The Silver Lining | How to turn an unlikable character into a sympathetic character

I mentioned in my post yesterday that I would detail the revisions I went through to make one of my characters more sympathetic. I did this change based on feedback from my first round of submission.

First, I need to tell you a little bit about the book in order for things to make sense. The book is about Kasey, who ruins her sister’s life by destroying her chance at a college dance scholarship…and then has to fix it before their parents find out. The novel is told in alternating timelines. The present-day timeline chronicles what Kasey does to fix her sister Lara’s situation and attempt to get Lara back on her feet…literally, since the reason she loses her scholarship is due to a hip injury. The flashback timeline shows the events that lead up the Lara’s injury. No, I won’t tell you what causes the injury! And none of this is spoilers, you find all this out in the first chapter.

Though I’m going to give you suggestions specific to my book, they are merely examples to the ideas you can use and apply to your own. Please note I’m only revealing elements from the first three chapters. (There are approx 27 chapters). I figure that’s early enough into the story where I’m not revealing too many plot elements.

I wrote a lot so I’ll put this under the cut.

When I wrote the book, I was very aware of needing a sympathetic protagonist. (This was one of the reasons my college-set first novel got rejected by agents, the protagonist wasn’t likable…and also the book was hard to market). I researched sympathetic characters and made a list of why I liked certain characters and didn’t like others. I gave Kasey all the traits I liked about characters. So Kasey is selfless, always putting others first before herself, but I wrote Kasey way before I’d even heard of Twilight. (And I really believe this is why so many girls fall in love with Edward Cullen…he’s selfless. Yes, some read it as overprotective and creepy, but all his motivations step from his selfless nature). I also made Kasey witty, since readers respond positively to humor. (Okay, so this may be more natural for me and less of a conscious thing since that’s just the way I write and the way I am in real life). Kasey never complains and she’s very active in her quest. When she gets knocked down, she doesn’t get upset, she finds a new path.

My initial thought was to amp the sibling rivalry by making Lara opposite of Kasey. Kasey is very shy and always stuck in her sister’s shadow. Lara was outgoing, a little conceited, and somewhat snarky. I wanted to contrast the two sisters because a lot of Kasey’s character arc involves her stepping out of her shell and into the spotlight, a place she avoided because she considered it Lara’s territory. What I didn’t realize (and neither did my agent) is that since the crux of the novel involved the reader caring about Kasey helping Lara, that Lara needed to be very likable. And she wasn’t likable enough.

Here are the things I did to fix Lara:

1. First, I analyzed every line of dialogue Lara had. If it came off as too bitchy, I softened it. On the first round, I accidentally made her "too nice" because I took out every single flavorful thing she said. She lost her personality and she no longer read like a believable character. Too sweet! So I went back and compared the old version with the new version. I put back in some of the fun lines she had that weren’t too bitchy. But I still kept some playful lines where she teases Kasey in a sisterly manner. Going too far in one direction helped me figure out a good balance between both extremes. Her voice now has flavor and sassiness, but she doesn’t come off as cruel.

2. The biggest change of all though was in the present day timeline, Lara was initially very angry at Kasey. She argued when they spoke to each other, she stomped out of conversations, she claimed she didn’t have a sister anymore, she accused Kasey and kind of guilt-tripped her a lot. This wasn’t working. I totally rewrote the character in the present. Instead of being angry, I made Lara depressed and withdrawn. This involved subtly changing actions without changing scenes. Like instead of slamming a glass against a table and giving Kasey eyerolls, now Lara can barely lift the fork to her mouth. It amped the conflict too, because now there was more at stake for Kasey to save.

I did have to change scenes though.

