There are numerous reason why a book doesn’t work for a reader. But one of the most common is that the reader doesn’t have empathy for the character or condone his or her actions. But as many of you have already surmised, perfect characters can be pretty boring. And that is why many authors dare to take risks and create problematic, challenging characters, or characters that make objectionable mistakes.
Author Molly O’Keefe did a post at DearAuthor.com on Difficult Heroines. She interviewed numerous authors and got their take on difficult heroines. Quoting from the blog, Cecilia Grant stated, “Difficult heroines bring a lot of conflict to a romance, which is always a good thing,” while Sarah Mayberry had a different way of expressing the conundrum: “The challenge, as always, is giving readers the information they need to understand what’s behind the character’s difficult-ness. If that’s even a word.” Caitlin Crews understands the inherent challenge: “The fact is, not everyone is going to like your heroine no matter what you do. But I think readers want to know a heroine’s motivation, and if you give it to them, they’ll follow her to a lot of dark places.”
And I wondered if that is true. I think of myself as pretty nit-picky. I have a very low tolerance for characters who are psychologically unsound, such as the 40-year-old hero that has never had relationship or the overly self-abasing heroine. But I realized that there are many difficult characters or scenarios that worked for me as a reader.
Of all the authors I read, Susan Elizabeth Phillips creates the most outrageous scenarios. But she has an exceptional talent in making me empathize with her character’s motivation. I will be honest, sometimes it takes a while for me to process what they have done and accept the actions. When I first read Ain’t She Sweet, I was shocked at Sugar Beth. Her systematic bullying of half-sister Winnie Davis was staggering:
“The truth is, cupcake, I pretty much made your mother’s life miserable.”
Gigi abandoned Gordon’s ears to gaze up at sugar Beth. “What did you do?”
“Everything I could think of.” Sugar Beth concentrated on dredging the bread so she didn’t have to look at either one of them. “You mother was shy, and I used that to my advantage to make her look bad in from of the other kids. Whenever somebody wanted to be her friend, I found a way to break it up. I made fun of her behind her back. I even found this diary she kept and read it out loud to everybody.”
Hero Colin Byrne’s ignominy in publicly humiliating Sugar Beth is also pretty substantial. Not only does he set up a dinner party to demean her, but he also writes a tell-all book with a thinly disguised character based on Sugar Beth. But what Sugar Beth did to him in the past was atrocious, too.
I had grave doubts going into Call Me Irresistible, again by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. The ick factor was simmering just under the surface at the thought of a Meg Koranda having sex with Ted Beaudine, her best friend, Lucy Jorik’s ex-fiancé. My thoughts on the girlfriend/family rule are pretty strong. How can someone even think of doing that to a friend. And I couldn't help thinking of the awkwardness later—would Ted look at Lucy and remember making love to her? What would Meg think when Lucy and Ted reminisced about the past? But Ms. Phillips handled my reservations on the subject early on, when Meg call Lucy for permission:
Something’s wrong, all right.” There was no easy way to say this. “What would you think about me hooking up with Ted?”
There was a long silence. “Hooking up? As in—?”
“Your former fiancé.”
“I know who he is. You and Ted are a . . .couple?”
“No!” Meg dropped her knees to the floor. “No, not a couple. Never. This is just about sex. And forget it. I’m not exactly thinking clearly right now. I should never have called. God, what was I thinking? This is a total betrayal of our friendship. I shouldn’t have –”
“No! No, I glad you called.” Lucy actually sounded excited. “Oh, Meg this is perfect. Every woman should have Ted Beaudine make love to her.”
“I don’t know about that, but—”She pulled her knees back up. “Really? You wouldn’t mind?”
“Are you kidding?” Lucy sounded almost giddy. “Do you know how guilty I still feel? If he sleeps with you . . You’re my best friend, He’d be sleeping with my best friend! It’ll be like getting absolution from the pope!”
Ted'a not without his own blemishes; he says he is still in love with Lucy. Both Ted and the town are quick to judge Meg, and even put enormous pressure on her to compromise her integrity to keep a wealthy investor happy. But Ted’s motivations are believable as is his transformation.
Secret baby plots are difficult, especially when the heroine doesn’t inform the hero—a major ethical breech. One of my favorite story arcs in The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen is about is about Julia and Sawyer. Julia became pregnant with Sawyer’s baby and when she told him he was not happy:
“Julia, I don’t want a baby,” he finally said.
“Well, it’s too late for that,” she said, trying to laugh.
”What do you mean?”
“I’m sixteen. He suddenly exploded. “I can’t be a parent! And I’m with Holly. This is the worst thing that could happen to me right now! I have plans.”
Sawyer’s reaction is pretty unforgiveable—a women’s worst nightmare. A man (albeit still a boy) rejecting both her and their child. But the story just works. For some reason it was easy to forgive Sawyer. Julia goes on to have the child and gives it up adoption, a secret she keeps from Sawyer who is under the impression that she “took care of it.” Like Julia, I agreed that Sawyer gave up his right to know that he had a child. And Julia giving up her child—well, that was a no-brainer. Still I loved the fact that Julia dreamed that one day her child would find her:
Maybe one day in the future, baking cakes would bring her daughter—who had a sweet sense like her father—back to Julia. Then she would explain why she gave her up. At the very least, it would carry Julia’s love to her.
Marion Caldwell, the heroine from Where We Belong by Emily Giffin is almost the polar opposite of Julia. Not only did she not tell the father of her baby that she was pregnant, she has very mixed emotions when her daughter shows up on her doorstep. She is infused with a sense of elation and joy, but also fear because her current boyfriend knows nothing of this:
More important, I wish he knew my secret. I wish I had told him, suddenly regretting my decision not to tell him...he confessed his own deepest secrets that he plagiarized a paper at Dartmouth and once slept with a stripper at a bachelor party in Vegas. I didn’t judge him—and I don’t believe that he would have judged me. And yet, he might. He might decide that any woman who would give a child isn’t fit to be a mother. At least the mother of his child. He might have a problem, at the very least that I kept a secret from my own father, from the baby’s father.
This complex story filled with life’s compromises and mistakes is so very memorable for its realism, and hope.
Which authors push the limits on their characters’ likability? Share examples of the actions that almost pushed you to your limit, and explain why you were able to accept and understand why they did it?
Leigh Davis, Blogger