Writing Loveable Characters

Earlier this year, I was re-reading The Opposite of Fate, by Amy Tan.  It’s half a book on writing, and half personal essay.  I love Amy Tan’s novels, and her essays as well.  This time, as I was reading, I was struck by some things that she said about sarcasm and compassion.  She writes, “Many beginning writers think sarcasm is a clever way to show intelligence.  But more mature writers know that mean-spiritedness is wearying and limited in its one-dimensional point of view.  A more successful story is one in which the narrator can treat human foibles, even serious flaws, with depth and hence compassion.”

I was most struck by this line: “Gratitude led to a generosity of spirit, and that was what my soul required so I could write.”

I began to wonder what would happen to my own writing if I focused on cultivating a generosity of spirit, and approached my character with that attitude.  I sometimes struggle in my early drafts with character likeability, especially because in early drafts, I tend to overuse sarcasm, or have my characters be clever when they ought instead to be kind.

One thing that I did when I was revising Chasing the Skip for publication was to cut the whining.  Sentences, paragraphs, exposition, dialogue; no passage was safe from the sweep of my pen as I cut all the places where I’d allowed Ricki to wallow and complain.  Why?  Because no one likes a whiner, and if I was going to ask you to spend an entire novel caring about Ricki’s family problems, I needed you to like her.

Sarcasm is easy to write, and it can be entertaining.  Witty narrative is fun to read.  But sarcasm is a neutral trait; it doesn’t make your character likeable or unlikeable.  Sarcasm holds people at a distance; it doesn’t invite intimacy between reader and character.  If we know nothing about your character except that they are sarcastic, that’s not going to make them likeable.  And if they are sarcastic and mean, you’ve coupled a neutral trait with a negative one.  Now I hate your character, unless you’ve done significant work to give them positive traits that make me like them, despite their meanness.

Whining about things that don’t seem worthy of the whine is a negative trait.  Whining about things that do seem worth whining about is neutral.  Going through something hard without whining is a positive trait.  If you want readers to like your protagonist, this is most likely the place you want them to be.

It’s easy to write characters who are unreasonable.  It’s more tricky to write situations in which everyone is right, and yet conflict arises naturally because characters, like people, have different priorities, desires, and ideas about what is best.  When everyone has a point, conflict gains nuance.  Solutions are harder to find.  Tension feels more authentic.  Everyone can be likeable, and still be in conflict with each other.  Obviously not every story calls for this treatment, but especially when writing about family relationships, this is often the sort of conflicts that you want your characters to have.

Several months ago, I read a comment Sara Zarr made on her Tumblr blog, about what to do when you’re writing things that aren’t trendy.  She said that if your book won’t sell because it’s not on trend, it is your job to make it irresistible, so that an agent or an editor cannot say no.  The whole thing is worth a read; I love that she talks about taking responsibility for your own work, instead of relying on factors that are mostly out of your control (like trendiness).

When I read this, I started to think about what might make my own book irresistible, first to editors, and then later to readers.  For some of my unsold books, I found I could not answer that question.  For ones I’ve been working on more recently, I found that what made the books irresistible to me (and then hopefully by extension to others) were the relationships–the characters who loved each other deeply.  The places where I approached my own characters with a generosity of spirit and let them love each other were also the places that I found them most compelling; as they loved each other, I loved them.  Other characters who distanced the world through their sarcasm drew less emotion to me.  I loved the ones who were vulnerable, who had so much to lose that they didn’t dare disconnect from others.  That’s what was irresistible to me.

Chasing the Skip, for example, is mostly about Ricki and her father.  They love each other, but they both do so badly, so neither of them can recognize that love in the other.  But because Ricki cares, she has something to lose.  That vulnerability begets tension for me, which I hope will be mirrored in the reader.  I can see that, looking back, but now I set about intentionally, to do it working forward.

I started asking myself these questions about my current projects: what does my main character love?  What does she love so much she’s afraid to lose?  What does she do about that fear?  How can I bring that out from scene to scene?  I tried revising an entire novel, sitting down every day and telling myself, “this is a love story.”  I tried letting the story be about love even when the scene at hand wasn’t romantic.  What about my character’s love for the people who weren’t the romantic interest?  How could I bring that out on the page, and raise the stakes in every scene?

And as I did, the book that had formerly been miserable to write became irresistible to me.  This was a revelation, an epiphany.  It made me love writing again.

Whether it will make my work irresistible to others isn’t something I can fully predict.  But here is something I can work on, something I can do to make my stories better.

It’s something to work on.