I recently read an article on whether it’s necessary or even helpful to like a main character. Helpful to what end? Finishing the book, I suppose. The writer didn’t feel a particular need to like main characters. I suppose it can be rather engaging to love to hate a certain main character if he or she is written well. For me, the feeling is quite different. It’s one I wanted to share with you.
I’ve always had a tendency to put down a book and not pick it up for ages, saying to myself that I’ll return to those pages when I get the time. But what is it, what is the key to those books that lure me back? I can only speak for myself, but I suspect that I’m not the only reader who needs to feel connected in order to be drawn back into a story once I’ve put it down.
I completed a novel a few years ago that sits in its pool of misery somewhere deep in my computer, having been fully read by only two people – me and my husband. Why? The writing is fine, even compelling at times. When I asked my sister to read the manuscript, she happily agreed until she got a glimpse of my main character, uncomfortably resembling someone she knew well. It felt too real to her. The pages became heavier to turn to the point of immobility.
The answer to my question was one I think I knew all along. Something drove me to write that character in such a way. Once completed, I had to ask myself why it didn’t actually feel good to write her. What was it about her personality? Was she strong? Yes, but not in the way that sits comfortably with me. A strong woman is not one who shuts out reality but faces it head-on, bulldozing through the ugly bits of life while delicately crafting a positive attitude that feels good to her and the reader. As writers, we all know how invested we become in our characters and how real they become to us, with personalities that linger well beyond our writing day. Our characters become our company in many respects and we want to feel good being around them. At least I do.
It’s perfectly welcomed and often times necessary to have a selection of characters that get your blood boiling, but for the main character, I want that person to make me feel good. I want to get to know that person better, not necessarily become friends, but become more acquainted with what makes that person tick, what motivates him/her, what touches his/her inner core?
It was a hard lesson to learn, writing a whole novel only to learn how desperately I need to like my main character. I often ask myself why it took me a whole manuscript to learn such a lesson as a writer, when as a reader I’ve always known that’s what I needed. I’ve concluded that it needed to be a hard lesson, a lesson ground in late night and early morning writing, crafting of plot and subplots that weave around my character and how she reacts to events. It needed to be this way, so that I would do exactly the opposite in my next book.
I see now, that it was my non-likable character that stripped my writing of the energy needed for a story to feel alive and powerful and beautiful. As a writer, I need to feel an intimate connection with my main character, a connection that makes me feel good to the bone. I want to laugh with her, and hurt with her. I want to love with her and get annoyed with her. Quite simply, I can only do that if I like her. So I wrote my next novel with a main character who swallowed up my days and who has lingered beautifully on my mind ever since. I still find I want to know her even better and travel with her through more life experiences. She makes me feel good and I like to be around her, The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley – a friend for life.