What happens when people don’t like the main character in your book?

How to get readers to care about your main character

Have you ever read a book that you liked, but you just didn’t love? You’re not sure why, and then it strikes you: you don’t care enough about what happens to the main character. If they fell off a tall building you’d be mildly upset but you wouldn’t need a box of tissues; once you’ve closed the covers, you forget about the book and its characters entirely.

Authors dread this happening with their book when it goes out into the hands of readers. I don’t expect everyone to love my books, but to just not care? That would be the worse thing of all, because what I want when people read my books is for them to feel. It might be joy, it might be fear, it might be intense dislike, or it might be wonder: I don’t get to choose the feelings that my readers have but I certainly hope they have some feelings.

On people not liking my main characters

I know for a fact that not everyone has feelings about my book. I can thank Goodreads for this knowledge, because it tells me in all its raw and sometimes badly spelled honesty exactly what people think. And so I know that not everyone loved Gaelle, the main character in my first book, What is Left Over, After.

When I first read some of these reviews, I was shocked. Why didn’t people like her? I loved her. She was my character, my creation. What had I done with her that caused people not to like her, or to feel ambivalent towards her?

On lucky me working with LIZ BYRSKI

And then I kind of forgot about it because I moved on to writing another book. And in this other book, My New York book, I have been incredibly lucky. Because I have been allowed to write it as a PhD at university. And just a couple of months ago, my supervisors changed and I now have LIZ BYRSKI supervising me! (And yes, she deserves capital letters!) Could my life be any better? Probably not. I realise what an incredible blessing it is to learn from an author who has published so many books, which have reached hundreds of thousands of readers.

Liz and I were having a conversation about my book recently and we were talking about the main character, who I love, of course; I made her. But as we talked, a little light bulb went off in my head and I realised that it was my own fault that some people didn’t like Gaelle in If I Should Lose You. It’s because I sometimes hold too much back.

Creating an emotional punch in a storyOn wanting to trust my readers, but perhaps not giving them enough

Let me explain. I underwrite. My first drafts are around 50,000 words and editors are always telling me to flesh out the story and the characters. I have a natural aversion to spoon-feeding my readers; I trust that they are smart enough to work out what is going on without me having to tell them.

But sometimes this makes me leave things out entirely, things that are really important to making people care about my characters. The stuff I’m referring to is the full and deep explication of my character’s thoughts and feelings and emotions; sure, readers want to be shown a lot of this stuff, rather than told, but readers also want to feel. And how can they feel if the feelings are hinted at, suggested, but never quite there?

For me, this means bringing my characters fears more fully to life. I believe that fear is at the heart of all good drama: what we are afraid of doing, or of not doing, what we are afraid of feeling, what we are afraid or learning, what we are afraid of losing, what we are afraid of loving. I’m so glad I’ve made this discovery now. Because I was in danger of sending another book out into the world which some readers would have enjoyed, but which other readers may not have cared enough about because I hadn’t given them enough to care about.

So I’ve returned to do another edit and this edit is FUN! I feel as if I know what I’m doing. And the image on the left is my thinking process in every scene; it’s making my book so much better. And longer! At last count, it was 109,000 words! For someone whose previous books have been around the 65,000 word mark, this seems excessive. But it’s always easier to trim, once I have everything in there that I think it needs.

On not knowing everything

So, you see, even after publishing two books, I don’t know everything. I’m still learning and working things out and making mistakes and trying again. And that’s all part of the fun of it.

How about you? Have you read a book where you just couldn’t muster up enough emotion to care about the characters? What makes you care about characters you read about?

And if you’re a writer, do you over-write or under-write? Do you pour all the emotions in, or do you hold it back, like I’ve done? Please leave a comment below and let me know.

14 comments

  1. Natasha, I really like the way you move from talking about ‘liking’ a character to ‘caring about’ a character. I think it is the author’s job to love their characters: Jonathan Frantzen said that you can do anything at all to your characters, keep throwing any kind of trouble at them, as long as you love them, because it shows in the writing. But I don’t think that necessarily translates into the reader liking them, even the main character. I think you’re right about getting the reader to respond in some strong way, but it’s not always liking. Cromwell in Mantel’s novels, especially Bring Up the Bodies, is pretty horrible, but I really responded to him, I cared about him, even when I didn’t like him. That’s great writing. (And as for under writing — that’s me, absolutely. It comes from writing poetry, I think.)

