Friday, September 27

How to Make an Unhappy Character Likable

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

From the mailbag today...
How do you take an MC who is deeply depressed by a recent traumatic experience, and make her likeable? I can do depression authentically because I've been through depression myself, and I've lived with others going through it. Because of this, I also know full well that this is NOT a person that emotionally healthy folks are going to want to spend time with.
An example of how to approach this pops immediately to mind. The TV show Monk.

Monk started out as detective who happened to have OCD. The plot focused on the case and how Adrian Monk solved it, despite his affliction, and sometimes aided by it. The OCD was just part of who he was, same as his backstory or the color of his hair. He was likable because he did what he loved despite the things holding him back. It didn't define him.

After a few years things switched. Monk because a show about a guy with OCD who happened to be a detective, and it suffered because of it (in my opinion). The focus was on the OCD and the case was just a way to shine a bright light on what was "wrong" with Monk. He stopped being likable because he was all OCD all the time. It now defined him.

And that's the key when writing a character with a difficult trait.

You're writing about a character who's trying to do X, who happens to be suffering from depression or unhappy. It's not a story about a depressed person. The novel probably isn't going to be page after page of a person being miserable, it'll be about someone trying to achieve a goal or resolve a problem, same as any other novel. So you'd write the character the same as any other.

(More on making readers care here)

The character will have good traits as well as flaws, stakes and consequences to her actions to make readers care, a strong voice, she'll have redeemable qualities, wants, needs, and problems to solve. It'll be colored by her emotional state, but it's not the only thing that defines her. The moments you choose to show the reader will be ones that advance the story and show the character in the proper light. Here's how her life is. Here's her problem. He's an opportunity for her to solve if it she steps up. Here's why she isn't stepping up. Here's what happens to force her to step up and so on.

It might help to think about who this person was before the event that caused the depression. Create a likable character and flesh her out without the depression, then think about the traumatic event and how that affected her. What changes occurred and why? Alter her personality to include this new (and unpleasant) life experience. Underneath the depression that person is still there.

If you step back a moment and look at the bigger picture this becomes even easier. "Being depressed" isn't a plot, so focusing on that turns the character into a caricature. But if you think about the unhappiness as a trait, then it's something that will affect the plot by influencing how the character behaves and the choices she makes. It's not what's driving the story. The character is driving the story. And that character happens to be unhappy.

How her depression affects the pursuit of that goal is how you'd write her. If the goal is to get out of the house and sit in the sunshine at the park, the depression will create obstacles and conflicts to that goal. So it's not just a depressed person being depressed, it's someone who is struggling to get out of bed because she's trying desperately to change her life.

The goal might be trying to avoid things, and if so, then she'll do it however someone in her mental state would do it. You'll have outside forces to create the conflict there. Friends, co-workers, family, or even strangers with unrelated issues (delivery men, exterminators, whatever would cause the protagonist to have to leave the house) would likely be trying to get the protagonist to do something she doesn't want to do. And she'll fight it.

If the character sits in bed all day and thinks horrible thoughts, then there's no plot, and thus no story, and no reason to care about the character because she's isn't doing anything. Even if her action is a mental or emotional one, there will be external examples to show that inner struggle. She'll act, plot and story will move forward, and readers have reasons to care and like the character.

You might try reading some novels where the protagonist is depressed to get a feel for how others have handled it. Some possibilities:
Lydia Sharp wrote a great post on this topic and how she handled it. Her solution was to make the character funny (a dry wit) to offset the darkness with light and make him endearing. Humor is certainly one classic way to make any character likable.

Juliette Wade wrote another good post on the difference between being likable and relatable. It's not always necessary to make a character likable as long as readers can relate to them and care about the problem they're facing.

Readers...any other advice for this writer? How would you make an unhappy character likable?


  1. I must confess, my first thought was Marvin the Depressed Robot from "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", which probably isn't what you want to go for...

    I love your point about Monk and the correlation to a negative trait like depression or OCD. A novel I'm beta-reading has a character with CFS. She's a writer navigating a tricky relationship, and the CFS is used to heighten tension and stakes. (Will she exhaust herself by doing this? Is she pushing herself too much too far in trying to hang out with this guy?)

    Other points...hmm, none. I do like the idea of using dry humor with depression.

  2. True. You have to give your depressed character some positive traits and have them work through the depression so we fall in love with them. Laurie Halse Anderson's characters are prime examples.

  3. Janice, I never thought to do this. Thanks for another fabulous post. :-)

  4. Thanks so much for linking my article. This is a great topic. :-)

  5. Right on about Monk. The did the same thing to Bones.

    Nice post - definitely saving this for when I need it.

  6. I've only ever had one depressed character, but he was great. He was depressed because he was angry--terribly, volcanically angry--at the people who murdered his sister. His depression manifested as apathy. And man could he lay down the smacketh on heroes and villains alike. He became compelling because we so badly wanted to see him overcome and find healing.

