Journey to a Bestseller: How to make Readers Connect with Your Unlikeable Character (Series #38)

Good weekend, everyone. This is an update post about where I’ve been and what’s happening with our WIP. This will be a shorter post, but tune in next week for a big post full of deals and recommendations!

First things first:

I have been gone for the past few weeks after having spinal surgery, and I’m glad to be back, though I’m working slower than I’d like. They did a lot of things during my operation, but mainly fused L5/S1 and performed a decompression laminectomy. It went well. I woke up able to feel the difference. The surgeon said my disc had been completely crushed and was being forced out the side, so it was smashing a lot of nerves. When I woke, I could feel the pain of the surgery, but it felt more like a wound that needed to heal, than the debilitating pain of the crushed disc. They had to remove hardware and replace it, as well as inserting some new hardware, and they installed a cage. It is the small oval object between the last two fused discs. Apparently, the weakness of the screws is pressure, but that is a strength of the cage, and the weakness of the cage is rotation, which is a strength for the screws. So they use each other to strengthen the space. Hopefully, I won’t have to have another surgery for a few years!

Here’s the front view. If you look closely, you can see the 25 staples they put in. Those really pinched when they came out!

The quality on these X-rays isn’t the best, but they get the job done. Everything looks great so far. If all goes well, we won’t have to fuse up to T10–at least not for a long time. We’ll see. I’m still walking the neighborhood with my walker like a little granny, and I can’t drive for three more weeks, but after that I will be happy to get back to my newly-opened gym and the treadmill.

On to fiction:

This month, I am part of a new Booksweeps giveaway. Make sure you take advantage of this giveaway for young adult coming-of-age fiction:

Enter to win one eReader and forty-seven free YA books!!

About the WIP–The Clockwork Pen:

As those of you who have followed the journey know, I have documented the steps needed to write a book, form the structure, plan the scenes, write it well, self-edit like a pro, then how to write and send a query letter, and even explained some of the coded responses you may get from agents. Then I sent the manuscript out to ten agents to get a feel. Why only ten? Read on, I’ll explain.

So far, three agents have written back, all echoing each other exactly saying, “I’m not connecting with it the way I wanted to.” Now, don’t get discouraged by this response if you’re getting it, too. It simply means that they aren’t connecting with either the character, or the way I’m telling the story. For whatever reason, they aren’t getting sucked into the story like they want. I feel this could be due to the fact that I have a very unlikeable character.

It is hard to write an unlikeable character well, and I think I focused a little too much on making him an unlikeable teen and not enough on making him a relatable character.

[This means I need to take a look at my beginning. After all, that’s what the agents are basing their opinion on. Make sure that when you make changes like this, that you incorporate the changes throughout the manuscript. I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I’ve seen where the author has polished chapters one through three, but then abandoned chapter four to the end. If you don’t capture the agent at the start, you lose. But if you draw them in and lose them at chapter four, you still lose–but after they’ve asked for your full manuscript–and you may or may not understand why.]

Are there sure-fire ways I can draw the reader in? Sure. First, invite the reader into the story with a strong emotional connection. This is especially important in writing YA, which we are–young adults need that emotional reaction. Don’t use generalization in the beginning. Be specific. This is the start of a new story, and the reader doesn’t know anything you don’t tell them. So be concise, but guide them to the place you want them to be emotionally. Also, make sure we know where in time and place the character or narrator is situated. Ground them to the scene. It is tempting to write in vague, flowery words that sound “literary” to us, but resist that urge and tell us exactly what’s happening and where. Start in a place that’s relatable to readers.

The problem I was having is that Wyll is an unlikeable character at first. He becomes likeable as the story goes on. But, if I just write him as a jerk, the reader won’t connect to him. So, how do you make a reader connect to an unlikeable character?

