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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.

What Are The Rules on Mixing Viewpoints?

Can you write a novel mixing first-person and third-person viewpoints? Is that too stupid for words? How do you decide?

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

I’m trying to write a book with my main character being seen through first person, and my second main character from third person. I separate them distinctly in the book and when they are together the story stays in my main characters first person. Can This Work? I tried writing it with them both in first person and without the second main character being separated that way. Both ways made me feel like it was either too confusing or missing to much information. So I want to write this book from two different points of view.

Also while I call her my second main character I really only want my readers to connect with the Main character.

If you don’t fully understand what I mean email me and I will try to better explain.

Randy sez: This is a good question that I’ve heard several times over the years. Before I can answer it, we’ll need to clarify some terms.

What is a “Main Character?”

When we talk about the “main character” of a novel, we mean that there is one single character who is most important within the story. The novel is this character’s story. The Story Question for the novel is a question about whether this particular character will succeed or fail.

Do you have to have a main character? No, of course not. Some novels don’t have a main character. You can write a novel with several characters that are all important, without any of them being the main character. But I don’t recommend that for beginning writers, because it’s hard enough to make your reader care about your story when you HAVE a main character. It’s much harder when you don’t. That’s my advice—follow it or don’t follow it, as you like.

What is a “Viewpoint Character?”

What Dezaree is talking about here is having two “viewpoint characters.” This is a common strategy.

What’s a viewpoint character? This is explained in great detail in Chapter 7 of my book Writing Fiction for Dummies. I’ll summarize it here briefly. When you put your reader inside the skin of a character for a scene, that character is called the viewpoint character for that scene. The reader sees what the character sees, hears what the character hears, smells what she smells, tastes that she tastes, feels what she feels, and thinks what she thinks.

The viewpoint character is also known as the “point-of-view character” or the “POV character.” These terms all mean the same thing.

Notice that you can have many viewpoint characters in a novel. You can also have none. You can switch viewpoint characters within a scene (this is called “head-hopping” and most writing teachers frown on it.)

Your viewpoint character is not necessarily the main character of your novel. For example, in the Sherlock Holmes stories, Sherlock is the main character, but Watson is usually the viewpoint character, with only a few exceptions.

What is “Point of View?”

Now we need to clarify a related term, which is “point of view” and is often just called “viewpoint.” The viewpoint character can be shown in various ways, each of which is called a “point of view:”

  • First-person point of view:  “I walked to the store and shot a space alien.”
  • Third-person point of view:  “Luke walked to the store and shot a space alien.”
  • Second-person point of view:  “You walked to the store and shot a space alien.”

Third person is the most common viewpoint, and first person is the second most common (in most categories). Second person is rare in fiction, although it’s been done. Obviously it’s very common in user manuals.

The Question: Is Mixing Viewpoints OK?

So now we can clarify Dezaree’s question a bit: Is it OK to have a novel with two POV characters, using a different viewpoint for each: first-person for the main character of the novel, and third-person for the other viewpoint character?

The Short Answer

The short answer is “yes it’s OK.” As an example, Diana Gabaldon did exactly this in her novel Dragonfly in Amber. It worked great.

The Long Answer

The long answer is that you can do anything you want in a novel, as long as it works. What do we mean that it “works?” A little review is in order.

I have always taught that the reason readers read is to have a Powerful Emotional Experience. Different categories will deliver different kinds of emotive experiences, obviously. A romance novel is punching different emotive buttons than a horror novel or science fiction or a murder mystery.

You, the author, get to decide what emotive experience you want to give your reader.

Your reader gets to decide what emotive experience she’s looking for in a book.

If a reader is looking for the kind of emotive experience that you’re trying to deliver, then that reader is in your Target Audience. Your book is designed for her. That’s all great, except …

Except that trying to deliver an emotional experience and actually delivering it are two different things.

When I say that a novel “works,” I mean that it’s actually delivering the Powerful Emotional Experience that its author intended.

I believe that all issues of craft in fiction ultimately come down to this: does it “work?” Does it deliver emotively?

So while I think it’s perfectly fine to mix first-person and third-person POV characters in a novel, the larger question is whether you can deliver the emotive goods using both techniques. Writing first-person fiction is slightly different from writing third-person fiction. If you can’t do both of them well, then mixing them is going to be a problem. But if you can, then it’s not a problem.

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.

Backstory From the Remote Past

In your novel, how do you include backstory from the remote past? Is that even legit? If so, how do you do it? And is that called a flashback or something else?

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

Hi Randy, I’m trying to learn how to word flashbacks for a fiction, mystery and adventure novel I am writing. There is a woman that inherits a castle/estate in England which has a long history dating back to the 14th century. The story takes place in 2016. In chapter two she starts to explore the estate and one of the places she goes into is one of the remaining towers of the castle remains. I wrote a great chapter more than a year ago which describes a fictitious battle that takes place in a real place of a real battle between England and France.

I have been advised by writers not to use it as my first chapter but use it to show the reader flashbacks to indicate backstory and in the end of the book have the main character find an ancient document describing the battle.

