When Characters Whine

Keeping both the trees and the forest in mind.

Miles run yesterday: 5.5

Words written in my novel so far: 40,265

Interviews done about Santa Barbara last week: 2! Yippee!

Now that I’m right here in the middle of my novel’s first draft, I realize that a.) the first part of my novel is usually its weakest part and b.) this is a problem.

I’m in the meaty part, the part where my characters are doing things and saying things and not keeping their mouths shut like maybe they should. And I love it.

But here is my question: how do you keep the reader rooting for a somewhat unlikeable character? I’ve read many takes on this subject, many thoughts about the antihero as hero. And while my heroine is not an antihero exactly, she is not completely large and in charge of her life when the novel opens.

In fact, she has been described as whiny.

There is a reason for the whininess, of course. She has had to struggle, in a non-poverty, non-substance abuse, non-down-and-out kind of way. But struggled, nonetheless. She is the teensiest bit self-pitying.

I kind of liked that about Scarlett O’Hara, and I don’t mind it a bit in my own character. The reason: I know what she’s been through, and I know what’s coming.

But what if you don’t know? What if an agent, or eventually you, pick up my book and then put it down before her metamorphosis occurs?

I try to write truthfully, and in my experience, people do tend to whine and complain, at least to a degree. Being noble all the time gets a little tiresome.

One time, a few years ago, I wrote an essay to submit to a women’s (writing) magazine. The thrust of the magazine? Very feminist, very strong. The thrust of my essay? I’m not great at traveling, and while I still plan to do it, it’s not easy for me… and I haven’t completely overcome some of my fears.

The feedback I got was that they loved the voice but wanted the subject (me) to have conquered her fears. I could have written that, I suppose.

But the truth of the matter? We’re all works-in-progress. We don’t always overcome things in a noble manner, kicking all doubt to the curb and becoming a Better Person.

I’ll keep working on making my character more likeable, less whiny. But the truth is that I kind of like her that way. She’s not perfect; she doesn’t have it all figured out yet. She’s not noble.

What do you think? Have you ever struggled with making a character more likeable? How do you balance truth with what readers (and agents) expect?

29 thoughts on “When Characters Whine

  1. Carrie Rubin says:

    I don’t think a character needs to be likeable as much as they need to invoke empathy in us. But you’re right, agents may hone in on something in the first few pages and assume that’s the way it is throughout, thereby dismissing a manuscript without having the whole picture.

    Being whiney may make empathy difficult as well, but perhaps not if the writer explores the reasons for the character’s whining nature.

    • annewoodman says:

      Yes, empathy… empathy is good. Again, this character has experienced something most of us haven’t, so she may be somewhat difficult to relate to. I’m trying to make her as human (and empathetic)as possible.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Oh Anne, you are channelling my thoughts today.
    The main character of my current WIP is difficult to love. She’s snarky, anti-social and a bit paranoid. I’m concentrating on getting the reader to empathize with her more than like her. I’m also trying to make her funny.
    As far as your character being whiney – people whine. I guess you’ll have to be extra careful not to let her go over the line into tiresome. Could you use humor to keep her entertaining?

    • annewoodman says:

      Glad to hear I’m not the only one. ; ) Yes, you and Carrie are right… empathy is the goal, and I’m working on it. There is definitely humor… and I’m hoping to employ it, using funny situations to humanize her. Good luck with your WIP!

  3. Ravena Guron says:

    Empathy rocks! I don’t mind self pitying characters. I’ve read quite a few books about flawed characters who change completely but within reason (okay one. Artemis Fowl. I’ve been recommending it to everyone.) As long as there’s something intriguing about them I don’t mind (humour would be a great one… I love funny characters!)

    One thing I can’t stand though is a perfect character. I totally agree with you on that. I’m not even a violent person but when an author tries to make a character who is perfect, who everyone loves… URGH! I could go to prison for committing fictional murder! I once read a book where the MC had FIVE boys after her. She was going out with them all and we were expected to believe NONE OF THEM CARED. The author gave no reason. Apparently the MC was perfect. There were twelve books. I manged the first three.

    • annewoodman says:

      Hahahaha! Please don’t commit fictional murder… you could end up in a very nasty fictional jail. Bummer.

      You haven’t had 5 boys after you and felt completely blase about it? Well, you haven’t lived. Story of my life. ; ) Kidding. Really. Kudos for making it through three of the books. Maybe that’s why you’re murderous?

