Wednesday, October 1, 2014


Masks.  We get to wear them every day, in public life.  We shine ourselves up (with makeup, polite smiles, etc.) for the outside world.  We only let the world see what we want it to see.

Which is what makes reading a book such an incredibly unique experience.  We're not just watching a character move through a sticky situation.  We're inside that character's head.  We're looking through their eyes.  You don't get that experience in any other form of entertainment. 

As an author, I think part of my responsibility, then, is to depict the unvarnished truth.  If we're inside a character's head, we have to see exactly what they're thinking and feeling--we have to see what they don't want the rest of the world to see.  We have to view the whole, ugly, unvarnished truth.

For Claire, the protag in my latest YA, FERAL, her own unvarnished truth  (or one of them, anyway) is that she blames her best friend, Rachelle, for the fact that she was the victim of a brutal gang beating.  (Claire actually stepped in to save Rachelle for being wrongfully accused of something she didn't do; Claire ratted out a gang member, and suffered the retaliation.) 

It's really nice and pretty to say in public that you'd never blame your friend, if put in Claire's situation.  That's the mask we'd all wear.  But would you, deep down inside?  Would you be able to so easily move past it, no hard feelings, when you were spending months trying to heal and your friend immediately fell back into the pattern of her old daily life?  Or would there be resentments? 

...One aspect I constantly struggle with is the likable protag.  I get it: readers want a main character they can get behind and cheer for.  But it's a tough, tough thing to balance this constant likability with depicting the ugly, unvarnished truth. 

Authors: How do you strike a balance?  Or do you attempt to?  Is it possible to be likable an unvarnished all at the same time?


  1. I also sometimes struggle with likable protags. You want a character people like, but want him/her to be real too. And, sometimes, too real scares readers off.

  2. Reading definitely is the only way to fully get inside another person's head...even if that person is fictional! It's the closest we can get to really getting to know what another human being's life experience is like. That's why the process of writing is so hard...we're trying to capture what it's like to be someone else!

  3. Likable vs Unvarnished is always tricky...


  4. I struggle with the likeable protagonist thing, too. (And with the "relatable" protagonist, but that's a different story. This may sound really sophomoric, but I guess readers want a reason WHY an unlikeable character is unlikeable, or at least why an otherwise likeable character has unlikeable traits. For many people (sometimes including me), reading is a form of wish fulfillment, so we want to read about a character we can admire and imagine ourselves in her shoes. We need the character to be better than we are. It's a hard balance to strike as an author.

  5. Holly, we are so on the same page here, I am a big fan of ugly truths, which sometimes means unlikeable characters. I LOVE reading unlikeable characters and I feel like my responsibility as a writer is to make sure my characters have dimension. As long as they are well-rounded, fully developed and REAL, then even if they are unlikeable, readers will get them and maybe even have some empathy.

  6. This post really hits home with me. When my first book came out, I have to admit, I was shocked at the amount of people who couldn't stand my MC. Do you think YA writers face tougher criticism in this area? I've read plenty of adult fiction, with male protags in particular, whose realness might be viewed as unlikeable and yet, it makes them more interesting -- more like real people. I have had dear friends who might not seem like the most likable folks in the world, but I'm more concerned about honesty -- with friends and with characters.

  7. This is truly fascinating--I'd never considered the difference between male and female characters, Jen...And Courtney, you're right--a big part of it is also what you think a book should do: present us as we are, or present us as we aspire to be.

  8. I think it's pretty critical to peel off those masks as a writer. In Gone Too Far, my character definitely has some unsavory thoughts and feelings. I find that the most important part of the journey, though, is helping my characters to peel off the inner masks--the ones they don't even realize they're wearing.