So my question is: how to word it? How do I word transitioning the reader temporarily to talk about the 14th century of this place then bring them back to the present?

Can you provide an example? Once I get the hang of it I can proceed. Hard to find how to word these things online.

Randy sez: The immediate question is a “how-to” question, which I can answer pretty quickly. You want to show a scene from the remote past (before any of the characters in your main story were alive). You can easily do this using a “dateline”. This tells the year and possibly the calendar date of the story, and also might include the location. Typically, you put a dateline at the very beginning of a scene, usually centered or right-justified.

Here are some example datelines:

  • Oxford, September 16, 1325
  • June 21, 2035, 13:05 Mars Local Time
  • Friday, April 3, AD 33
  • Captain’s Log, Star Date 31.41.59
  • 18 years earlier

A dateline is simple and clear and quickly puts the reader exactly where and when you want. Some novels have a dateline for every single scene. Most novels don’t use any datelines at all. You get to decide which scenes, if any, need a dateline, and how you’ll format them. There aren’t a lot of rules here. I recommend you keep it as simple as possible, but no simpler.

It’s not uncommon for novels to begin with a prologue set much earlier than the main story. In this case, the chapter is explicitly labeled “Prologue” and the author may include a dateline.

Eric, if you really want your battle scene at the beginning of your book, a Prologue would be a simple and effective way to do it. Then Chapter 1 could use a dateline (which might be as simple as “Present day”), or you might choose to not use a dateline because the way your characters act and talk makes it clear that they’re in the present day. You really have a lot of latitude here.

There are a couple of other issues to discuss here.

About Flashbacks

First is the meaning of the word “flashback.” I don’t know if this has an official definition, but I’ve always understood this word to mean a scene or partial scene written in the point of view of one of your main characters but set in an earlier time.

Usually, the way you handle a flashback is that your character is in the middle of a scene in the main story. Then something triggers a memory from some earlier period. You show this trigger, then write a transitional phrase or sentence or paragraph that indicates that the character is about to experience a memory from the past. Then you show the flashback using all the immediate-scene techniques that you normally would—the flashback happens in real-time, and the reader lives it through the eyes, ears, mind, etc. of the point-of-view character. At the end of the flashback, you write another transitional phrase or sentence or paragraph to show that the point-of-view character is coming back to the main story. Then you just continue on.

The Harry Potter series used a number of flashbacks with a slight modification of this technique. Professor Dumbledore had a “Pensieve” in his office that allowed Harry to experience a flashback using the memories of some other character.

Flashbacks are a valuable method of giving the reader essential backstory by “showing” rather than “telling.” It’s possible to misuse flashbacks or overuse them, but they’re a powerful technique that should be in every writer’s arsenal.

So for your example, I wouldn’t use the term “flashback” because it’s not experienced by any of your point-of-view characters in your main story. It’s just a scene written in an earlier time period.

Showing Versus Narrative Summary

The second issue is the advice you’re getting from other writers. I don’t have enough information to know if I agree with their advice. You’re proposing to show an exciting battle in real-time. They’re proposing that you tell this in narrative summary in an ancient document at the end of the book.

I don’t see the reason for this advice. It might be based on good reasons that I don’t know. I don’t have much information about your story. But let me spell out the issues for making a decision.

Narrative summary is boring. It has its place in your toolkit, because narrative summary is efficient. But it’s boring.

Showing a scene in real-time is exciting. It’s not an efficient way to give the reader information, but it’s still exciting.

So your decision of whether to show this battle as a scene or to tell it as narrative summary in a document comes down to questions like these:

  • How essential is that information to your readers?
  • How important is that ancient battle within the story?
  • In giving that information, is it more important to be efficient or to be entertaining?

I can’t answer these questions because I don’t know your story. But you do, so the decision is on you.

Have fun!

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.

Creating 3-D Characters For Your Novel

What if the characters in your novel don’t want to do what you want them to do? How do you motivate them to do the right thing? How do you do that believably?

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

Hi Randy! I love the website and all the books, all the information I’ve read has been very helpful. But I need help. I’ve been reading a lot of books (maybe to many) in regards to characters. For endless days and weeks, I have been trying to figure out how to develop a realistic character arc (external conflict, external motivation, but the inner conflict, inner motivation and figuring out the theme is confusing me to no end! I’m in need of a better understanding (more simplified) and guidance to a characters internal NEED and external motivation. I have the beginning of the protagonist arc. Which is a callous lieutenant who fears abandonment which causes him to stray away from relationships of any kind and also provided him the inability to forgive anyone for any kind of wrongs they did to him. I have the WANT which is surviving an invading army by any means necessary (EXAMPLE: avoiding survivors so he doesn’t have to care for them.) I have the main GOAL which is to return home, and a sub-plot GOAL (or maybe this is considered the external motivation) which is my MC wanting to return home to tell a woman that he loves her. I have the ending of the novel where the MC saves a survivor because he’s regretful for not saving anyone else and is willing to sacrifice himself in order to prevent the invading army to further their agenda of world domination.