  4. Melissa says:

    Some of my favorite characters are imperfect and, dare I say it, whiny. We all have flaws and sometimes I think that’s what makes us cheer for characters that have them. One, because we see ourselves and two, for that great moment when they put their big girl pants on….you know, when they have that epiphany. We identify with them and they figured out, so maybe, someday, we will too.

  5. Kathleen says:

    Anne, have you read The Memory of Running? At the outset, the MC is a miserable character, a fat, self-loathing alcholic trapped in a mundane job and a mundane existance. Travelling with this fellow on a bicycle across the country to retrieve the body of his dead psychotic sister is a trip and a half. If you haven’t read it, I own it and will be glad to lend it to you if you’re interested. Oh, the beauty of novels in print; so easy to share with a friend.

  6. David Gentry says:

    Someone, maybe a literary critic or fiction writer, spoke of the concrete universal. A character becomes universalized because he or she is so individualized. Paradoxical, isn’t it, but true. A character becomes memorable when a character becomes a person.

  7. robincoyle says:

    My main character likes to “wine,” as in drink wine.

    One of the best compliments I received about my book is someone said, “I didn’t like her in the beginning, but then I did.” The gal meant it as a criticism of the book, but that is exactly what I intended! the MC wasn’t supposed to be likable but then she grows into a better person. Mission accomplished.

  8. jmmcdowell says:

    I struggle with my characters who come across as too good or too bad, especially in the early drafts. I don’t think my mains like to discuss their flaws. I understand that. Don’t we all have times when we want to show only our best sides? Which of us likes to show our flaws?

    But Mary Sues make boring subject matter for most readers. And totally “bad” characters are hard to empathize with. For me, this is one of the hardest things to get right.

    • annewoodman says:

      Yes, complex, real characters are difficult! They have a mind of their own… and it’s hard not to think of how they will come across when all is said and done. I agree… one of the hardest things to get right.

  9. Amy Mak says:

    I love, love, love Scarlet O’Hara and I often wonder why. She was so selfish, so mean and yet…so very strong. As the first line tells us, she wasn’t beautiful, but view men realized it 🙂 Her strength (being so bull-headed) was both her curse and her blessing and yes, we all love her for it. So, for me, she has to shown strength of character. If a character just whines (I’m thinking Twilight) I just don’t connect. I’m annoyed.

  10. thepoelog says:

    I’ll take a whiny (yet funny and self-deprecating) character any day.

  11. 4amWriter says:

    Bella from Twilight comes to mind as being overly whiny and self-pitying. This is the main reason I disliked the series. It didn’t matter to me that Bella stopped being whiny at the end of book 4–by then I was so fed up with her that I didn’t care. I actually wanted her to get killed by a band of vampires.

    This is something you will need to keep in mind. Even though your protag evolves and isn’t self-pitying at the end, if she’s overly whiny in the first half some readers won’t stick around.

    I do think that POV has a lot to do with voice and whether a dark protag can be endured. With Twilight, Meyers used a first-person POV. This, I think, was problematic because there wasn’t a narrator to temper Bella’s oh-woe-is-me mantra. If she’d chosen a third person POV, we’d have a little relief from the whining, and we’d also get that objective insight into why the protag is the way she is.

    What POV are you using?

    • annewoodman says:

      Ha! I didn’t read Twilight… I felt overdosed just by the amount of hype alive in the world. ; ) So it’s hard to say if my MC compares or not. I don’t think mine is overly whiny, and I’m definitely working on tempering it by keeping humor alive and well.

      That said, it is first-person POV (my fave), but I think that POV allows for some great opportunities… misunderstandings, statements other people make about the MC, the unfolding and description of the relationships between the MC and other characters. So fun! I think it will all work out in the end… but I’m keeping the “whiny” thing in the back of my head to iron out and work with. I’ll keep everyone posted.

  12. It all depends on how the character is presented, I think. A fascinating whiner is still fascinating.

    I have a sneaky suspicion you’ll know how to keep readers engaged and invested despite of your character’s less than noble personality traits.

  13. Your MC sounds like she might have a bit of an emotional short fuse causing her to be a little whiny. Does she cover for some of her insecurity with some snarky, smart-ass witticisms as a defense mechanism? (Who wouldn’t empathize with that?)
    Let me know when you publish. I’d love to meet her.

  14. Can you give the reader a sneak peek at what she would be like after her transformation? Even a whiner has some redeeming values. Just a little positive can make the negatives palatable.

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