What Makes Readers Invest In a Frustrating Character?

girl-with-a-sour-face-1208847-mCharacters come in all shapes and sizes, as authors know well: including frustrating and unlikeable.

Today’s post is about character and characterization: because sometimes characters annoy us, even get on our last nerve, and we’ll still read about them (or at least give them a chance.) Other times, we don’t. Why is that?

Obviously, I can only talk about my personal experience with fiction and on-screen storytelling. In fact, this post was inspired by thinking back to my original, not-so-kind reception of Donna Noble on “Doctor Who.”

Now, you don’t have to be a Whovian, or even have heard of “Doctor Who,” to get something from this post. I’m not going to dwell on Donna or the show, and I’m not going to give spoilers.

All I can say is, when I first met Donna, for two or three episodes I really didn’t like her as the Doctor’s companion. She was negative and high-strung. She was independent, but not the good kind of independent; she was the bad, “I’m going to ignore your advice and do it my way, even though your way is obviously better” kind.

She eventually became my favorite “companion” on the show. I grew to love her and admire her for her pluck, bravery, resolve, and even her roots of humility. (One of her tag lines…. “I’m not important! I’m a TEMP. From CHISWICK.”)

SO, WHAT MAKES READERS STICK WITH A CHARACTER THEY DON’T ORIGINALLY LIKE???? ESPECIALLY A MAJOR CHARACTER?

That is the heart of this post, and the real issue at hand. Because let’s face it: all characters, if they’re well written and are anything like real people, are going to have shortcomings, flaws, and vices.

Here is a short list of some ways you can entice readers to give a character a chance, even if they don’t connect with him right away.

  • THERE ARE OTHER CHARACTERS READERS CAN CONNECT WITH MORE NATURALLY. This, really, is why I gave Donna Noble a chance. Giving up on Donna would have meant giving up on the Doctor. And I wasn’t about to do that, as annoyed as I was at the start of Donna’s season. So, if you have other characters readers can, or already have, fallen in love with, they’re likely to bear with you long enough for the “trouble character” to display his or her depth.
  • BALANCE OUT THE NEGATIVE TRAITS (OR SHOW THEIR VALUE). This happened with Donna Noble too: she was brassy and obnoxious, and while that annoyed me at times, it also set up some comical and enjoyable moments in the first few episodes that featured her. Remember, sometimes a “negative” trait can work to our favor or accomplish something positive, and all people have positive characteristics we can relate to and admire: throw your readers a “frickin’ bone,” as Dr. Evil would say, and don’t paint your character throughout his or her first scenes in an entirely negative manner.
  • IMPLY THAT THIS CHARACTER HAS POTENTIAL FOR GROWTH THAT WILL COME TO FRUITION. I, for one, am a total sucker for stories of redemption and maturation, because they restore my faith in humanity and demonstrate for me the power of the grace of God. And even those who aren’t spiritual/religious that way will be less annoyed with an annoying character if they can sense that this character will “live and learn” along the way. When we know a payoff is coming, we’re more willing to put up with the setup.
  • LET THE READER SEE THE GOOD BEFORE THE BAD COMES OUT. Sure, this is just one specific way to “balance out the negative traits,” but it works. One of my favorite examples of this is the 5th Harry Potter book. Harry becomes so angsty, and so self-centered and self-pitying, that it is really annoying. The thing is, the reader knows Harry is just going through a hard time. That this isn’t who Harry really is. Also, he’s been through a LOT, so the reader is willing to be patient with him. At least, I was.
  • TONE AND NARRATION, AND THEME, MATTER. I have mentioned this in other contexts, but the fact is, a reader will much more easily read about an awful character, a person he or she can’t respect, if the way the story is told says, “I don’t expect you to respect this person.” This, I feel, is the huge draw I feel to “Gone with the Wind.” Scarlett O’Hara is AWFUL, in almost every way a human being can be awful, but the author knows that. Other characters call her on it (especially Rhett). I’m not expected to accept her selfishness and childishness.

If you enjoyed this post, you can sign up to follow my blog by email at the top right of the page. That way you won’t miss out on future posts!

You might also enjoy these related posts:

1. On Character Traits, Part I: Self-Pity

2. On Character Traits, Part II: Fearful

3. On Character Traits, Part III: No Common Sense

4. On Character Traits in Secondary Characters

5. On Creative Writing and the “Bumbler” Character Type

 

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25 responses to “What Makes Readers Invest In a Frustrating Character?

  1. You have epic timing! This was just the question I asked today on my blog because I have a flawed character that I’m pretty sure my readers won’t like at first. Thanks for the tips!

  2. Great post! The first person I thought of was Dolores Umbridge, of course from Harry Potter. She is just pure evil & so easy to hate – I think one reason people were able to keep reading was because of a deep attachment to the protagonists. They hated her with each terrible thing she would do, which in turn would boost their adoration for the good guys. At least that’s how I thought I felt about it.

    • Fantastic point…. one good role for a character like that is always as an antagonist, because he or she can function just as you describe. And Umbridge is great because while she is prominent, she’s not in every scene, you know? I don’t think Rowling overplays her.

  3. Very interesting points. I’ll keep them in mind while both watching/reading stuff and writing my own characters. Thanks for the post!

  4. I find that there’s a difference between characters who annoy me as characters and characters who would annoy me as people. I’d hate to spend time with Donna in real life, but I loved her straight away as a character because she provided such a contrast with other characters the Doctor dealt with, and with the Doctor himself.

    • That is another fabulous point…. Geez, Andrew, you are always finding a really incredible tweak to my angle of approach!!! You are very, very right. Donna as a character is much more fun than Donna as a person might be. Of course, we all know she got it from her mother 🙂

  5. Recently I watched again “The Emperor’s New Groove”, which is one of my favorite animated movies.

    It is a very straightforward Personal Growth story, the main character is a spoiled brat at the beginning of the movie, gets laid low by circumstances that he brought upon himself, and learns some humility and compassion through hardship.

    Much of what makes the story work is that it starts in the middle, we are shown Kuzco in extremis, and then the story backs up to show how he was reduced to that. It makes the character easier to relate to because we know that he’s going to get his comeuppance.

    Main Character Who Overcomes Her Or His Fatal Flaw is a standard trope in movies and books. You start by showing the character being flawed in some way and then at the finale that character has to act in some way counter to that in order to save the day. The coward must be brave, the bully must be compassionate–the last boss battle shows that the character has actually changed.

    Also check out Kira Lyn Blue’s blog today–she asks a very similar question:

    http://kiralynblue.com/2014/01/15/muse-management-and-flawed-characters/

    • Thanks for the reflection and the link! I love Kira’s blog! And I love your example here. That movie is a great example, and starting “in extremis” and flashing back IS a fantastic way to prove to readers this obnoxious character will change and that his bad behavior will have consequences.

  6. Good points. I stick with annoying characters for many of those reasons. I tend to assume that they are that way because they will either grow or play an important role in events. After all, we all know annoying people in real life and some of them turn into good friends after you get to know them beyond the annoyance. Something that frustrates me as an author is when people tell me they gave up on a series or book because of a solitary character. When you talk to them about any other aspects of the book, they love it and think it’s great, but refuse to go on due to this one character that might not even be central. It really makes one feel like they’re walking a tightrope when writing a book and that all characters must be near flawless.

    • Love your point here…. How often do we get a bad “first impression” of someone that proves not entirely correct, or just have to learn to tolerate the little things like we know people tolerate the little things we do? One of the greatest benefits of fiction here, I think…. Making us understand, reflect upon, and perhaps have more patience with the human condition. 🙂

      • Never thought of it that way, but it’s incredibly true. I think some readers forge this and expect fictional characters to be so pure and perfect. Yet, a truly perfect character gets people angry. I’ll admit to always having that one character that annoys me, but I carry on. Maybe that’s the sign of writing a good set of characters. Instead of everyone being loved, you have a variety of feelings towards them.

  7. I think the second tidbit, about countering negative traits with positive ones, is something I need to keep in mind. When I started writing, I was terrified to give any of my characters bad traits or flaws, because they were perfect. But then my writing went nowhere. Literally. I remember days of just staring at the screen, not understanding why I couldn’t write, or why I just kept editing the same scene over and over.

    We all have characters we hate. (Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights comes to mind for me) but sometimes they make the good characteristics of other characters better. And, to any author who makes me, over time, like a character I despised before- kudos.

    • UGH, Heathcliff is such a CREEPER!!!! Glad I’m not the only one who says that! He’s like the Edward Cullen of Victorian times!

      And you are right…. characters can’t be perfect. I had that big problem in my first unpublished novel, too…. People were all good or they used to be good and then turned bad because, you know…. they suffered a LOSS in life!!!! And couldn’t deal with it! Le sigh…..

  8. I felt exactly the same about Donna, but it made her ultimate destiny all the more amazing and moving (I cried). The character that carried her through, for me, was her dad. He’s still one of my favourite ever characters in Dr Who

  9. I agree, wholeheartedly, with your points. Making the harder to like characters integral to the storyline, giving them a mix of good and bad points and making it clear the reader gets to decide – all so important. I love these kind of characters because they demonstrate that life isn’t black and white – one of my favourite themes to explore as a writer and reader. Great post.

    • I could not agree more. Life truly isn’t black or white, and it’s not really healthy to condense everything to black and white. It tends to destroy mercy and empathy in people. LOVE your comment here. Thanks, Francis!

  10. Oh my goodness! I had the same reaction to Donna Noble. And she also became my favorite of the companions. She was sooooo annoying at first. But there was a glimmer of nobility (ha pun intended) in her in that Christmas special when we first met her. And her season is still my favorite season.

    Thanks for these tips!

    • hahaha…. Nobility 🙂 I’m so glad I’m not alone in that reverse reaction to Donna. She was just so DIFFERENT from Martha and Rose that I didn’t like her at all at first. Then she started to blow me away 🙂

  11. Another great post 🙂 I love flawed characters exactly because they are more realistic and interesting. Female main characters especially can be portrayed as a bit too goodie goodie sometimes and it’s just boring and unreal. Unfortunately it can be a bit hard balancing their flaws without making them overly annoying. Something I have to keep working on so thanks for the tips.

  12. Pingback: No Wasted Ink Writer’s Links | No Wasted Ink

  13. Pingback: The “Come, Cliche, Crackdown” Approach to Character Development | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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