I’ve written a lot of manuscripts – some are pretty good if I do say so myself, and some are best left as permanent Word documents in the dusty folders on my laptop. They all have one thing in common.
In every one of them, I struggled mightily to make the main character likable.
Likability is the bane of my existence. When I first dared to have someone read my very first manuscript (now permanently shelved, thank you), I discovered that the heroine of that story was unlikable in the extreme. Opinions on this topic were unanimous. This was more than a little depressing: like most first-time writers, I’d written the main character as…me. A woman my age, with my opinions and my thoughts, but with better hair and less squishy thighs.
Turns out my opinions and thoughts were less than sweet. Turns out my internal thoughts are unlikable. I am a complicated person, and I have many qualities. These qualities do not include sunshiny or chipper.
Time passed. I wrote more manuscripts and got an agent. I continued to have problems with likability, and that’s where I got dinged most often. Fortunately, I learned to revise, to watch out for this problem, to delete passages in which the main character thought dark and ugly things, even though we all know real people think dark and ugly things. Real people judge other people harshly. Real people are occasionally careless with other people’s emotions. My main characters began to get so cheery I didn’t know what to do with them.
My writing grew constrained and mired in too much worry about likability.
Anyone who’s read this blog before knows that my road to publication was long. I became too focused on whether my writing would be published, and forgot that it’s supposed to be fun. I have a day job. Writing isn’t how I pay my bills (and likely never will be), so I took a few months to think about things.
There are unlikable characters everywhere. People love them: love hating them, love watching them scheme, love seeing their downfalls and (though we don’t always admit it) their triumphs as well. Think of Cersei Lannister, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Lucy from Charlie Brown, Joan Collins on Dynasty, Sarah Michelle Gellar in Cruel Intentions, Amy from Gone Girl. The trick isn’t to write every main character as Miss Merry Sunshine. The trick is to make your audience relate to your character.
I decided that writing what I didn’t want to write in the hopes of publication wasn’t for me. I want to write what is fun. If it’s never published, so be it. Maybe I needed to write all those manuscripts to trust myself and my skill enough to write an unlikable character. I gave myself permission to write a character whose thoughts are dark as midnight.
So I did. My newest manuscript is a dual first person point-of-view, and one of the women whose head we’re in is far, far, so-very-distant from likable. I heard criticism: there are always those who want to root only for the “nice” people. I got told to make her less consciously awful and more, say, misguided. Delusional, even.
Early readers also told me Kira was funny and engaging as well as being horrible. People related to her. They rooted for her. I kept her. I stopped chasing that worry that people wouldn’t like her and it’s made all the difference. Her unlikability is what the book is about, in many ways.
I had a hell of a lot of fun writing her—and that’s what matters to me.
Coming soon: THE DARKEST FLOWER!