Keeping Your Whiny Characters Likable

How do you handle a whiny character? Nobody likes a whiner, but the truth is that real people whine from time to time. Sometimes they have a reason to whine. If your character is whiny, how do you keep from making readers sick of him?

Derek posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Character question: how do you write some intense character drama (both internally and externally) without the protagonist coming off as mopey or unlikable?

Additional context: I’m writing a YA Science Fiction book for NaNoWriMo. I really enjoy YA because I really like the interpersonal relationships, character growth, etc. that seem to really thrive in books for that audience.

So the characters in my book are currently dealing with a lot of drama. I feel like I’ve made the protagonist sufficiently proactive, talented, and likeable. However, he is currently mourning the loss of his parents and he also became estranged from his best friend after the inciting incident. Yay for conflict, right?

So my question is, how can I allow my character to grieve and grow, experiencing the very real pain that accompanies his life circumstances without him coming off whiny? I really hate main characters who mope.

In this case, my protagonist is still being proactive and pushing the plot forward, but he’s carrying a lot of shame and self-hatred that can accompany intense emotional wounds. This can make his internal dialogue pretty, well, depressing.

Right now, the protagonist and his best friend are both hurt and treating each other somewhat cruelly, hence making decisions that are very believable but may turn off the reader.

I’m loving the conflict that all of this has brought to my novel. However, I also know I’ve read books with interpersonal conflicts that have really annoyed me due to the prolonged nature of them. And the novel was a lot more fun to write when the protagonist and his best friend were on good terms. So the temptation is to just go make everything all better real fast, even though I know that would probably not be wise.

Randy sez: This is a good question. I think it’s important to always ask why your reader reads.

Why Your Reader Reads

Your reader reads to have a Powerful Emotional Experience. Therefore, you write to provide your reader with a Powerful Emotional Experience. But which experience are you going to provide?

Different readers read for different emotive experiences. You get to decide what readers you want to appeal to (your “Target Audience”), which means you get to decide what emotive experience you’re selling. Once you decide that, then your only job is to do a great job providing that emotive experience.

If you decide that you’re selling an emotive experience that includes recovering from deep emotional wounds, then write that kind of story and don’t worry about annoying your Target Audience. Your Target Audience, by definition, wants to read your kind of story. People outside your Target Audience, by definition, don’t want to read your kind of story, but you don’t care.

That’s right, you don’t care about people outside your Target Audience. Because you can’t. You can’t make everyone happy. A decision to make your Target Audience happy is a decision to not even think about people outside your Target Audience.

I hope that gives you a little freedom to write the story you want to write.

Balance, Balance, Balance

Now, having said that, there is such a thing as an unbalanced story. You clearly aren’t writing ONLY about deep emotional wounds. You’re trying to create some unique blend of emotional experiences. You get to decide what that blend is. Then you need to focus on giving exactly that blend to your readers.

Think about The Hunger Games. Is Katniss sometimes whiny and even unlikable? Sure she is. Sometimes. But she’s not ONLY whiny and unlikable. She’s not even MOSTLY whiny and unlikely. She’s just occasionally whiny and unlikable. She has plenty of good in her that overrides those. She’s strong enough to defy the rules and hunt food for her family. She’s got a soft spot in her heart for her sister Prim—she volunteers to face almost certain death in Prim’s place. She’s got a strong survival instinct and she’s tough and resourceful and she has a certain attitude. The world is treating her grossly unfairly. She has a reason to whine. So she whines—for a bit.

Then she fights back. She fights back hard, and sometimes lashes out at people who are trying to help her. But the reader is OK with her whining and her misplaced anger, because it’s believable and it’s in balance and she at least recognizes she has flaws and feels guilty about it. That’s the blend Suzanne Collins chose to provide. That’s the blend a lot of readers wanted. It worked out pretty well.

Derek, your question was a tactical one—how do you write that drama without scaring away readers? The answer is that you salt it in without letting it get out of proportion. Early in your story, you should establish the blend of emotive experiences that you’re going to give your reader. Once your reader gets past the first few scenes, she should know what that blend is. You now have a contract with the reader to continue with that blend for the rest of the story. Keep it in balance. If one scene goes a bit whiny, then the next scene needs to go light on the drama and bring in the other emotive experiences you’re selling.

Balance doesn’t mean that every scene must feel the same, emotively. It means that you alternate through the various emotive experiences that make up your unique blend.

Do that and your reader wins. When your reader wins, you win.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

3 Comments

  1. Alma van As November 19, 2016 at 11:48 pm #

    Great question Derek and just what I needed to read, Randy, so thank you! Whilst my character is not necessarily whiny, she is suffering from a huge loss and I’ve brought across her sorrow by being a rather empty shell. I think I need to make her more complex by adding some anger towards others but above all to show her good side. I was struggling to think how I could do that and I think I’ve come up with the answer.

  2. Jessica Everingham November 27, 2016 at 8:52 pm #

    Love what you said about ‘powerful emotional experience’, and how those differ between audiences.

  3. Jackson February 17, 2017 at 6:01 am #

    and of course there’s Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels – how does she do it?! Is her POV a whiner? I would say not, because who wouldn’t whine given her heritage and life?

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