Do Your Readers Have to Like Your Heroine?

heroineDo Your Readers Have to Like Your Heroine?

In the last post, I maintained that you have to like or at least understand your heroine. So, it seems redundant to ask if your readers need to like her, too.

But the surprising answer is NO. Not if your heroine is compelling.

What is compelling?

In The 9.17% Solution, one of my protagonists was Jamie, a manipulative, scheming, damaged young man who plots his way up the corporate ladder.

One reader of an early draft announced, “I hate Jamie.”

Enough to sink the heart of any writer. “Did it make you want to stop reading?” I asked tentatively.

To which he replied, “No, I had to keep going to make sure the bastard got what he deserved.”

Writer heart started repumping.

That was when I realized that while it’s probably preferable your readers find your heroine sympathetic, it isn’t always necessary. You can do away with this requirement completely if she is compelling. That is, your reader wants to keep reading about her.

How do I make my heroine compelling?

Obvious next question: how? You’re gonna throw up your hands when I say I don’t know. I don’t know how I made Jamie compelling or whether he would be so for every reader. Perhaps the sense that Jamie was racing to an inevitable and unavoidable doom? Perhaps his flashes of humanity?

I bored everyone in my life for weeks, asking them to think of compelling literary characters. (Movies don’t count because the viewer has access to many more than the written word on which to base their judgement.)

It was tough. Anne of Green Gables? Scarlett O’Hara?

What it came down to is no paint-by-numbers list of characteristics or techniques. There didn’t seem to be a commonality among the suggestions; nor did everyone agree with every candidate.

But they all agreed that compelling characters made them want to find out what happened to the heroine even if she was despicable.

Again, it comes down to magic

I was forced to conclude that this is the magic that is writing.

You put the work into learning your craft. Showing when needed and telling when not.  Supporting the plot with description rather than distracting. Growing your characters. All to create a continuous dream in which your reader can reside.

Beyond that, you get at the core of the story by telling the emotional rather than literal truth. And every day, you are naked on the page. Bringing your unflinching self to writing, no matter how shameful, wicked, or shocking it might seem to you.

And then, you hope for the best. Hope that the work, the honesty, and the caring will be rewarded with writing that nobody can put down. That magic will strike.

Do You Have to Like Your Main Character?

likeDo You Have to Like Your Main Character?

Your main character—do you like him? Do you need to?

By and large, I would say that you do, if only to tolerate being around him while you’re writing the novel. And if you don’t like him, why would your readers? It’s hard to have sympathy or want things to work out for an unlikeable character.

Another way to think of this is as ‘getting’ your character. By that, I mean understanding your hero well enough so that you know how he would act outside the parameters of your story.

‘Getting’ my protagonist is something I almost always need to work on during the course of writing a novel. If I don’t feel I can see the world through his eyes, I have trouble moving forward.

Actually, I don’t like him

After consideration, you decide either that you don’t get your hero or you don’t like him. What can you do?

First, why don’t you like him?

You may find, on reading over the draft, that he comes across as superior or insensitive. The first instinct might be to go back and make him more humble or empathetic.

But I’d hold off for a moment to explore what’s behind these negative characteristics. In particular, ask yourself: Where is his humanness?

He’s superior. But people who look down their noses often are, deep down, scared that they themselves are wanting in some big and shameful way. Is that him? If it is and you can show the underlying fear and uncertainty, your readers (and probably you) will like him more or at least feel more sympathetic. You also create a much more complex character.

Similarly with his insensitivity. What underlies that? Does he walk all over people because he fears that if he doesn’t grab what he needs, he won’t get it? Doesn’t have to be that reason but whatever you decide on, ask yourself further questions. Why doesn’t he trust the world to give him what it needs? What would that look like? How would it come out?

So, although uncomfortable, not liking or getting your main character can actually produce some pretty useful results.

But don’t fall in love

So, now you like your main character. Or at least understand him. But don’t fall in love.

You know new love—the other person is perfect and can do no wrong. So, this is a boring character on the page. Allow the hero his dark side. You can understand him without excusing or explaining away his shadowy side. Makes for a much more interesting hero.

There is another, more pragmatic reason for liking your protagonist but still keeping a healthy distance. When you are editing your novel or having it edited, you or your editor may want/need to make ruthless cuts or alterations. It will be harder to see the necessity if you are convinced you have a perfect leading man.

