Wednesday, November 7, 2012

When Characterization is Stifled by Stress

When I started writing my second book, CIRCUS SOUL HEIRESS, I loved my protagonist. He was the bee's knees. He was 5' tall, had a chip on his shoulder, and could to the splits on a swinging trapeze while killing the baddies. This was my chance to prove that I could not only write a proactive protagonist, but that I could write an awesome one.

And yet, again and again, my writing group came back to me saying that my protagonist wasn't their favorite character. In fact, some thought he was unlikable  What? But my protagonist was great! He was funny, he was outgoing, he was charismatic...

...but not in the story. At least, not in those first few chapters.

Why? Well, this was only my second book, so I didn't have characterization down pat, but that wasn't the reason, as I've noticed a similar problem with a protagonist in book number eight (and I'd hope that I'd have some idea of how to portray a character over six novels).

So, what did I discover?


Not stress on my part, but on the character's part. 

Allow me to explain.

In CIRCUS SOUL HEIRESS, I threw my protagonist into stressful situations right off the bat. In chapter one, he re-met the man who molested him as a kid, AND he failed an assassination that his group had been planning for months. Not only that, but he ignited a sincere hate-hate relationship with the story's other main character, which also starts in that first chapter. These incidents put an amazing amount of stress on the protagonist's shoulders.

How did my protagonist react to stress? With anger. 

Therefore, my readers perceived my protagonist as an angry person absorbed by his failures, especially since these stressors carried into following chapters, and some into the better half of the book. I've done something similar with EMPIRE OF CRANES AND SPIDERS, though to a lesser degree. My male protagonist is stressed with an upcoming battle and makes a grave mistake during it, so in my opening chapters he comes off as much more stoic than I had intended him to be.

How to get around this? Well, I could save the stress until later. I could create a character that deals with stress in a likable way. However, both of those options mean changing the story I want to tell.

Perhaps it just comes down to writing better, using each word to portray the aspects of the character that I want my audience to see. Or, it's a matter of relieving stress quickly so the true character can shine through. Still, the first impression is there.

What do you think? Have you encountered problems with warping a character's personality through emotion? How did you solve it, or how have you seen it done effectively?


  1. I'm fighting this too so unfortunately I don't have any advice for you. My MC has closed herself off emotionally and I'm trying to portray her as fragile and hurt but beta readers saw her as arrogant and isolationist. Sigh. Off to rewrite yet again.

  2. 1. Part of the problem is the readers. It's incredibly easy to get into a mode of criticism where anything not "ideal" bothers them, this includes character's flaws being more grating than if they were simply reading the draft rather than critically reading the draft. Tricky, tricky.

    The the other half of the reader-problem is that it's getting harder and harder for readers to be sympathetic/empathetic with protagonists who struggle. I'm not exactly sure where the root of this problem is, but I've seen it all over the place in book reviews, particular in reviews of books whose protagonists struggle with PTSD.

    2. I have one book where no one starts off liking the protagonist, and I've planned for this by making sure there are plenty of other things that can keep the reader reading until I reveal just -why- the character is more likeable than they realize. *amused* If that makes sense? So I have elements of mystery and string the reader along until everything opens up and they see why they should be rooting for her.

    So you could do something similar to that.

    3. Or you could start the book earlier, as you said, so that we get to know the protagonist for who he is normally before crap hits the fan. That whole "in late, out early" thing is a rule, true, but rules are meant to be broken when they simply don't work for the effect you're trying to pull off.

    4. Another option is relieving the tension more often. Giving your character more breaks, more time to breathe. Even in the middle of a crisis, we have to take a break to breathe and laugh. If he has a sense of humor, give him times when he can laugh at himself or at the situation. Or perhaps let him visit a friend, go to someone for advice. Or let him walk away to sort through his feelings, get a grip on himself enough to feel more like himself.

    It's dangerous for both protagonist and reader to rush headlong through an intense book without ever taking a break. We can't live life like that, so they shouldn't have to, either.

    That's my two...four cents XD Hope it helps!

  3. I'm not so sure that your problem is "too much stress too early". The advice I've heard has always been to throw your characters into conflict ASAP. To make your characters more likable, give them small victories at first, so that when the readers see them fail they know that it isn't because the character IS weak, but that the character WAS weak at the time.

  4. I think a lot of it can be how the character reacts to the stressful situation. You can still make a character sympathetic even with the first view of them is in an extremely taxing situation. An easy way to garner sympathy is to make someone pathetic or in trouble, as we relate to people who are overwhelmed but still persist (it shows determination). However, if a character reacts to everything with frustration and rage, it can undermine his actions.
    I think it's finding a balance. You can kick the crap out of your character right from the get-go, but if you make them appear strong or at least capable of dealing with stress in a way that is relatable, it'll work. This all, of course, depends on the character, but being willing to make light of the situation or help others despite the danger is a great way to make us like them.

    Also, as one of the original writing group whiners, we were also presented the novel in 2k chunks on a weekly basis, whereas actual people reading through this section would have probably finished it in under an hour. How it's broken up can greatly change opinion, though I will admit even re-reading it as a whole it took me a while before I really started thinking Flad was the kind of person I would like.


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