I am currently engaged in a beta read swap, and it occurred to me that many of us in the group have main characters with unlikeable traits. But, whereas my fellow writers succeed in keep their heroes and heroines likeable, my character has come in for some flack.
Meet Leo Brannigan; an eccentric software design genius. His parents and sister died in a car crash when he was 16, and he blames himself for the accident.
This is a marriage of convenience story, one of my favourite romance tropes. Leo is being blackmailed into marrying a competitor’s daughter, but as a guy who likes left field ideas, decides to buy himself time by marrying someone else first.
Here is some of the initial feedback.
“He has this weird view towards women, especially blondes.”
“Leo comes across as exceptionally immature.”
“It’s difficult for me to respect him.”
Ouch. Poor Leo. He has the best of intentions, I promise you. He’s charming, but exasperating; slightly crazy, but very successful; socially inept, yet highly intelligent and looks after the people around him. He likes women, but is not a womaniser, although he does make tongue in cheek remarks.
In my head, he has the look of a perplexed male. If you’re a fan of films from the 1960s, think Peter O’Toole, circa 1966, in How To Steal A Million.
Unfortunately, not all of these qualities come across on paper, at least not in the first few chapters. However, once readers ‘got’ him, the feedback became much more positive.
“I like how outside of the box he is”
“I really like this guy, his vulnerabilities, his sweetness, his over-bearing nature.”
Phew! Leo does not require a complete personality transplant, but, evidently, something still has to give.
For inspiration, I looked to one of my favourite antiheroes, Dexter: Police blood splatter analyst by day, serial killer by night. To me, he is a genius creation, but what is it that makes us root for him to succeed?
1: Struggle. We see him fight his addiction to kill, and to appear and be normal.
I can tick this box because Leo struggles with survivor’s guilt and not to inflict his hang ups on the woman he comes to care for.
2: He is liked by nice people. Dexter’s sister and girlfriend love him.
Another tick. Leo’s surrogate father, Donald, is an all-round good guy.
3: A real villain to compare the character to: Dexter kills evil people with no redeeming qualities.
Tick. Leo has a blackmailer, although he’s not present until later in the story.
4: A ‘Save The Cat’ moment, in which the character does something endearing, such as save a cat. Dexter is seen to protect his girlfriend’s children when he senses a predator at large.
This I don’t have. But he is good to his surrogate parents, which is something I haven’t shown as well as I could.
5: Motivation.Debra Dixon says:
“A character can behave in a reprehensible way, in a way we would usually condemn. But if the motivation is strong enough, we will forgive them.”
Dexter witnessed his mother’s murder as a child.
Leo feels responsible for the death of his parents and sister.
But it’s Leo’s small actions/thoughts in the early chapters that readers found off putting. He dates blondes. He wants to marry a blonde. I didn’t explain the reason until much later; brunettes remind him of his mother and sister.And, as his tone is often tongue in cheek or sardonic, many of his flip comments about blondes and how easy it will be to find a wife, backfire.
1: This may be an occasion where less back story, is not necessarily more. Readers need some sort of a hint about the blonde issue.
2: Tone him down. We all strive to add something unique to our stories. For me this is Leo. I don’t want to tone him down. But, I’m writing romance, and whilst he doesn’t need to be stereotypical, he does need to be swoon-worthy and manly. So some lines have now been cut.
3: Save his flaws and weaknesses for later in the story. This contradicts Number 2 to some extent, but I realise readers need a chance to know and understand Leo before I expose them to all his vulnerability and eccentricities. I had him facing his issues in the first scene with his father figure, making him appear immature.
Once he has established his strength, his charm, his uniqueness, the reader will be more likely to support him through the good and the bad. So that when my heroine is kissed for the first time by the man who, five minutes ago, was asking her to find him a wife, the reader is rooting for them to be together.
“ ‘Leo, you’re talking about getting married on Monday. Surely you have to see how messed up this is?’He rested his forehead against hers, a gesture of apology or defeat, she wasn’t sure which. ‘Welcome to Leo Land,’ he said.”
Leo Brannigan, hopes one day to be released on the unsuspecting public, just as soon as he attains the fabulousness he deserves.
Special thanks to my lovely beta readers: Bea, Laura, Louise, Maria, Pinkie and Polly.