Characters and Gratitude - Jenny O'Connell

This month's theme is gratitude, and while there is a lot I am thankful for, I thought I'd take a different twist on this topic. Because something I always question when writing characters is whether or not I'm making them too unlikeable by making them appear ungrateful. Nothing is as unappealing, or unlikeable, as someone who is ungrateful.

Many teen stories have characters who have a chip on their shoulder - they've experienced something that has changed them as a person and perhaps that change isn't always so great. In my book RICH BOYS the character Jay has lost his mom to breast cancer. He is on the verge of flunking out of college. His relationship with his father is bad. Not a very happy guy. BUT, he comes from a family with money, he's spending the summer in their gorgeous house on Martha's Vineyard, his dad pays for college, he can basically do whatever he wants. The guy has a life many would envy. Still, he's pissed (for various reasons). But it's very difficult to have sympathy for someone who is ungrateful for all that they DO have, nobody wants to spend time with someone wallowing in thoughts of what they DON'T have.

Making Jay make sense as a character, without having him come off as just a whiner (which ungrateful people often are), took a lot of thought and I was always worried it wasn't working.

My current work in progress has me concerned with the same thing - this time a main character who has a lot to be thankful for (after all, she was diagnosed with myocarditis, a heart condition, but instead of dying she receives a new heart from a donor - so what's she got to be ungrateful about?). However, stories without conflict, without problems that need to be addressed and resolved, either externally or internally, aren't that interesting to read. So I'm walking a fine line between creating a character who realizes how lucky she is, while also giving her license to be screwed up in other ways.

Is this something other authors struggle with? Characters can often (and easily) come off as being ungrateful whiners ("woe is me") just for the sake of creating conflict. Are there stories where you just wanted to slap the character and say, "Get over it! Your life is pretty damn good! Be grateful instead of whining!" What do you think?


  1. I did wrestle with this in the book I have coming out in January. The main character is externally privileged, although internally he has all sorts of problems. I worried that some people might ask, "Why is this guy suicidal, with all he has?" But in reality, rich people have been suicidal, and beautiful people have been suicidal, and famous people have been suicidal. People who seem to have everything are not immune to depression.

    So I took two approaches. One was to show his inner world and how dark it could be. The other was to have the character himself acknowledge his privileged position, and his own confusion about how those external blessings don't automatically confer health and happiness.

  2. YES! I totally understand what you're saying...writers really ride a fine line (especially, it seems, in YA) between introducing problems / angst and making characters unlikable...

  3. I've gotten several reviews from teen readers who thought Ori in FAIREST OF THEM ALL wasn't likable until later in the story. Others empathized with her from the beginning. In order to show character growth I think we all walk that line to some extent. Unfortunately, we can't please everyone.

  4. I think we're told that characters need to have inner conflict, but we don't let it come naturally. We think of our friends, or parents, or ourselves, and our characters adopt our own problems... even when they don't fit with our character. This might sound silly since it is us who create our characters, but they really do take on their own personality. Sometimes, our problems are not their problems! So, readers see their problems as being something easily fixable, because they really shouldn't be there in the first place.

    As for the month of November, I am grateful to be improving myself.

  5. I've struggled with this too! But I think the key is to remember that we are all nuanced and everyone's scale of pain and what they can handle is different. Of course I'm one of those insanely empathetic people so I go out of my way to look for ways I can identify with characters that I'm reading about. I do work hard with characters I write though because I know even though I empathize easily, others may not.


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