Characters who have tortured interior lives are dark characters. Dark protagonists are suffering and in pain. Often, they’re nonhuman: fallen angels, vampires, haunted detectives, or recovering addicts.
The writer’s big challenge is to make these protagonists sufficiently likable that readers will stick with them until the end. And, from the author’s perspective, an additional challenge is to honor the darkness within. (For more on the subject of character likability, go here.) https://wp.me/p7nsfn-1D6
Why Dark Characters Turn Off Readers
Why would readers not find a complex, tormented character likable, you might ask? For one thing, readers want to see characters in motion, protagonists who are striving toward some goal. This quality of striving gives readers an incentive to stick around for the outcome.
If you have a character who’s a slayer or who’s seeking revenge, this character is psychologically stuck. Readers turn away from these characters because they’re in a rut. It is as if we, your readers, are being asked to watch a donkey walk in the same old circle. We fear we’ll be stuck, too. And bored!
However, a character who’s vacillating between good and evil is a character who interests us. We know that, at some point, the character will have to choose.
How to Make Readers Care About a Dark Protagonist
To make a real life comparison, let’s say you have a friend sinking into alcoholism. We know our alcoholic friend is being self-destructive, but we feel helpless. That person’s friends turn away. But then one day our alcoholic, miserable friend calls up and confesses she or he has a problem. At that point we reach out and offer help. We’re willing to go the extra mile (aka, read to the end of the book) because our alcoholic friend recognizes that they have a problem and they want to get well. As for us, we feel that our efforts to help them will not be in vain, and so we’re willing to make an emotional investment in their recovery.
The Promise of Redemption
Much the same thing happens with fiction. Readers need to make an emotional investment. For that to happen readers must care about the character right from the outset. Otherwise there’s no reason to keep reading.
What causes us to care? We must find the protagonist redeemable in some way. Very quickly readers judge whether the character is worthy, e.g. “worth my time.” You can’t count on the reader waiting until the end of the book for the moment/climax that forces change in the right direction.
What readers are looking for is called “preredemption.” It’s strength, humanity, or yearning. There’s an implicit promise to the reader. “Don’t worry, reader. This character’s going someplace good.”
Please remember, readers need to see this right away.
Yearning for a Change of State
To engage readers’ sympathies and make them care about a character who is stuck and miserable, you must immediately make your dark character yearn for a change of state. There aren’t any blueprints for this. Each tortured character is tortured in his or her own way.
Here are some questions that will lead you in the right direction.
- In what way does this character long to change?
- Become human?
- Suffer less?
- What represents the absence of pain?
- What does this character yearn for? (Find a way for us to understand that yearning.)
- How will you expose that right away? (And by “expose” I mean how could you dramatize that yearning in a scene?)
- What would the end of suffering look like?
- What would make your character more human, more like the rest of us?
Asking us to feel the characters’ suffering as soon as we meet them is a tall order. Suffering doesn’t invite us into a story.
What does? A yearning for change. Then we will be every bit as invested in the outcome as you are. Readers will lean forward, waiting for the moment when your dark character’s life takes a turn for the better.
Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, a short story collection, and THE RUG BAZAAR, a chapbook. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers’ Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.