Writing a Main Character Who Isn’t Nice vs. Keeping A Character Realistic | YA BOOK GIVEAWAY!!
This is a guest post from Young Adult author Stephanie Campbell. Read on for your chance to win a copy of her latest book, Grounding Quinn.
When Laura first asked me to write a guest post, and told me that I could pick the topic, I of course, immediately thought of happy things that I could share. Like how thrilling it is every time I get a good review. Or about the many amazing people I’ve met on my journey and how they helped me shape my manuscript into the book it eventually became. But the more thought I gave it, the more I wanted to write about something that I struggled with in hopes that it might help someone who is having the same trouble with their own manuscript, or even help give readers a different perspective when it comes to reading YA fiction.
You know that girl you sat next to in Bio II, who always had a scowl on her face and never had a nice thing to say to anyone? She had a story. That popular guy who on the outside, appeared to have it all- inside, he was struggling with something bigger than you could imagine. Young Adults today have it rough, that’s reality. Bullying is out of hand. Teens are tormented for their sexual orientation. The rate of teens experiencing abuse in relationships is staggering. And they aren’t always going to have a smile on their face, or a cheerful greeting while they deal with their reality.
Far too often I read a novel dealing with a very serious topic, and the main character is still the cookie-cutter, overachieving, “good girl.” I wanted to steer clear of that type of character while writing Grounding Quinn, and make Quinn as realistic and true to herself as I possibly could, even if it wasn’t the popular route. By far, the biggest hurdle I faced when writing Grounding Quinn was getting readers to understand her and not be turned off by her brashness.
For some reason, there is a big market for realistic, darker YA fiction, but it appears that readers are a lot less accepting when the main character happens to be in need of a major attitude adjustment as a result of his/her troubled home life, eating disorder, or other crisis they are going through. In addition, readers seem to be much more tolerant of an overly snarky sidekick, than they are of the mean character having an abundance of sass.
The general consensus from my early beta readers was that I needed to make Quinn much, much nicer. I received feedback that it wasn’t realistic that Quinn had such an enormous chip on her shoulder at such a young age.
And while ultimately, I did make some changes to her character and smoothed out a few edges (for instance, I gave Quinn the hobby of baking and giving baked goods to people that she cared about), I pretty much stuck to my guns. This was the Quinn that I wanted portrayed, love her or hate her.
Since the book came out in June, I have received several emails from teen readers thanking me for writing a realistic main character. Nothing makes me happier than hearing that she is relatable to a teen.
I’m not saying every main character going through any type of personal drama needs to be a mouthy jerk, but I do think that we need to be honest with ourselves as writers AND readers and really acknowledge that not every person on this planet is NICE, at least not all of the time. And that’s okay. If your main character isn’t a permanent ray of sunshine, that doesn’t make your story bad. There are a few things you can do to help readers relate to them, even if they are the furthest thing away from someone we’d like to spend time with.
1) Your character needs to have some sort of redeeming quality, without making it feel forced or fake. Even the biggest villains have something in them that is a little bit good, even if it isn’t visible to everyone. Find that trait in your character. Reveal it in spurts. Don’t over do it. It’ll make them more real, it will give them depth, and it will make us hate them less. 😉
2) There has to be a reason for their anger/snark/overall jerkiness. Don’t just write a flat, one-dimensional character that is mad at the world and all of its occupants just for the heck of it. There has to be something that sparks that anger in them. Find it. Explain it. Make it believable.
And finally, and most importantly:
3) Write your characters truth, even if it isn’t pretty or ideal. Even if you make your character believable and justify their actions, there are still going to be people that don’t “get her.” That’s okay. If you’ve written her truthfully, even when it was ugly and you cringed while you typed the words, but had to write them because they were honest; you’ve done your job. Not everyone will understand. Some people will hate your main character. Some people won’t tolerate dysfunction well. And that’s okay. Because someone out there will be able to relate to her, and that means you’ve done your character justice, and as a writer, you’ve done your job.
Stephanie is a YA author who calls Southwest Louisiana home. She is a happily married mother to three evil geniuses. She blogs at http://stephcampbell.blogspot.com/ and is a member of a group blog devoted to Contemporary Young Adult Lit at http://fortheloveofcontemporary.blogspot.com/
When she isn’t reading, writing or wiping someone’s nose, you can usually find her baking something.
Stephanie is giving away a copy of her book, Grounding Quinn, to one lucky reader who leaves a comment below. The winner can choose between a print copy and eBook version.
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