Characters aren’t always your BFF

We all have that one friend of a friend, family member, or co worker.  We haaaate seeing them, hearing them, and even talking to them.  And we can never seem to escape them, they always find their ways to us.  And they are so judgmental about everything.  They hate everything, from the sun in the sky to the ground beneath their feet.  Being around them just drains you, sucks the life out of you.  They might even pick on you and point out what they consider flaws.

So sometimes it amazes me when writer’s become these judging, life draining people.  They do it to their characters, or worst, their main characters.  I once was asked to critique a story.  The author came right out and described her main character as an annoying spoiled rich girl who has to learn her lesson.  WOW.    Talk about harsh.  The story read exactly how she was described, full of cliches and pounding us on the head scenes to further the notion that we aren’t supposed to like her.

Now I don’t think authors have to write characters that are perfect by any means.  Nor should you have to like your main character.  But if you are writing a fictional story, you don’t get to be the judge on the character.  You write the story, and reactions of the character, the reader will ultimately decide on whether they are a good or bad person.  As a writer, you provide evidence for the reader to deliberate on.

Maybe the character acts the way they do because of choices they were forced to make or obstacles they had to overcome?  Or maybe they are protecting someone or something?  The best characters aren’t black and white, they are grey with hues of other colors.  They are like us, flawed individuals.

One of my favorite novels is American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis.  The main character is Patrick Bateman.  Patrick’s greedy and materialistic beyond measure, takes drugs, engages in lots of sex with prostitutes, and oh by the way, murders people in graphic and super grisly ways.  Ellis easily could have let his own judgments of Patrick sneak in, but he doesn’t.  His presentation of the setting, and the characters is enough evidence what kind of Patrick Bateman was living in.  I guess some could see it as exotic, but I saw it as excessive, greedy, and vapid.  But he let me decide that.  He simply provides the facts as they are, nothing more nothing less.  His story really gets under your skin and it’s so unsettling in the best way possible.  As the story unfolds, and the bodies pile up, you see further and further into Patrick’s mental state.  Ellis doesn’t apologize for Patrick’s actions, or demonize him.  He is what he is, decide if you want, but your decision will not change his actions.  There is no exit for Patrick Bateman.  I love it.

You also don’t need to be in love with your main character, you don’t even need to be in like.  But you have to be able to stick with him/her/it for at least the length of your story.  I think there’s a stigma that if you aren’t in absolute love with your main character maybe something wrong with you or your story.  I doubt Ellis wanted to be best friends and go bowling with Bateman.  As a writer we are sometimes at the mercy of the muse.  Our stories come to us and our main characters may not be the most likeable people/animals/aliens but they have a story we must tell.  We don’t have to like our characters but they came to us a for  reason and we must do them justice.  Don’t drain the life out of them.

As you look at your main character, think about how you would describe them to someone else.  If they are truly horrible people, they will hang themselves.  Don’t force horribleness on the reader.  You present the evidence for the reader to decide.  Besides, people can connect emotionally to bad guys too.  What may be a monster to you, may be an angel to another.

Have you ever judged your characters or main character?  How did you feel afterwards?




  1. Possibly my favorite example of this is Jane Austen's EMMA, about whom she said, "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like." Well, she was wrong there. But she DID write the "spoiled rich girl who needs to learn her lesson" while managing to make her entirely human and therefore fascinating and even likable by, as you say, not judging her. Emma told her own story, so by the time she gets to the self-loathing all we can do is sympathize. Nice post!

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