    • Thanks for your comments Robyn. I also responded to Cromwell in Mantel’s novels; her books are a great example of a character who you don’t necessarily always like, but you care about what happens to him tremendously. And I hadn’t thought about the poetry link; I began writing with poetry so perhaps that’s why my first drafts are always so economical!

  2. Just for the record, I loved Gaelle and feel somewhat offended that others didn’t!! I also think that if I was a published novelist I would block all reviews and never read them, but good on you for doing so as it sounds like it has made your next book even better!

    • Thank you Amanda! I used to be really affected by bad reviews, especially my first 1 star review on Goodreads. And while yes, they still hurt a bit, I always remember that I don’t love every book I read so I can’t expect everyone to like my books. I still probably wouldn’t leave 1 star reviews for them on Goodreads though!

  3. And this is why I loved your book, Natasha. I underwrite too! Thanks for the insight! I loved Gaelle – she was perfectly flawed, tragic but not a drama queen, naive but not superficial – a complex character that just worked for the book.
    P.S. My third rewrite has decimated my novel from its original 65,000 words to 35,000! I’m editing myself out of the page!

    • Hi Rashida, it’s always good to know that there are other writers out there who suffer from short-draft syndrome too! Most people seem to be the opposite, and have incredibly long first drafts. And thank you for you comments about Gaelle, it’s so nice to know that some readers responded to her just the way I had hoped.

  4. You are fortunate to have Liz Byrski supervising you – she is awesome – I love all her books … would love to do one of her writing workshops when she does some.

    • I am so lucky! She is the best supervisor and such a great mentor. It’s especially good to be learning from someone who has such longevity in the publishing industry. I am very blessed!

  5. elizabethellencarter

    I try to mete out the back story through out the book, so even if there is something grating about a character, their motivation becomes clear as the story progresses. I want the reader to go ‘oh no, the poor dear – no wonder she/he is like that’. Even in the case of villains, you have to make their behaviour interally consistent, so even if their actions are unconscionable, the reader knows why they have behaved that way even if it was the wrong choice, evil or otherwise unjustified.

    • I agree Elizabeth, great points. I always talk to my writing students about making sure the good guys have bad qualities and the bad guys have good qualities so that no one is one-dimensional and a stereotype. Backstory is a great way to filter in things that have happened in the past, things which explain why the character is how they are in the present. Thanks for dropping by!

  6. I needed to read this today! I’ve just written out the four points in your graphic and have them sitting on my desk in front of me.

    I felt sorry for Gaelle in your story. I felt frustrated at her, too, but that is a good sign. Sometimes, I think a reader’s personal bias comes in, and if the behaviour of a character oversteps their moral boundaries too far, they don’t like it. I’ve experienced that when reading a book, too. Where a character is too far removed from me that I can’t read on.

    The other day I sat with a consultant who had read my story. She was frustrated by some of my characters’ decisions. She understands why they made them, but … Now I’m wondering whether to edit these bits back a bit in case I lose potential readers. It’s difficult to know what’s best to do sometimes, isn’t it?

    • I’m so glad it helped, Louise. And your question is a tricky one. I know exactly what you are referring to; my characters’ decisions have frustrated my readers too. I think one of the things I’ve learned is that there’s a difference between intellectually understanding why a character has made a decision versus emotionally understanding why a character has. One of the things I think I’ve done in my books is made it clear intellectually why the character behaves a certain way or has done something, but that hasn’t translated to a deep, emotional understanding of the core of my character in the reader’s mind.

      So that’s my big challenge and what I’m working really hard on in this draft. I do think it’s a more commercial way of writing, letting out quite a lot of emotion onto the page. But I think there are still subtle ways to do this, which is what I’m trying to do. One of the things I’m enjoying is that I’m learning a lot from writing this way; my word count is going through the roof because I’m adding so much in, more than I ever would normally, but then my job will be to go in and pare back, leaving behind characters who make frustrating decisions, but the reader is so on side with them emotionally, that they forgive them all of that and love them all the more for it.

      I don’t know if that’s helpful, as I say, I’m still working it out myself. But I do think leaving the reader with a deep impression of the characters’ vulnerabilities, their real fears, might help. And please feel free to talk to me at any time about this; I’d love to hear what you decide to do and what you learn along the way too.

  7. Ooh lucky you working with Liz. I’m going to try this!

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