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The Unsympathetic MC: Shifting the Mirrors

Last night I received an email from Nick Belardes asking if I'd write a few paragraphs for the Random Writers Workshop on character development. Nick is the author of "Random Obsessions" (2009) and "Lords" (2005). While the workshop is helping to build a literary arts scene in Bakersfield, California, its objective is also to inspire and teach writers how they can become published authors. When Nick Belardes asks me to do something, I jump. Well, unless he's asking for something really crazy.

I figured I'd write about creating successful stories that feature unsympathetic main characters. Now, many writing gurus will tell you that's a no-no. That your hero has to be, well, a hero. Or at the very least, someone readers want to snuggle up to. Well, I'm here to tell you that while I wouldn't want to see an entire bookstore stocked solely with books featuring unsympathetic MCs - I wouldn't like to see an entire bookstore stocked solely with any single type of book unless the category we're talking about is "books written by me" - a writer can do OK for herself writing counter-intuitively.

I cite, as a prime example, my debut novel, The Thin Pink Line. [Note: It's hard for a writer to hold her own work up as an example of anything worth emulating on any level - we're all so self-hating - but The Thin Pink Line was the only book its publisher ever received a starred Kirkus for up to that point, is listed in Don Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel as an example of a book that achieves just that, was published in 10 countries and optioned for a movie, so there is that, for what it's worth.] The Thin Pink Line is a dark comedy about a sociopathic Londoner who decides to fake an entire pregnancy in order to see what she's missing. Really, short of murder and other violent crimes, it's hard to think of a worse thing you could set out for an MC to do. So how do I pull it off? How do I take a character who's so self-absorbed she actually whines with zero irony, "Oh, why can't I be a gay man?" and make readers be invested in her outcome?

Mostly, I do it by being a magician, exercising slight of hand. Mostly, I do it by what I call shifting the mirrors.

Yes, Jane Taylor's awful. But a lot of people in her life: her mother, her sister, her live-in boyfriend while he's still on the scene - they're all pretty awful themselves, at least in their treatment of Jane. People tell you your book can't succeed if your main character isn't sympathetic from the get-go? Hand them a copy of A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is hardly a warm-fuzzy guy you'd like having live next door to you when the story opens, but as the tale progresses we learn that there are circumstances in his past that have contributed to who he is. That's what you need to give your unsympathetic character: extenuating circumstances, reasons for the reader to say, "I get you. I may not love what you're doing - I would never fake a pregnancy, steal a cloth baby bump from Harrod's maternity department, draw my own sonogram pictures - but I do hear where you're coming from...crazy bat."

So there's your first mirror shift: showing how some other characters aren't so angelic either and giving your MC a reason for why she is the way she is.

Now here's your second mirror shift: create a secondary character that readers will universally love who in turn loves the MC. In The Thin Pink Line that would be David, pronounced Duh-veed, the gay Israeli ex fighter pilot turned bistro owner who is crazy Jane's best friend. David isn't blind to Jane's flaws - on the contrary, he's the only one who sees Jane clearly, more so than even Jane herself - but he loves her anyway. He's the voice of reason, calling her on her nonsense regularly - "Have you become a fuckwit, Jane?" he opens the story - but he loves her anyway. And because we love him, because he's so stunningly charismatic we wish we had a best friend like David, we're willing to believe that he sees something in Jane that maybe we're missing. We trust his view of her more than our own and in this instance she does not let us down because whatever Jane's flaws - and they are staggering in both quantity and quality! - we know that David's love of Jane is fully reciprocated; we know that, whatever nefarious deeds she might get up to, if the train was coming down the tracks, Jane would push David out of the way and take the hit every time.

Oh, and one last trick for your unsympathetic MC? Don't bore the reader. Honestly, I don't need to love every main character, find her noble, want to snuggle up with her. I just need for your main character to entertain me.

How about you? Got any tricks for writing successful stories featuring unsympathetic MCs? Or anything else to say?

Be well. Don't forget to write.

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I think you’ve hit the

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. While I love my popcorn books, I would hate to have a bookstore completely full of them. Sometimes we just need a character that is so overly flawed that we can think, ‘if they can make it through life so can I’.

I do agree that it’s important to have a non-MC around to call them out. It humanizes the MC in ways that the reader can identify with. We all have that ‘one’ friend which you are able to do it with. And by do it I mean -- you know, call them out.

I think the best unsympathetic MC are the ones that evolve into something completely different. It may not be all roses and champagne but the MC’s thought process might be affected. Internal changes which force an external display.

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good comment

Great ideas,  Jeannie! To me, the definition of a novel is change. So when you start with an intensely flawed MC...