One of the most important parts of putting a story together is making sure that your main character, your protagonist, is a ‘likeable’ and relatable character. This is the one person that your audience is going to be spending most of their time with throughout the entire project, and if they loathe and despise your main character, chances are they’re just not going to want to be there after the first few pages or so. Even anti-heroes have to have something about them that keeps a reader engaged with what’s going on in the story.
…Sometimes, an author can create a character that is NOT so immediately likeable, and use that to their advantage. It’s a bit more challenging, yes…but if done correctly, you’ll be able to craft an amazing story, where both your main character and possibly even your readers can learn something about themselves during their journey together. I like to call this a ‘redeeming character arc’.
You’ve seen it done many times before, and it takes time and patience, both on the part of the author and the reader, to let the story unfold in a way that seems natural. When you start out with a ‘less than loveable’ character, you don’t want to make them the most HATED person in all literature! But you want to show that he or she has some obvious flaws in their personality that need adjustment. That doesn’t make them a bad person, they just have flaws. Just like the rest of us. And the goal in your story is to put certain obstacles in that character’s way that will force them to step up and find ways to deal with their own imperfections, thus learning and growing from the experience. Yes, they start off on a bad note, but that’s the point. This leaves them with somewhere to go. Something to experience. A chance to ‘redeem’ themselves by finding out that things can be better for them. This is where your story arc begins.
The most difficult part of creating a redeeming arc is getting your readers to stick with you while you attempt to get things started. Readers can be extremely impatient, judgemental, and easily frustrated. You have to find a way to create an ‘underdog’ vibe for your character that will hopefully endear him or her to your audience before they just get fed up and turn away.
Take Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” for example. If you read the first third of that novel…Scrooge is a HORRIBLE person! He’s mean, he’s cheap, he has no compassion at all. There is absolutely no reason to cheer for him at all. And if you stop reading after the first third of the book, you’re going to walk away thinking, “That’s the stupidest thing I ever wasted time reading.” But that’s the POINT of Scrooge’s character. To discover his flaws, to realize his mistakes, and to later redeem himself by becoming a better person after learning what an awful person he was before. Macauley Culkin’s character in “Home Alone” was a total brat in the beginning. Thor was so headstrong and arrogant that he was unworthy of carrying his own hammer. Even Luke Skywalker was a whiney little dreamer with no real skills to speak of. But all of these characters end up being put in situations where they’re forced to evolve and find an inner strength and wisdom that they didn’t know was there before. That’s the FUN in building the arc. And by the time the story is over, everyone will hopefully have that warm fuzzy feeling in their hearts, giving you, the author, two thumbs up on a job well done! 🙂
When you’re beginning your planning for such a story, you have to think about what needs ‘fixing’…and how you’re going to fix it. What is your character’s main flaw, why do they have it, and what is going to change that around? In a story of mine, “Always”, the main character is definitely a mean spirited boy with a bleak and unforgiving perspective on the world. He crushes his friends’ dreams, he mistreats those that try to get close to him, he keeps himself from having any hope at all. That’s the flaw. And unlovable as he is, his character is deliberately written that way to inspire change within him over the course of the rest of the story. Why does this flaw exist in him? That’s demonstrated through visions of the horrible life he’s led. Homeless, abused, knocked down more times than he can count. It’s a cause and effect situation that has soured his view of the world in general. There you go. You have the problem, and you have the cause. So how do we change this miserable bastard into someone that readers can cheer for?
First of all, this magical transformation will take time to grow. Which means that your audience will be stuck with the meaner side of him for a while. So I made sure to throw in a few random acts of kindness or compassion here and there to demonstrate that, yes…he DOES have a heart! Guarded as he may be about it, I think that showing tiny glimpses of a soul worth saving here and there will hold your readers still and keep them from ‘wiggling’ so much while you try to write the story you want to tell. Do NOT let anyone push you! I know some folks just want to hurry up and get to whatever they think the ‘good part’ is, but don’t be bullied into racing to the finish line. You craft your story the way you want to. Take your time. You’ll be glad you did when you’re finished.
Now, to further your character’s development from the dark side to the light…you’ll have to put him in situations where he may have to abandon his heartless nature in order to get through his current dilemma. Maybe he’ll have to go back and save someone he left behind. Maybe he’ll have to calm someone down while they’re crying hysterically. Maybe a pinch of guilt, or a moment of weakness, or maybe just a swift kick in the butt from a friend, telling him to knock it off. Whatever devices you use, the idea is to get him to think to himself, “Yeah…I guess I was kind of being a jackass, wasn’t I?” Have your character slowly develop a conscience, and have him find small rewards every time he puts that conscience to work for him. That’s how your character grows into the hero of the story. Which is much more interesting than just having him start off as perfect and trying to move up from there. Flaws and conflict make stories interesting. Remember that.
Now this formula can work with any flaws that you want your characters to have. Maybe they’re extremely violent. Maybe they’re extremely shy. Maybe they’re insecure about their looks, or overly narcissistic, or not good at expressing emotion…whatever it is, start off by showing those flaws in your character as a part of your initial set up for the story. And as time goes on, let them change and develop and experiment with ways to get past these flaws so they can win the ultimate prize. (Whatever that may be)
Just remember, beginning with a less than lovable character doesn’t mean that it will be a less than lovable story. Build it up any way you want, and let your characters grow. The same way we ALL had to grow. Everybody had to talk to a cute boy for the first time, or get in that first fight with the school bully, or take that argument with our parents just a step too far. Remember to write from your own perspective. The way you remember going through it for the first time. And as long as you’re honest and patient with what you’re writing…your readers will follow you! Cool?
This has been ‘Comsie Talks’! And I hope this helps! 🙂