Saturday, March 30, 2019

Writing Tip #2: Make Your Heroes Likable


One of the most common critiques I get about my writing is that my characters are often unlikable. My first impulse is to cry out, that can't be. That character was based on me!

I'm kidding, of course. My characters aren't based on anyone, living or dead.

But they are unlikable. And I think that's because I push their personalities so far toward an extreme that they stop being human. And that's a problem. If your characters are unlikable, then your audience doesn't have anyone to root for. You audience won't care what happens to them.

My soon-to-be-published play Real Pirates Don't Wear Tiaras is a good example. The story revolves around five pampered princesses who are forced to pose as pirates in order to save their skins. The princesses were likable enough, but I gave them princely beaus--and those guys were complete jerks: self-centered, lazy and, well, kind of dumb.

When I submitted the script to my publisher, they accepted it, but they also asked for changes. They thought the princes were fun, but they had no redeeming values. If the princes were so awful, why were the princesses even with them?

My publisher had a point. So I went back to the old drawing board.

There's a scene toward the end of the play where Blacktooth, the pirate who shanghaied the princesses in the first place, throws everyone--princes and princesses alike--into the brig. In the original draft, the princesses come up with the plan to rescue themselves:

                      EMERALD
          Oh, Norbert! I'd always hoped we'd be 
          together till the end of our days. I 
          just never dreamed the end would come 
          so soon!

                      NORBERT
          Don't be afraid, Emerald. I'm sure
          someone will save us.

                      RUBY
          Who's going to save us? Everyone we 
          know is knocked in this cell.

                      OPAL
          Well then, maybe we should get to 
          know more people.

                      RUBY
          Sure, Opal. We'll get right on that.

CRUSTY ENTERS. She goes to grab the key.

                      AMBER
          Wait. Maybe that's not such a bad 

          idea.

                      RUBY
          What idea?

                      AMBER
          Getting to know more people. In fact,
          I see someone we should get to know 
          right now.

                      DOROTHY
          Didn't you hear? That's the past due 
          notice from Mr, Skinflint. If Miss 
          Margie doesn't come up with three
          thousand dollars by tomorrow, Mr. 
          Skinflint is going to close the shop.

After I got the note from my publisher, I tried a version where the princes helped the princesses make their escape. But it didn't work very well. The play is about female empowerment, and there was no way to have them help without taking away from the princesses' independence.

So instead, I added some dialogue to have Donahue--the laziest, most cowardly prince of all--explain why he was the way he was. And the reason why was something that, I hope, we can all identify with:

                      EMERALD
          Oh, Norbert! I'd always hoped we'd be 
          together till the end of our days. 
          just never thought the end would come 
          so soon!

                      NORBERT
          I'm sorry, Emerald. I guess I've 
          failed you.

                      WILLOUGHBY
          We all did.

                      CARLTON
          That's right. We should have gone
          after Blacktooth like we said we 
          should.

                      RUBY
          Yeah. Now that you mention it, why
          didn't you?

                      DONAHUE
          Don't blame them. It was all my fault. 
          I'm the one who talked them out of it.

                      PEARL
          But why, Donahue? Why did you do that?

                      DONAHUE
          I don't know. I guess I was scared.
          Everyone expects prices to fight
          bloodthirsty pirates and evil knights 
          and hideous monsters with bad teeth. 
          But I don't know how to fight.

                      PEARL
                 (to the others)
          That's true. He's not much of a 
          fighter. But he does make me laugh.

DONAHUE makes a funny face. All the PRINCESSES laugh.

                      AMBER
          That's all right, Donahue. I guess we
          all feel trapped by the roles we play.

CRUSTY ENTERS. AMBER watches her as she goes to grab the key.

                      AMBER
          And I know somebody else who must feel 
          the way.

Following AMBER's gaze, NORBERT and WILLOUGHBY rise to their feet.

                      NORBERT
          Do you want us to knock her out for you?

                      WILLOUGHBY
                (pats himself all around)
          I might have a bottle of sunscreen on me.

                      AMBER
          No. Just stay back. I'll handle this.

And that's where I left it. The princes offer to help. The princesses decide to do it themselves. And even the least likable character reveals a touch of humanity.

That's what I call a win-win-win.

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