YA is populated with extremely flawed, sometimes “unlikable” characters. We grew tired of the seemingly perfect protagonists, so we were introduced to characters like Katniss Everdeen and Beatrice Prior, who are atypical because they’re guarded and tough and blunt – but no less heroic.
These characters can be difficult to write. We have to be careful not to turn our readers away. Rather, we want to draw them deeper into the story.
So how do we take protagonists with unlikable traits and make them sympathetic? *Notice I don’t use the term ‘likable’, because likability isn’t really the issue. We’re after characters who are layered, sympathetic, heroic.
My current work in progress is about a girl named Gwen who is rather spoiled, conceited, and somewhat selfish. While she’s incredibly fun to write, I have to be sure my reader will care enough about her to keep reading and experience Gwen’s growth.
I believe there are three important aspects to writing the unlikable yet sympathetic protagonist, and that’s what I’ve kept in mind while drafting Act 1 of my novel:
Arrogance and selfishness – not a great combination of traits for a YA heroine. I want to show my reader that Gwen is not a total jerk. So I introduce a little boy Gwen has a soft spot for and is fiercely protective of. They’re not related, but he’s like a little brother to her. When he’s hurt in the first few pages of the draft, Gwen rushes to his side to be sure he’s okay. She’s rude to everyone along the way, but it’s clear that she really cares for this boy.
Your protagonist can’t be a lost cause. Your reader has to recognize your protagonist’s potential, and often this means giving your character a desire for change/growth.
Gwen recognizes her flaws and has a desire to change, but she doesn’t quite know how to go about this in the beginning. The reader will be much more willing to accept Gwen for all her faults especially if she herself admits to being a huge pain. I think it’s so much worse when a person is horrible but thinks they’re God’s gift to society. (That’s just annoying. You’ve met people like that before, right?)
I’m talking about backstory. WHY is your protagonist selfish / conceited / rude / angry / bitter / guarded / fearful? What has caused them to be this way? We don’t want to give our characters excuses, per se, but realistically your character would have been influenced by something or someone in his/her past. (Again, this doesn’t justify the behavior, merely offers an explanation.) After all, the reader wants to sympathize with your character. Reveal backstory on a need-to-know basis, giving up bits and pieces at a time.
Gwen grew up without her parents (yes, I know it’s cliche). But she’s privileged and favored, and consequently has no friends because everyone hates her for it. (I’m trying not to give too much away, but there’s a bit more to it than that.) In short, she’s lonely, but can’t seem to help pushing others away.
Hope this helps! Have you ever struggled to write an unlikable but sympathetic character? What was your strategy, and what did you learn? Tell me more about your character(s) and how you made them sympathetic. Also, I’d be happy to answer any questions!
Thanks for reading,
WIP update: 8,983 words