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?

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