Do I need to do this with all my characters?

I wouldn’t. First off, it’s a huge amount of work.

You might want to do the analysis of the antagonist is she is to be as complex as the protagonist. Another possibility is when the novel features two people who both figure prominently in the plot.

But I’d keep it to a dull roar. It really is a lot of think time.

Next post: do your readers have to like your protagonist?  You may be surprised at the answer.

Creating Reliably Unreliable Narrators

narratorsCreating Reliably Unreliable Narrators

In the last post, we talked about ways in which unreliable narrators can be unreliable. This post will take the types discussed last time and work through what you need to make each sort unreliable but still credible.

Narrators with believable unreliability

We believe her from the get-go

In this type, we don’t know until the end that the narrator wasn’t telling the truth. You need to pay attention to:

Keep the reader entertained. Because the big reveal is at the end, you need to keep the unsuspecting reader interested. The story must work as a story, even without the twist ending. Otherwise, the reader may not bother to keep reading.

Drop hints.  Having said that, drop hints along the way that the reader will not pick up as significant until the ending and which allow him to re-evaluate what he thought was happening.

Have a good reason for the ending. That is, the shock ending must make sense in the context of the story. If it doesn’t, you risk a Deus ex Machina. Or in the vernacular, your reader will be left with a what-the-hell? feeling. So, “I was unreliable just because I thought it would be fun,” doesn’t cut it.

We’re not sure of whether she’s telling the truth

Here, the suspicion comes up somewhere in the story that the heroine isn’t truthful.

Keep clues ambiguous.  For as long as you can, keep the clues as to the heroine’s real nature equivocal. Did she not see Larry or was she avoiding him? The longer you can keep the reader guessing, the better.

Resolve ambiguity.  I suppose it’s possible to end the novel with the reader no wiser than when he started. Might work but prepare for lots of angry letters. Because the reader has a theory of what is going on, he needs an ending that has him shouting either, “Ah ha! I knew I was right!” or “Wow, I didn’t see that coming! “ Either way, the ending can’t just whimper off. It needs a clear resolution.

Pretty sure she’s lying

Cue early on. Very early on, let the reader know what kind of story you’re planning. The heroine being taller than a tree would do it as would her boast of being faster than a car.

Have satisfying ending.  The ending needs to pull all the exaggeration and fibs together in some way. I know this sounds a bit vague but you are going for your reader smiling at the ridiculousness of the ending while still finding it satisfying. It doesn’t have to be any more likely or true than the rest of the story but it has to feel like it coalesces the disparate elements.

Believes what she is saying

Make heroine’s assumptions credible. This type is very similar to the first type in that we need to believe what the heroine believes. If her flights of fancy are too obvious, the reader may start to doubt her.

Drop clues, of course. But again, the clues need to be super carefully laid. If the reveal is to work, the reader cannot pull out of the continuous dream to think, “Really? If she believes this, why is she doing that?”

This might be a walk-before-you-run thing

My inclination would be to avoid using unreliable narrators until you’re pretty comfortable writing reliable ones. It’s challenging enough to create a believable tale; it’s even tougher juggling the conventions of the novel if you’re still working on getting the rules down pat.

The Unreliable Narrator

unreliable

The Unreliable Narrator

Generally speaking, we assume that whoever is telling the story is telling the truth (including fictional truth). In fact, as we discussed in authority of the author, trusting the narrator can be critical to allowing your reader to sink happily into your world. But an interesting twist on this convention is to purposely present your reader with a first person chronicler who is unreliable.

Why use an unreliable narrator?

An unreliable narrator can create tension and intrigue. If we start to doubt the story-teller, then we will be unsure whether what she says is true. This can keep the reader guessing and second guessing what’s really going on. It’s basically playing with your reader’s mind, but if you do it right, he’ll love you for it. There are various ways to use this phenomenon.

Types of untrustworthy story-tellers

This is not an exhaustive list but here are some ways the reader can interact with this unusual heroine. This is all about the extent to which we believe her and when we start to doubt her.

We believe her from the get-go

From the beginning often to the bitter end, we believe the heroine is being straight with us. This novel uses the typical structure where the narrator’s veracity is taken for granted. Only near the end does it become clear that the heroine has been misleading us from the first page.

A famous example is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. The narrator is Doctor Sheppard who lives next to detective Hercule Poirot. He records his often humorous reactions to Poirot’s investigation of Roger Ackroyd’s death. He is astute and charming. He is also the murderer.  Which we only find out right at the end.