For example, in chapter 1 Kasey discovers Lara has been hiding the fact that she her scholarship was revoked and she’s pretending to go to college. (This didn’t change, it was always in the novel, however…) Initially when Kasey spied on her and confronted her in chapter 3, Lara was just wasting away her days, chilling with old men at a fishing pier (there was a reason! Now axed), and the two got into a screaming match where Lara kept pulling the "if I can’t dance, I don’t want to do anything else" card and blaming Kasey. This changed to Kasey finding Lara at a dance audition where she makes her injury worse and scares the casting director when she keeps falling. Instead of a screaming match, Lara just won’t give up her dream, won’t accept that her hip will never heal. I think this makes it easier to root for her because the reader sees how much she wants it and not how quick she is to throw it away and use it as an excuse.

3. Since I had two timelines, I was able to contrast depressed Lara by giving her more jokes and making her more cheerful and sunny in the flashback timeline. This involved taking another look at the dialogue and trying to make her voice funny without being sarcastic.

4. I also added in some very quick scenes where Lara did something nice for Kasey. Ex: I inserted a dance leotard that Kasey had always been jealous of that their mother (who is crafty) made for Lara, but Kasey has always felt a bit slighted that her mother never made her a custom bathing suit (Kasey is a swimmer). In one of the early chapters, Lara gives it to Kasey as a present, saying she had it relined to be waterproof. This means a lot to Kasey, and I hoped that the reader would see the sacrifice Lara makes in giving her prized possession to her sister, and also knowing her sister well enough to realize how much Kasey wanted it even if she never outright said it.

5. To go along with this, I changed the relationship between the sisters. Lara initially was very embarrassed by Kasey for trying to tag along with her in the flashback timeline before the love interest arrives and Kasey spends too much time with him. Now, instead of Lara being annoyed by Kasey, she’s trying to help her in the romance department. Lara’s more popular and outgoing so she gives Kasey boy tips that actually work for her (initially, Lara kind of forced Kasey to hang out with the boy in an attempt to keep her sister preoccupied. Now Kasey WANTS to hang out with the boy and needs Lara’s help to do so). So it’s more of Lara helping Kasey and doing something nice for her.

6. Finally, I had to change the mystery reveal. I really can’t go into details about this, but I’ll say while the actual mystery solution did change, most of the changes occurred in how I built up to the climax. I added scenes and cut others and changed around some motivations. Sorry about the lack of details. I know this doesn’t quite help, but the additional scene–which takes place at a talent show that was only hinted at before but did not take place on screen–is now crucial to the emotional story arc between the sisters. It wouldn’t have worked with the old version of Lara, but it became necessary when I made all the changes to her character. So my point of this is to follow through. In animation, we use that term to describe an action. If someone jumps, they don’t just stop when they hit the ground. Their knees bend, and there’s a moment when they go lower (called squash) before they right themselves. It’s the follow through. The same thing happened in my novel revisions. Action equals reaction. The action is the jump, the reaction is what the body does in response. Same thing with revisions. You must follow through even if it seems your action already ended.

I know some of those examples are specific to my book, but they might give others struggling with unsympathetic characters how to fix them without losing the main story arc. Some of the changes could be done just via dialogue and actions. Some go deeper with plot changes.

Another generic idea…make your reader feel bad for the character. This can be done by putting them in a bad situation that the reader can empathize with. For example, if at the beginning of the story, the protagonist’s cat dies and the protagonist is upset about this, it might make other readers feel bad too. I do think this is why so many YA books involve dead parents (as well as the fact that it removes them from the story so they can focus mostly on teens). (I know there’s some stigma about not having animals dying in novels so that’s only one example of how to make your reader feel bad for a character. Bullies could be another, though that may lead to a passive protagonist if she doesn’t defend herself).

I hope that helps! I didn’t have much time to work on this post so apologies for typos or dyslexic, misplaced phrases. I normally proof-read things much better. I also wanted to give small excerpts from the old version and the new version but I didn’t have time to look for them, so I’ll post a part 2 of this and put those excerpts up for teaser tuesday.

Have a great weekend everyone! I’m off to Florida and won’t be posting anymore blogs until next week.

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