There are a lot of potential pitfalls when creating a character, things that could stop your audience from truly taking to them. If you’re not careful, you could accidentally create a character who readers see as irritating or boring or useless, or any number of negative things.
But far and away the biggest mistake you can make when writing a character – at least in my opinion – is when you manage to make someone whose supposed to be a good person actively dislikeable. I’m quite forgiving of clumsy characterisation, I can deal with protagonists that annoy me, or don’t seem to have any interests, and even those that barely seem to do anything, just so long as they come across as a fundamentally good person. I’m not saying those other characterisation issues don’t matter, I just don’t think they’re as big a problem as characters who just seem like bad people when they’re not meant to.
That’s an important disclaimer. Protagonists don’t have to be good people, or you may be planning for them to become a good person over the course of the story. That’s not what this post is about, this is about characters who the author clearly thought readers would be totally sympathetic and on side with, but who are actually quite horrible people.
So, here are some of the things that I think could cause an author to fall into this trap.
First off, treating a villainous or antagonistic or just plain jerkish character as such before this has been revealed in story. This is part of a more general writing rule, which is that you have to remember what the characters know, what the reader knows, and what it is that only you know. It can sometimes be a bit tricky to keep it straight, especially if you have a lot of characters who all know different amounts of stuff. And sometimes I have read books where the author apparently got it mixed up and had characters knowing things they had no business knowing.
And one way this can manifest is that a character will know another character is in some way deserving of contempt, even if that other character has not yet given them any reason to know that, which can mean you have a supposed good guy treating someone badly for no real reason. And if that someone is afterwards revealed to be a terrible person, that doesn’t make the good guy’s behaviour retroactively OK. In fact, if the first evidence the reader sees of them being a bad person if after the mistreatment, they may even conclude that that is in some way responsible for their later behaviour. But even if the reader knows beforehand that they’re a bad person, that doesn’t mean a character who has no reason to think that will be forgiven for treating them as such.
Another potential pitfall is how the characters treat minor characters. Because they don’t have a big role in the story it’s possible to forget that in the universe of the story, they are people with feelings and problems just like the major characters. I’m not saying you have to prepare a backstory for every character that features in the story, no matter how tiny their role. But bear in mind that just because they’re not important to the story, even if they only exist as a plot device or to give a protagonist a bit of information, your characters can’t treat them that way.
It’s like in romcoms, where you’ve got the two characters who are going to get together, but first one of them gets together with someone else. Sometimes that someone else is a really nice person, whereas the real love interest is kind of a jerk, and sometimes there’ll even be cheating involved. And yet the audience is apparently supposed to be cheering on the main couple to get their happy ending together, just because they’re the main couple.
Basically, I think some writers assume that because a character doesn’t have very much importance in the story, the audience won’t care about them. And they won’t in the way they’ll care for a well written prominent character, but they will care if the major characters treat them like a plot device or an obstacle to overcome. That may be their role in the story, but in the story universe they’re just as much a person as the more important characters, and if those characters are supposed to be likeable, they have to treat them that way.
Of course, sometimes even good characters will do questionable things, they’ll snap at people. That’s fine – that’s good, you don’t want them to be too perfect – but it can be tricky to get right. If you take it too far, or if you fail at making their behaviour understandable, get the reader enough into their heads that they can forgive them… well, then the reader might not forgive them.
It’s probably more how it’s written that the actual behaviour. I’ve found myself still kind of liking characters who’ve done some pretty nasty stuff, while hating ones whose only crime is being a bit of a jerk. If you’re really in a character’s head, and you can get what their thoughts and motivations are, if you really understand why they’re behaving how they are, then I won’t say you can forgive them anything, because obviously some actions will always be too far, but you can forgive them some pretty bad stuff. Whereas a character whose thoughts and motivations you don’t really know, just seeing them yell at someone for little or no apparent reason could turn the reader against them.
Proportional reactions are important too. If you’ve got a character who’s antagonistic towards the good guys – or even your main villain if you’re writing a low stakes story where the only qualification is being mean – then, as I said earlier, you’ve got to have them being nasty first, but it can’t just be some token scene, if you’re going to have your good guys respond in kind at all. Just giving a general idea of meanness with a few dark looks and cruel comments won’t justify some big revenge plot. If there’s just one scene of a character being horrible, people won’t automatically conclude they’re a horrible person generally.
I think the base issue is that some writers seem to assume readers will automatically side with the protagonists, and in general I’d say they will be inclined to. You open a book, meet the main character, your automatic assumption is that this is someone to root for. That’s how most stories go. In the minds of most readers, you’ll probably start off in the right place – unless for whatever reason you choose to open with your protagonist doing something apparently horrible – but staying there requires effort. I mean, personally I’m OK with a protagonist if they’re at least a generally decent person, which seems like it should be simple enough to achieve, but I’ve seen it messed up enough times to think it’s possibly harder than it seems. I think my characters who are supposed to be good people come across as such, but then if they didn’t and I knew that, I’d hae changed it. I guess it’s just the thing where you sometimes miss things in your own writing that will be total obvious to anyone else, which is one of the reasons to let other people read it. But you should still be reading through it yourself to look for them.
And if you do have to open to a morally dubious action from your protagonist, you’ll have to work even harder to get readers back on side. You’ll have to give them a good or at least somewhat understandable reason for what they did, and then convince readers that they really are a decent person. And in that instance you’re starting off with readers having a low opinion of the character, so you’ve got to work back up to ‘decent’.
I know there are more probably-stating-the-obvious things I could write on this subject, but my brain’s kind of ground to a stop on this subject. I know that’s pretty rubbish for an aspiring author, and I won’t be able to write any more for a bit, and I wanted to get this uploaded. So I hope what I did write was somewhat decent. Even if I am terrible at ending things.