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:
- Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak
- JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye
- Ned Vizzini's It's Kind of a Funny Story
- Janet Fitch's White Oleander
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?