January 31, 2011

Monday Mess: Likable Characters


So, if you've been here recently, you know I'm working on revising a very long novel entitled REMNANT. One piece of feedback I received was about a secondary character called Lahonti. Though Lahonti is secondary, he plays a pivotal part and even enjoys a few POV scenes. The problem? He was deemed unlikable. UNLIKABLE. From beginning to end, so much so that my reader skimmed over his parts towards the end of the book. Wow. That's a problem, considering Lahonti undergoes a character arc and helps bring about a significant change in the hero.
I ran this by my writer's group, one who has read the story, and one who hasn't. This is important. Talking through a problem with people who have or have not read your book can be so helpful. Fresh perspective is GOOD. As I expressed my concern about making this character less unlikable without changing who he is, an interesting question came up.
Carla asked, "Are you in Lahonti's head?"
I thought about that before I answered. I thought back to his backstory. I began talking, and this is basically what I said:

Lahonti has the heart of a soldier. War is all he's known since the age of fifteen. He witnessed his mother's and brothers' murders, and lost a sister as well. He is obedient to authority, his father's (a good man) particularly, and is extremely loyal. He has hardened himself against emotion, even the prospect of love, as a protection against loss. He is awkward in expressing generosity, kindness, and hope. He would do anything to protect those closest to him. He doesn't know what to do with who he is after war is behind him. He doesn't know how to proceed or what to hope for. He doesn't know what to do with the feelings he has for the heroine. He comes across as stubborn, hard-hearted, and cocky. As his world changes, he is floundering in all he believes in. But he wants to do what is right. He stumbles when it comes to knowing what right is.

Yeah, my writer friends agreed, I'm in his head.
But only a small portion of these glimpses are in the story. In order to make Lahonti likable, I need to up his reader's sympathy level. I need the reader to understand his turmoil, and wish him well, so they keep reading him. But I can't make him a sentimental softy. It wouldn't work with where he's been. And I can't just info dump (just cut and paste the above and stick it somewhere in the first chapter, right?). The challenge is to bring out Lahonti's hidden psyche a little at a time, but early enough on that the reader develops sympathy for him, so as he goes through his character arc, or growth, he is cheered on. So when Lahonti makes a mistake or says the wrong thing or loses his temper, the reader doesn't roll his eyes and skip the page, but cringes and says, "Aw, c'mon, Lahonti, I hear you, but you're better than this! Keep trying!" I need to make the reader care.

Here is a simple example of how I'm trying to go about this. We all love the before and after shot, right? The first chapter opens at the end of a battle. The toll has been great and Limhi (Lahonti's father) switches from warrior to physician. The enemy has not quite withdrawn, and they have a friend wounded on the battlefield.

Before:

Lahonti surveyed the grizzly scene and Limhi followed his gaze. Three days of fighting in this area alone. The first killed were beginning to rot beneath their brothers who fell after them.
“I would not name it a victory.” Lahonti was somber. Always somber.
Limhi looked around suddenly. “Where is Kir?”
“Safe. In a tree.”
“Of course. A bat.”
“A lethal bat.”
Limhi raised his eyebrows but said nothing.
Another moan. “Lim…”
“It is Aram.” Limhi narrowed his eyes to locate him.
“Aram? He is not laughing, now.”
Limhi shot his son a look. He shook his head in disapproval, but Lahonti was unrepentant.
“He delights in this, Father. You know that.”

After:


Lahonti surveyed the grizzly scene and Limhi followed his gaze. Three days of fighting in this area alone. The first killed were beginning to rot beneath their brothers who fell after them.
“I would not name it a victory.” Lahonti was somber. Always somber.
Limhi looked around suddenly. “Where is Kir?”
“Safe. In a tree.”
“Of course. A bat.”
“A lethal bat.”
Limhi raised his eyebrows but said nothing.
Another moan. “Lim…”
“It is Aram.” Limhi narrowed his eyes to locate him.
“Aram? He is not laughing, now.”
Limhi shot his son a look. He shook his head in disapproval and Lahonti dropped his head.
“I'm sorry. But he delights in this, Father. You know that.”

Did you feel the difference? *Please say yes* I think it's going to take little tweaks like this and barely noticeable peeks into Lahonti's psyche to make the difference between unlikable and likable. Or at least relate-able. It matters, even for secondary characters.

Any advice or thoughts?

5 comments:

Shari said...

I think for me to truly appreciate the difference, I would need to understand who Aram is and why Lahonti would have made that comment.

I love your first couple of paragraphs. Excellent! And I love that he called Kir a "lethal" bat.

Good luck with it!

David J. West said...

I did. Its funny how little things that resonate with people can change a perspective.

Krista said...

Shari, that's what's difficult about posting a small bit with minimal backstory. Aram finds war and killing sport. A challenging entertainment, which disgusts Lahonti. He has been a loyal friend to Limhi, though.

Thanks, David. I'll keep working at it.

SF said...

Character development is tricky!
You're lucky to have people in your writers group to help you.

I think Lahonti comes across as meeker in the second, but more conflicted re. being loyal to his father but saying what he thinks of Aram.
Does that help?!

Krista said...

Thank you, SF, that is exactly what I'm going for.

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