First of all, unlikeable characters come with their own conflict. They create it. Don’t confuse unlikeable with uninteresting; don’t have them “go with the flow” of terrible circumstances, just riding the waves–make them the author of their own demise. An unlikeable character, like a train wreck, makes the reader need to watch to see what happens next. They want to see your character make mistakes and then suffer consequences.

Easy=boring. Conflict=exciting.

The point is, you still have to engage the reader. To connect, the character doesn’t have to be “nice” or likeable, they must be relatable. Your reader has to think that given the same circumstances, they might behave the same way, or at least understand the character’s motivation well enough for their reactions to be plausible. The character must possess qualities that readers resonate with. Make the character a person you might admire or feel for in real life.

Everyone screams at the screen in a horror movie, “Don’t go in there!” We can see what’s coming in that dark shed, even if the character doesn’t. But do you respect those characters? No. Because they’re stupid. Make your character intelligent. Have them understand the situation and/or themselves. Because dumb characters are frustrating. We kind of hope they walk in and get killed, if they’re going to be that oblivious. Readers don’t respect incompetence.

That’s not to say, don’t make them vulnerable or flawed. By all means, show us the character’s vulnerabilities. The reader needs to empathize with them, and especially if they are an unlikeable character. Show them hurting, not because they’re weak, but because the consequences of their unlikeable actions cause them pain. We’ve all been in a situation where we reacted unlike the way we wanted to, and had to face some kind of conflict because we made the mistake. That’s relatable.

The reader can relate to the character through a sympathetic backstory, or through a shared motivation. Does your character want the respect of their peers or the love of their parents? Readers can relate. Make the reader experience the character’s pain, learn their lessons, be part of the story by their shared connection with the protagonist, by engaging their emotions.

Don’t make them sweet and clueless, but also don’t make them too negative just to make a point. Your point may be that the character becomes likeable at the end, but if you wait too long to make them relatable, the reader just won’t care. They’ll decide they can’t imagine themselves in this situation, and then you’ve lost.

The unlikeable character still needs charisma, goals, likeable qualities and flaws. In short, they need to be an interesting character. If they are trying to fight the battle to become the hero, and the reader can put themselves in the character’s shoes, the reader will become their advocate. They will need to keep reading to see if their hunch is correct, or see if the character fails. And who doesn’t love to get sucked into a good book?

So what does that mean for The Clockwork Pen?

Instead of starting out with Wyll’s parents telling him they are getting a divorce, we are going to start in Wyll’s head–with his feelings about this family meeting, and the overall underlying theme that he is existentially insecure. I’m going to drop his passive-aggressive nature and make him try harder to veil his unbridled anger at being put in his position. We are going to start by grounding Wyll in time and place with his physical location and his thoughts/emotions. Hopefully, this will make him more relatable and give the readers a sympathetic goal and backstory that will cause his actions to be entirely plausible.

I feel like this is a great idea, and I’m grateful to the agents who brought this to my attention. Unfortunately, even after I “fix” it, I cannot resend to those admired and carefully-chosen agents who have turned it down, so be intentional about who you send to at first. This is why I only sent to ten agents as a start. If I fix the beginning, I can send it out to new agents, but the remaining seven from this round still have to send me rejections. And I know they’re coming, because now I see what I did wrong.

So … somewhere in the middle of editing for the publishing house, judging for an annual writing contest, and marketing my current books, I need to carve out some time to rewrite another draft of The Clockwork Pen and resend to another group of agents. I’ll keep you updated.

That’s all for today! Sorry it’s so short, but hopefully you can use this to beef up your beginning and relate readers to your unlikeable characters. Until next weekend, keep writing!


4 thoughts on “Journey to a Bestseller: How to make Readers Connect with Your Unlikeable Character (Series #38)

  1. nancynausullivanblog says:

    So good to hear from you, Jenn, and that you’re on the mend. ,,,,, Great points about that unlikable character. I think the reader does have to relate to the bad guy, or woman, and, especially, understand why he or she is going there. Empathetic, or not..,And then there’s that issue of growth… much to talk about! Thanks for the view. Nancy


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