Recently I had coffee with a friend of mine who’s also a writer, and she mentioned how hard it’s been writing her latest manuscript. Her problem? She hates her hero – which isn’t a good thing when you’re writing a romance. Her bigger problem? She’s already sold this guy to her editor, so she’s kinda stuck with him now.
My first question was, of course, why don’t you like him? Does he have crooked teeth? A Dracula-like widow’s peak? Tiny chicken legs, perhaps?
Unfortunately, her reason for disliking her hero had nothing to do with his physical appearance and everything to do with his personality. The guy was a flat out male chauvinist – and what woman wants to fall in love with a male chauvinist? Not many. And when you write romance that’s a HUGE problem.
So, I got to thinking about what I would do in her shoes. After all, I’ve been known to create protagonists that, at first glance, wouldn’t be very likable. For instance, the protagonist in my second manuscript was a beautiful, wealthy, adulteress. She had what seemed like the perfect life, and yet she wanted to steal someone else’s. Hell…I hated her at first. And I remember asking myself how I could make this home-wrecker into a character my readers want to root for. And the answer was in her backstory.
There had to be something in this woman’s past to lead her to starting an affair with a married man. There had to be a reason why she continued it, even though she hated herself for being involved with him. There had to be a motivation for her to want to change it, other than getting caught or finding someone new. I knew I couldn’t make my readers agree with her choice of adultery, but could I make them understand it? If I could, I just might be able earn her a little sympathy.
This isn’t always an easy thing to do, and there are definitely some flaws or wrong doings that can’t ever be understood or overcome. But think about it for a moment – these characters are built every day. A serial killer who hunts down those who slip through the cracks of justice. A chemistry teacher dying of cancer who begins producing crystal meth to safeguard his family’s future. A suicidal bodyguard who goes on a killing spree to avenge the kidnapping of the little girl he was hired to protect. We root for these characters; we don’t want them to get caught. These characters are intriguing to us, and these characters sell.
So, back to my friend’s problem at hand. My suggestion to her was to go to the root of the problem. Why was her hero a male chauvinist, and was there anything at all that would make her forgive him for being such? Maybe he was raised by his father who taught him this was the way to treat women and he didn’t know any better. Maybe he’d been burnt by a woman before and vowed to never let that happen again. Maybe it was his defense mechanism to keep everyone away.
Whatever the reason, it only had to be enough to make her understand. Once she had that, she would learn to love him as the story went on and his character arc brought him to the man she wanted him to be.
So the next time you sit down to character build, give yourself a little bit of a challenge. Sometimes the heroes we love most are those who are strong enough to make it the furthest!