  7. Years and years ago, my critique group had a writer who was writing about a depressed main character (this was a demons story because he was writing about his depression). We all had a hard time with it because it was so much of "Woe is me, Woe is me." Though the story was supposed to be a fantasy, because it was a demons story, it become about the depression instead, which made it unpleasant reading.

  8. This post pretty much explains part of WHY I don't write about mental illness, something I have personal experience with myself and in my family, for the very warnings Janice gives above.

    That said, I do think that you have to avoid sounding like being "Depressed" is no big deal.

    IT IS.

    You just don't want it to make the story a chore to read.

    But you have to face it on some level.

    That's like telling a story about a girl with cancer without every mentioning ANYTHING about cancer. As much as you don't want to dwell on downer stuff.

    Janice is right that being depressed shouldn't define EVERYTHING about a character, but it affects them, and you can't pretend it doesn't, and considering you write about an unwilling pain shifter, you should know how torn things are for the author, as much as you didn't want to be downer about the whole thing.

    This discussion reminds of a podcast discussion about the gore factor trend in crime novels, and one of the authors said-

    "I don't want write
    'Torture Porn' about bashing rib bones, pulling out eyes and leaving the strings behind, but I also don't want to write or read stories about murder where murder DOESN'T HURT."

    I'd advise anyone interested give it a listen-

  9. Great post. My characters tend to come to me suffering from some sort of a mental illness, and writing such characters is really tricky, someone with social anxiety for instance could struck readers as neurotic, a cowered and a people hater, but if you focus on how hard he's trying to overcome his sick brain and get to know people and socialize you can at least make readers respect him and his everyday struggles.

  10. Hi Janice
    Great post, thanks.
    I think the key is, as you said, to remember that although when someone is suffering from depression, it does define them, or certainly feels like it does.
    But from the outside, i.e. the reader's perspective, it's just one facet of who that person is.
    The challenge, I think, is in choosing the right perspective to tell the story from. Making it first person could make it very difficult to create a sympathetic, relatable character. But told from third person, and focusing on plot, what are they doing, makes the story the focus.
    I think I've pretty much just said what you've already said there, sorry :)
    Having said that, it also depends upon the type of depression. A lot of sufferers go through peaks and troughs, and describing that internally, and giving the peaks emphasis, could create a very moving, and rounded view of depression, and a character who is entirely relatable.

  11. Some good advice to pass along to a critique partner.

  12. Rachel, lol what a great character. Loved Marvin. You hit on great point. Sometimes a trait can exhaust both readers and the writer. Another thing to think about when writing this type of character.

    Christine, exactly. Can't be all about one thing, no matter what that one thing is.

    Tracy, thanks!

    Lydia, my pleasure. I remembered you'd talked about this before and had good insights.

    GSMarlene, that's probably when I stopped watching Bones :( It stopped being fun.

    Kessie, nice. Great struggle and a good reason for readers to root for him.

    Linda, perfect example of what not to do and why. That's the risk with this type of character, but when handled well they can be very compelling.

    Taurean, exactly. There's a balance, and that can be hard to find sometimes.

    Haneen, internalization helps a lot there, since readers can see what's really motivating him. Subtext is another good trick to use to get the suffering across without "woe is me" type text.

    Michael, great point. The narrative distance can play a role here, and being too deep in the POV could work against it. (either could work though, depending on how it's handled)

    Ann, pass along :) It's all about the helping.

  13. I think it's important to distinguish between being depressed and having depression, a chronic illness.

    Some people have depression in relation to a traumatic event, but most people have chronic depression, which is not caused by any triggering event, just the unhappy coincidence of bad brain chemistry and maybe a genetic predisposition towards depression.

    When someone says that they are depressed, they mostly mean they are sad or blue. A person with depression does not have depression for two or three months and then gets over it. It's a lifelong struggle.

    I'm not saying this to discredit people who are feeling depressed; those feelings are still horrible and the symptoms can mimic clinical depression, albeit on a short-term basis. And again this does not account for people who are depressed following a traumatic incident.

    I have to admit the title of your post is problematic. Asking "How to Make a Depressed Character Likeable?" is like asking "How to Make an Ugly Character Likeable?" because depression is not a character flaw or an unlikeable trait, it's just another facet of their personality. It is not something in their control.

    I know it's hard to read about depression and that the aim of the post is to tackle it from a writer's standpoint. I just had to comment to point out a few things you may have missed and to distinguish the differences between the many types of depression a person can experience.

    1. Thanks for commenting, as you bring up very good points. I'll change the title to something more appropriate. I certainly meant no disrespect to anyone suffering from depression by it, I was just looking at this as a technical exercise.

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