But I can’t figure out the NEED that will drive my character to the conclusion of sacrificing himself rather than saving himself and what’s the internal conflict that will make him resist the realization.

I also can’t figure out what external motivation is considered. Is the goal of my MC’s wanting to confess his love to the woman the external motivation? Or am I missing a key factor?

As I’m sure you can imagine, since I’m missing key pieces to a beautiful puzzle, I can’t figure out the theme.

Can you help me Randy?

Also, what formula do you use when figuring out the character arc for every character?

Randy sez: Good questions, Kate! It sounds like you’re well on your way to designing a strong novel. You’re very close, in fact.

The problem you’re facing is that your lieutenant really, really wants to get home to the woman he loves, so he can tell her (and hopefully something will come of that). So why in the world would he do anything to jeopardize that Goal? Why would he risk his life right at the end of the story, to save somebody he doesn’t know?

That doesn’t make sense. As a novelist, it’s your job to make it make sense.

Here’s how you do that.

The missing link in your explanation above is something I call “Values.” Values are the magic key to creating 3-D characters. What’s a Value? I’ll give you an example, and then the definition will be clear.

The Godfather is Mario Puzo’s classic novel about a Mafia kingpin, Vito Corleone. Vito is a complicated guy. He runs a small underworld kingdom with ruthless efficiency. Vito rules by helping people. If a poor widow comes to him in tears because she’s being evicted from her apartment, Corleone can make the evil landlord change his mind. All he asks is that the widow gives him honor. Why? Because honor is the currency of his kingdom. A man who has honor has everything. Money, power, happiness, all come from honor. Nothing is more important to Vito Corleone than his honor. He would kill to maintain it.

But Corleone is also a Sicilian, and therefore his family is supreme. He would do anything for his family. Vito has three sons, each with problems. The oldest, Sonny, is impetuous and quick-tempered and insolent. The second, Freddie, is a bit of a sissy. The third, Michael, is bright, intelligent, disciplined—but he scorns the family business and plans to make his own way in the world without his family and without being a criminal. Still, Vito Corleone loves all of his sons. Nothing is more important than family. He would give up his own life for any of his sons.

But that raises a terrible problem early in the novel. A seedy thug named Sollozzo comes to Corleone with a business proposition. Sollozzo wants help in getting police protection for his heroin operation. And long-term, he’ll also need help from the corrupt judges in Corleone’s pocket. Sollozzo offers a generous cut of his profits in exchange for the protection that only Vito Corleone can give him.

Corleone believes that this will endanger all of his other operations. Corleone’s consigliori and his oldest son (Sonny) are at the meeting, but Corleone doesn’t consult them in this decision. He simply refuses Sollozzo’s offer, explaining his reasons—that it would destroy all that he has worked to build.

But Sonny doesn’t like this, and he blurts out a question to Sollozzo that makes it clear that he’s interested. This is a huge mistake. Sonny has just dishonored his father by questioning his judgment.

What should Vito Corleone do? He loves his son. But his son has just violated his honor. His son should be banished from the organization—immediately. Corleone must make an instant decision. He chooses to make a joke of his son’s rash comment and then repeats his decision—no, he will have nothing to do with narcotics.

That decision drives the entire novel.

Three months later, Sollozzo’s henchmen shoot Vito Corleone in the street, nearly killing him. Their hope is to get Vito out of the way so they can do a deal with Sonny. But Vito survives, barely, and the rest of the novel tells how he claws his way back to power, pulling his youngest son Michael into the family business.

All because of one decision. One very difficult decision. Difficult because of Vito Corleone’s two clashing Values:

  1. Nothing is more important than honor.
  2. Nothing is more important than family.

Those can’t both be the most important thing. When they conflict, Corleone must choose between them. And nobody knows what that decision will be until he makes it.

Now let’s define a Value. A Value is anything that your character would put in the blank in this sentence:

“Nothing is more important than ____________.”

When your character has only one Value, then he’s boring and one-dimensional. When he has two or more Values that can conflict, then the character becomes vastly more interesting.

Kate, you’ve already given me enough information to define two of your lieutenant’s Values:

  1. Nothing is more important than avoiding abandonment.
  2. Nothing is more important than the woman I love.

To that, I’d add a Value that most people have:

  1. Nothing is more important than staying alive.

Note that #1 and #2 are in conflict, so that’s good. But it’s not enough. None of the Values above will explain why your lieutenant would endanger his life to rescue somebody he doesn’t know. If you’re going to explain that, you’ll need to give him a fourth Value that would drive his decision. And then you’ll need to show your reader that Value throughout the novel, giving enough reasons for the reader to believe it’s a strong Value. It’s your choice exactly what that Value should be, and it’s your choice why he should hold it so strongly. The art of fiction is the art of making those choices.

Once you do that, then at the end, when you have multiple conflicting Values, the reader can’t know how your character will decide, but a choice to be altruistic will be believable.

This issue is discussed at some length in my book How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method, in chapter 6, “Nothing Is More Important Than Characters.”

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.

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