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April 20th, 2011
Fixing A Broken Character

Recently someone told me the hero in my story wasn’t heroic and didn’t behave like a hero. He was unsympathetic. Instead of panicking or becoming defensive, I took another look at my hero and, to my horror, found the criticism was justified. While I still liked my character, I definitely needed to do something to make him more likeable to readers.

Most of us want to read about characters that have the qualities we see in our friends and family—the same qualities we like to think we possess. We want to connect with characters and be able to relate to them.

So how do we do this?

In his book, Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass says we should start showing the reader that our character has heroic qualities right from the first page of our book. Even if our character is an average person, in an ordinary job, we need to demonstrate a special quality in them. At the start of a book, it will most likely be something small. They might help an elderly woman cross the road or rescue the next-door neighbor’s cat from a tree, but it will make us, the reader, sit up and pay attention. This is a character we would like as a friend, and we want to follow them through the course of the book, during the ups and downs, to the happy ending.

In my case, I looked at my character’s interactions with other characters. My hero snapped and snarled quite a bit, so I softened his language and the way he interacted with the other characters. I added some extra scenes, which I hope show my hero in a favorable light. I also looked at the inner conflict and checked I’d done everything I needed to in this area.

Fixing unsympathetic characters isn’t easy, and I hope I’ve managed to get the job done. I’m awaiting the verdict at present.

Do you have any hints for changing unsympathetic characters to ones that readers will love? And do you agree with Donald Maass—that we should see the hero/heroine doing something heroic almost as soon as we meet them in the story?

10 comments to “Fixing A Broken Character”

  1. I think we pigeonhole “sympathy” for a character into too narrow a definition. You don’t have to sympathize with a character the same way you sympathize with a lost puppy. I don’t even have to want to be friends with a character for me to sympathize with him/her. To me, sympathetic doesn’t have to be “nice” or even traditionally heroic. I have to be able to understand a character, understand why s/he is the way s/he is, and see him/her grow and change. That’s what invites a connection for me. Not, “Aww, you are so cute, I want to hug you!” but, “I respect what you’re doing and I care about your success.”

    I read an article once (I can’t for the life of me even remember who wrote it or what website it was on) about neutral characteristics. What traits does this person have that are either not related to “good” or “bad” or can be related to either? Persistence, loyalty, ambition, etc. can all apply to the hero OR the villain. Having traits like these and SHOWING them is important.

    Really, when it comes down to it, sympathy is about making your character want something and then making THE READER want him/her to get it. There are any number of ways to do that. Your character can still be a jerk; s/he can still do evil things. Look at Gregory House and Dexter and Al Swearingen from Deadwood. They are definitely the anti-heroes, but viewers can connect with them. We want them to get what they want.


  2. Great point, Vivien. This is where the inner conflict needs to come into the equation. Al Swearingen is a great example and one of my favorite characters.

    In my case, some of the concern was the mean attitude that came out in dialogue. Since I’m writing a romance, I needed to soften this aspect and make him “nicer” in some cases. I didn’t try to turn him into a whimp, but I did give glimpses of his softer side. I hope it’s worked!

    Thanks for your great comment.


  3. I think the dialogue is the key, Shelley. In my upcoming book about a walk-in angel, I had similar criticisms regarding my heroine. Uh, hello! The woman wakes up not knowing she’s going to be incarnate and she’s seven months pregnant with twins! I don;t know about you, but I’d be a bit abrupt myself. Besides, earth angels aren’t always angelic. I found the key was softening the language some. She still had a “tude” but she wasn’t as verbal about it.

    Bobbye, w/a Daryn Cross


  4. Bobbye – that’s what I ended up doing – softening the attitude in my dialogue without losing too much of my character at the same time.

    LOL about being abrupt. I know I’d be a little tetchy under those circumstances!


  5. I understand the need to adhere to genre conventions sometimes (and I can certainly understand how a narrator’s attitude can ruffle some readers’ feathers), but I also think there’s something to be said for a narrator who’s a jerk sometimes. Especially if it’s an understandably stressful situation, like the one Bobbye described. But then, the romance I enjoy (and the romance I’ve written in the past) defies convention in a lot of ways. I much prefer the anti-hero, mostly because I myself am often walking attitude. :) Again, it really does depend on the genre and the audience, though. Some people like anti-heroes in romance, some don’t.


  6. I don’t have any fixes for you, but I wanted to say thank you for posting this blog, becasue I think you may have fixed something for me in one of the books I am working on. Reading this has triggered an idea for me. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!!!

    Micole Black


  7. I just think it’s wonderful that authors will take what readers tell them about their books and take a second look to see for themselves if they were a reader would feel the same way.


  8. Vivien – definitely. I enjoy reading stories with edgy characters myself but, as you say, there are lots of readers who don’t enjoy the anti-hero. Some of the Urban Fantasy series have excellent characters who are full of sass and attitude. They’re some of my favorites.


  9. Micole – glad to be of service. LOL


  10. Mary – reader feedback is always important to authors. We like to know what you think. :grin: