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.
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