August 17, 2011

More on Writing Miserable Characters

I posted yesterday about making a character's frustrating behavior more palatable by having another character express impatience on behalf of the reader. Today as I continued revising the section that caused me to dwell on this issue, I discovered that in my previous draft, a character exactly echoes the language from that post and says "Is it possible you're blowing things out of proportion?"

I was amused. I also cut the line, because I didn't really like it and the scene changed enough that no longer needed someone to lose patience with my main character right then.

Writing a troubled, depressed character doesn't only run the risk of the reader wishing they'd hurry up and get over it. The reader may be unable to sympathize with the character in the first place, or may find it too unpleasant to spend time in the character's head.

I want to avoid this reaction from my readers, so I always pay attention to writing advice about how to successfully portray a character of this type. Last year I attended a workshop with agent Donald Maass, and he covered this topic. Looking over my notes from that part of the workshop, I can summarize the advice in a couple of points:

1. Show from the beginning that the character has a desire to get out of his unhappy situation. Establish what he has to learn or let go of (for example) and why he is currently powerless to change. This gives the reader a feeling of hope, and they'll be rooting for the character rather than giving him up as a lost cause.

2. Provide the character with some admirable quality that will make the reader care about him right away. Sympathetic, likable traits make it easier for the reader to cope with the otherwise potentially distasteful experience of being in an unhappy character's head.

Maass has further discussion of what he calls "dark protagonists" in his book THE FIRE IN FICTION, which I recommend.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Linguist Ben Zimmer writes in the New York Times Book Review about computer analysis of the language of fiction: "'Bolting upright' and 'drawing one's breath' are two more fiction-specific turns of phrase revealed by the corpus. ... The conventions of modern storytelling dictate that fictional characters react to their worlds in certain stock ways and that the storytellers use stock expressions to describe those reactions."

→ Michael MacLeod from the Guardian share his notes from Neil Gaiman's talk at the Edinburgh Interational Book Festival: "For several years I read the children's library until I finished the children's library. Then I moved into the adult library and slowly worked my way through them. With the kids' library I did it alphabetically but I discovered I couldn't do that with the adult one because there were too many big boring books to read, so I did it by interesting covers."

4 comments:

blythe025 said...

Good advice!

Lisa Eckstein said...

I agree! I wish I could claim credit for it. :)

I should add that while in this instance I was drawing on advice provided by Donald Maass, similar techniques have been noted by a whole lot of other people who have also analyzed what works well in a story. I'm always happy to pass good advice along.

laurenhat said...

Thank you for this and the previous post. I have stopped reading a number of otherwise well-written books at the point at which I got fed up with waiting for a main character to stop being annoyingly depressed. I've also written characters who deserve some slapping around at various points, and it's great to have these ideas in mind for counteracting annoyance in readers.

Lisa Eckstein said...

Lauren, I'll be relying on you to let me know if you want to slap this character in the next draft!

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