character sheets is often times the questions seem meant for characters and stories set in modern times.

What I do now instead of character sheets is simply brainstorm. I allow stream of consciousness to take over and list what kind of person the character thinks she or he is, what it is he or she wants (a big thing to know before the story starts), any quirks he or she may have, etc. During the brainstorming phase I’ll discover potential minor characters and what their role might be.

The bulk of creating a character for me, though, doesn’t come from filling out character sheets or brainstorming or “speaking” with them but from actually writing the story’s rough draft. As many writers experience, even with plans characters have a way of changing everything by doing what they want to do. To me this is when characters come to life. Think about it. We can all list what kind of person we think we are but it’s not until we are put into a situation that our true self comes out. Why should this be any different for a fictional character?

That’s not to say that someone who is demure suddenly becomes aggressive because he or she is put into a particular situation. There’s a line between change born of an organic cause to acting out of character. But just as in real life, it’s the story that reveals what character. That’s why when it comes to developing a character, for me it is a combination of doing pre-story legwork while allowing for the story to show who the character really is.

As you can see, creating a character isn’t a simple process. For me it’s not a simple process but I’m sure for others it is more straightforward. Whatever method you use as a writer as long as you still come out with interesting and compelling characters then it works.


Weekly Musing: Reflections and Resolutions

As many human beings do this time of year, I’m full of reflection upon the past year and thinking about the upcoming year. Instead of breaking down into two posts full of sentimental thought and pretentious sage advice, I thought I’d combine my reflections upon 2015 and resolutions for 2016 into one post.

2015 Reflections

It’s been difficult to gather my thoughts to think about what I’ve learned this year yet when I sit down and truly think I realize I have. Every small kernel of knowledge has the potential to lead to some bigger improvement.

The bulk of my growth in 2015 grew out of writing and revising a novel. For me there hasn’t been an easy part of writing a novel. Getting the rough draft done felt like it was going to be the easiest part but until I got to the end, it felt like it may very well would be the hardest. Writing a book takes a lot more energy than a lot of people realize. It’s a marathon and there were many points throughout where I felt like I didn’t have any more to give. At times I gave myself a break and stepped away for a day or two while other times I soldiered through.

But it wasn’t until I started actually revising it that I realized the rough draft was the easy part. It’s not so much having a problem cutting scenes or dropping plot points, it’s the frustrating realization that all those hours spent writing the rough draft was for naught. It also amazed how much I had yet to write to shore up the plot. I knew this would be a lot of hard work but even I underestimated the scope of it.

I appreciated the time and effort authors put into their work but honestly until I started going through the process myself, I don’t think I truly understood. Now I have even more respect. At this point in my career I can’t even fathom how authors can juggle multiple novels at various stages of development all at the same time. Of course having a contract and a deadline to meet helps tremendously.

There have been several smaller but no less impactful lessons learned last year. I’ve learned to pay more attention to what makes up a chapter. I know that may sound odd but it’s one of those things I never really thought about until 2015. It’s been helpful that many of the pieces submitted to my critique group are chapters from novels in progress. Reading those showed me what should be in a chapter as well as length. Determining chapter length is one of those things that I haven’t actually seen much about but I get the impression it’s one of those things you just get a feel for.

In 2015 I strived to get better at where to begin a story as well as to determine the ending before I physically start writing. I’ve always struggled with beginnings and endings and while that is still an area of concern for me, I think I’m getting better at it. Again, through my critique group and plain reading, I’m getting better at understanding what makes for a good beginning and ending.

Endings are still tricky for me. Personally I don’t mind something more open-ended but most people and most advice out there don’t like that. I think it’s why I wind up killing people off. It’s the only way I can think of at this point to end a story. Something I need to work on since I know that’s certainly not the only way to end a story.

One of the things I learned in 2015 is that I don’t think I’m capable of writing a short story under 3,000 words. At first I thought this would hamper my ability to get published. The reality of my style, I guess, is that I am wordy. Always have been. What I need to work on is making sure that my natural wordiness isn’t disguising deficiencies in storytelling ability.

That’s been helpful is discovering the website Submission Grinder which has an enormous list of publishing opportunities. As I combed through it I discovered there are plenty of place which accept short stories over 3,000 words. This led me to feel free to write a story to whatever length felt appropriate but then through revision figure out how to maintain its integrity while keeping it within a prescribed word count.

2015 also saw me keep track of my word count. I’m kind of odd since I’m a slow writer yet I have a tendency to write a decent amount of words in a day. Still nothing compared to some of my writer friends who put my average to shame. As of the end December 31st, I wrote over 300,000 words. Since this was the first time I’ve tracked my output, I have no idea if this is a good number or not. Still, I’m proud of that number. I know it’s probably a lot lower than what many writers do but I’m okay with that.

2016 Resolutions

Or goals as I’d rather call them. Besides the standard goal of read and write more and continue to develop myself as a writer through workshops and conferences, below are the more specific goals for 2016.

More diversity in my reading. I’ve always been one of those readers who really doesn’t look at the author’s photo on the inside jacket of the book. What differences does it make what the author looks like? It’s the story I’m interested in, not the gender or color of the author. That being said, I know that I definitely fall into the category of reader whose bookshelves, both virtual and literal, are filled with predominately white authors. The issue of diversity in publishing is a complicated and nuanced topic which is why in this new year I will actively seek out books by authors from a more diverse background than my own.

Another goal is for me to up my total word count. I hesitate to put an actual number since it will be arbitrary anyway. Plus life will throw me curveballs but I do hope to increase my production for the year.

Which leads me to resolve to write more short stories. First off, I met my last year’s goal of selling 4 stories, 2 of which should be coming out this year. Since I don’t write a lot of short stories to begin with, this means I need to write more of them if I want to sell more. I still consider myself more of a novel writer and that will continue to be the focus however, short stories are a great way of finishing something in a short amount of time.

Speaking of novels, my last major goal this year is to revise my historical fiction novel at least one more time. However, I will take my time with this revision. I’m thinking six months to really be firm in with what the plot is and what events I want to focus on.

Well, there it is. My reflections and resolutions. I hope that everyone’s 2016 is better than 2015. Happy New Year!