Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Softening a Main Character Just a Smidgeon

on_white_04I’m drawn, as a reader and a writer, to protagonists who aren’t all sweetness and light. They might just have a mischievous streak, or it could be something darker.

Occasionally, though, I’ve had to soften up a character when I’ve thought their bad traits pushed them over the line a little bit into unlikeable territory.

Softening a character’s rough edges is easy to do. In fact, you can do it with your antagonist, too—they’re probably not all bad, and making them multi-faceted can keep readers guessing and make these characters more realistic.

I was on a shopping expedition Saturday afternoon for plastic Easter eggs (I was definitely running a little behind on this errand.) All the stores were sold out by this time.

When I finally drove to Walmart, I was already in a stinky mood from going to three stores. The scanner at the self-checkout didn’t read the bar code (naturally.) I ended up in a long line for a surly cashier who didn’t even greet the customers ahead of me. What’s more, I suddenly noticed that the eggs were $3 for fewer than a dozen. #%$#%#!!

“You could get twice as many eggs for half as much money,” the cashier abruptly said when I finally got the front of the line. “They’re right there on the wall…just there. I’ll wait for you.”

I pretended there weren’t twenty people muttering darkly in the line behind me and dashed over to get the cheap eggs. And I’ll tell you, I was just like the Grinch in the cartoon—my heart grew three sizes that day. I wasn’t exactly the nicest Walmart shopper Saturday, but when I thanked the cashier and smiled, I think she softened toward her crabby customer, too. And probably felt pleased with herself for being helpful.

I know when I’m reading a book and I’ve already pegged a character as unlikeable, having them do something unexpectedly nice can give them a layer of dimension. We’re not all bad and not all good (well, most of us, anyway.)

I really like the little glimpses of kindness instead of huge shifts in behavior. If it’s too big of a change for the character (and the change isn’t explained by a brush with death or something equally major), then it seems more that the character is just acting out of character (less of a good thing.)

Have you ever had to soften a character? Ever read one that should have been softened?