We’re not sure of whether she’s telling the truth

Either at the beginning, or as the novel progresses, we suspect that the narrator isn’t completely honest. We doubt whether we can trust the story as it is being told.

Sebastian Faulks, in his brilliant novel, Engleby, creates a character who seems a bit odd from the first. He doesn’t quite fit into university life. He makes casual reference to his therapist. Not that unusual but the astute reader’s antennae are probably up. He is interested in a girl but is reluctant to approach her. Shy? He follows her around, wishing to connect. One day, he sees her drop an envelope. He picks it up. And reads the contents!  And steals more of her letters.

Now we’re pretty sure we can’t trust Engleby but we are kept on our toes by constantly trying to figure out what he’s up to. The ending is surprising but satisfying.

Pretty sure she’s lying

We’ve all heard tall tales—about fishing, mountaineering, writing, etc. The reader is not expected to believe the tale but enjoy the way the story is told, or how cleverly the writer weaves together unrelated items so his heroine can accomplish what she wants. Mark Twain used this technique in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Believes what she is saying

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is the classic example of using a narrator who is undependable, not because she is willfully trying to deceive, but because she herself believes the story she’s telling. The heroine has impulsively married Maxim de Winter, only to find, she believes, that de Winter is still in love with his dead wife, Rebecca. She continues to build on her premise, only to find at the end, that she is completely mistaken.

As you can see, this technique gives you plenty of scope to juggle the normal pieces of a novel and come up with something really interesting. The next post discusses how you go about creating Unreliable Narrators.

Writing Villains

villains

Writing Villains

Oh, for the good old days when villains wore black (Stetsons, if appropriate), twirled their handlebar mustaches, and revealed their evil ways in every word and deed. Think Uriah Heep from David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, Dr. Hyde from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson, Professor Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Scoundrels we love to hate.

But while we can still appreciate the all-out, no-holds-barred malevolence of these anti-heroes, most modern readers expect a more nuanced approach to their (well, your) villains.

Villains are needed

You write the story from the protagonist’s point of view. It’s a challenge enough to show this character as real and sympathetic. The antagonist/villain is there but frequently only as foil to demonstrate the hero’s sterling qualities.

Now, you need this kind of a dynamic to make the novel work. For interesting reading, the leading character cannot sail smoothly to his promised land. Wants to be an Olympic athlete? Gets the gold. Wants to write a famous opera? The new Mozart. Not only is this progression boring but it doesn’t do anything for how we feel about the protagonist. You like people whose success comes easily? No, we like people who struggle and then conquer.

Enter, the villain. He can be the personification of the world blocking or thwarting the hero’s objectives. But if that is the only role he plays in the novel, the villain can also become boring or at least repetitive and unidimensional. And, not particularly believable. Or only in the style of the mustache-twirling from above.

So, you need the villain to be as believable as your hero. And if you can, you have a great opportunity to deepen the story.

How do I make my villain believable?

So, the big thing is to make your heavy as human as possible. What he needs is:

  • To be well-motivated. It is not enough for him to say, “I’ve always hated Harry [your main character] and I’m going to stop him.” Show, show, show. Why does he hate Harry? What did Harry do to him? Is he perhaps justified in his wish for revenge?
  • To care about something or someone. And getting Harry doesn’t count. It could be a dog. Or a place. Could be a lost love. Whatever. But he needs to have more in his life than retribution. (Unless of course you want to make him a psychopath but that has its own writing challenges.) Showing him with loving emotions both humanizes and makes the reader reassess him.
  • His own agenda. He cannot just act in reaction to the hero’s goals. He needs his own ends and desires. He has a plan. He will walk all over Harry to get them. But necessary in his mind to reach his destination.

Playing with antiheroes

In fact, if you make both the villain and the hero very human, and dare I say, sympathetic, you may be able to do the coolest thing: you may make it hard for the reader to decide which is which. Is the villain the tyrannical father who refuses to let his daughter take art lessons? Or is it the well-meaning teacher who tries to help a young girl be free? The ‘easy’ villain is the father. The ‘interesting’ villain is the schoolteacher who is imposing her morality on a situation she doesn’t understand.

This is one time when it’s okay to confuse the reader. She’ll love it.

Next post: the unreliable narrator. Also a winner with readers.