Monday, November 18, 2019

How to Make an Unhappy Character "Likable"

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

Novels don't always have a happy hero at the core--but that doesn't make the character any less "likable."

It's ironic that there are so many terms in writing that aren't clear exactly what they mean, or have multiple definitions or uses. "Likable" is one such term.

All the advice says we want a likable protagonist readers can root for, someone they'll want to hang out with for four hundred pages, and someone readers will connect with.

But likable isn't really the issue, and the word can be problematic.

Back in 2013, I received a question from a writer struggling to make her depressed character "likable." She also suffered from depression , and feared readers living in the head of a depressed character wasn't something "emotionally healthy folks are going to want to spend time with." I answered her question best I could.

It's not about being "likable" in a "does this person have value" way. 

It's about being a compelling character. It's about making readers want to know more about that character. It's a character readers will "like" from an entertainment perspective, not a "this is a person worth knowing" perspective.

That's important when talking about characters and likability, because a character not being "likable" isn't saying X type of people are bad. It's saying "this participial character isn't going to make readers want to read about them." And odds are, that reason has nothing to do with X and more to do with what isn't there yet.

It won't be because the character is depressed, or marginalized, or different in any way. It's because the writer probably hasn't given them likable or relatable traits or shown them being likable or relatable. This happens with all kinds of characters and is a common problem when readers aren't connecting to the protagonist.

It's most likely because the character isn't a fleshed-out and compelling character yet, not because they're X or have Y trait or personal challenge.

Since it's now 2019 (almost 2020) I just wanted to go into that more to position this post in writing terms, not in "how I feel about X people" terms. It's about how to make readers connect to a character who might not be connecting with them, and it answers a specific question a specific writer had about her own character. I hope it also helps anyone else struggling with readers not connecting with their characters.

Let's look at that original question for context before we continue:
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, relatable and compelling because he did what he loved despite his personal challenges. 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 an interesting because he was all OCD all the time. It now defined him, and he became a caricature, not a character, and worse--his OCD was played for laughs.

And that's the key when writing a character with a challenging 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--and they'll have personal challenges doing this, same as as any character. So you'd write them the same as any other character.

(Here's more on The Triangle of Likability: How to Make Your Characters Come Alive)

The character will have good traits as well as flaws, stakes and consequences to their actions to make readers care, and a strong voice. They'll have redeemable qualities, wants, needs, and problems to solve.

Yes, it'll be colored by their emotional state, but it's not the only thing that defines them. The moments you choose to show readers will be ones that advance the story and show the character in the proper light. Here's how their life is. Here's the problem. Here's an opportunity for them to solve if it they step up. Here's why they aren't stepping up. Here's what happens to force them to step up and so on.

(Here's more on Five Ways to Create Likable Characters)

The character is a person first. Not the trait they have--whatever that might be.

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 and part of who they are, then it's something that will affect the plot by influencing how the character behaves and the choices they make. It's not what's driving the story. The character is driving the story. And that character happens to be depressed.

How their depression affects the pursuit of that goal is how you'd write them. 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 they're trying desperately to change their life.

The goal might be trying to avoid things, and if so, then they'll do it however someone in their 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 people, exterminators, whatever would cause the protagonist to have to leave the house) would likely be trying to get the protagonist to do something they don't want to do. And they'll fight it.

(Here's more on The Faceless Villain: What to do When Your Bad Guy Isn't Another Person)

If the goal has nothing to do with the depression, and that's just a part of the character, then it's even easier. You just write the character as they are, and let them be them. The depression will likely have an effect on what they do (same as any other trait), but it's just as likely to be a positive as a negative. They might notice things or solve the story problem because the depression gives them insights into something no one else can see.

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 they aren't doing anything. Even if their action is a mental or emotional one, there will be external examples to show that inner struggle. They'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:
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?

Originally published September 2013. Last updated November 2019.

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  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.

  14. Make empathy for the character

  15. please stop using 'she, her' for an undefined character, it is insulting and offensive for gender neutrality, equality and feminism. instead you might think about using it or them.

    1. I mix it up. Most of the time I use them. Sometimes I use he or she.

    2. Edited. Considering the topic, more gender neutral is better.