I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it takes to make a main character likable. If readers don’t care what happens to the person who carries the story, there is little reason to keep reading. And yet a main character owns her spot in the narrative because she has a problem, not because she is appealing. In fact, there will inevitably be something negative in her struggle. That’s the nature of problems. How do you make a character, consumed by such negatives, sympathetic?
When I examine this question against whatever story I’m immersed in at the moment, I always come back to thinking about a novel manuscript in a workshop I led long ago. The story was about a thirteen-year-old girl whose parents announced that she must take care of her two much-younger brothers through her summer vacation. The main character was authentically thirteen. That means, in the face of this very real affront to her plans, she was self-involved, whiney, furious. She was totally believable as a character, and the story moved forward in good order, but the response in the workshop was consistent. Folks had few complaints about the story itself, but everyone, to a person, hated the main character.
I listened to this discussion without a lot of comment, trying to sort it all myself. As I’ve already said, the girl was recognizably thirteen. Her problem was one most girls her age would find difficult. Why couldn’t these women—as far as I can recall this ongoing workshop was entirely composed of women at the time—care about her? Was it because most of us were mothers ourselves and our empathy lay with the parents’ need rather than with the girl’s self-centered fury over protecting her summer? Would young readers have had the same response?
I never answered those questions with any certainty, but I learned something entirely different the evening this writer returned to the group and, though she had been deep into her novel, announced at the beginning of her reading, “Chapter 1.”
She had gone back to the beginning, and she had made one change. Now the girl who didn’t want to take care of her little brothers had something going on besides simply wanting her summer freedom in a self-obsessed, thirteen-year-old way. She was an avid photographer. She had been planning to enter a photography contest that summer. The winner would receive a prize that would advance her opportunities as a photographer. And, of course, taking care of her brothers would make it almost impossible to do the work the girl needed to do for the contest.
The story was off and running, and I never heard a word about anyone hating the main character again.
So here’s what I learned: Setting a character up with a problem—which is, of course, what a story, any story, demands above all else—isn’t enough. Problems carry a negative load. And as negative as we ourselves can be at times, we have a hard time caring about others who are only negative. But if our characters care about something in a deep, passionate and positive way, that caring will draw us to care about them. And then we’ll care about their problems, too.
It’s that simple. And that profound.
As I’m preparing to return to Blue-Eyed Wolf, I’ve been growing concerned that Angie, my main character, might be coming off as whiney and unappealing. She is grieving the loss of her much-older brother, who has enlisted to fight in Vietnam. And worse, in terms of her appeal as a character, there is no action she can take to bring him back. All she can do is grieve. So how do I make this passive, grieving girl appealing?
When I reenter the story, I’m going to experiment with a small change. Angie will be a passionate birder. Seeing her love something in a clear, positive way, a way that isn’t tangled with her anger and grief, will, I hope, give my readers a different perspective on her, a more reliable affection for her. And her birding will also fit seamlessly into the natural world that is her home and the base for the story.
Now . . . to see what happens.