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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Character Clinic: Preventing Whiny Characters

Mollie sent in this character clinic back before I closed my site to freebie assessments. I just now realized that I still had about 5 or so in the queue! (Sorry guys and gals!)

Mollie is writing a YA fantasy about 17-year-old Seraphina, the last living Nephilim on earth. Her mother moved them from England to the U.S. after her father went missing in the British military. Her mother died, but not before Sera said several things to her she now regrets. She was raped earlier that year at school.

Mollie wants to know: How can I make her seem real and react to the death of her mom, the supernatural gifts she's been given, moving to a new country, etc., in a way that is believable without sounding whiny?

What Mollie has brought to the table blog is this question:

What is the line between having issues and being whiny?

People read books about characters with issues. Most main characters have been through at least one traumatic experience, if not more. Writers can definitely fall victim to the trapping that the more issues, the sadder the backstory, the more intense trauma, etc., will make their character more real and relatable.

Authors don't want to minimize pain or handle it poorly to where the reader is rolling their eyes at the whiny angst and melodrama (which YA is especially known for due to the dramatic nature of teenagers).

There is such a thing as too many issues. I wrote a post that was subsequently reblogged over 39,000 times on Tumblr that addressed this very issue. This is something people are thinking about. Is there a point when you can give your character too hard a time?

I have a couple of suggestions for how you can portray her pain, but not overdo it. Here's my take:

1) Have someone else notice it.

We don't utilize the observations of others much in our own lives. We are egocentric people, and we go through life thinking about ourselves...our actions and words. But we don't act or talk in a vacuum. Utilize the other characters to notice, for example, how reluctant she is around men, or how she shies away from physical contact of any sort. You don't have to put the reader in her head, listening to her internal monologue about how scared men make her.

2) Make sure she doesn't complain ALL the time.

Readers will actually take a little whine if the story captivates them. (Um, Twilight, anyone?). A good way to do this is to avoid emotion words. Sounds odd, I know, but focus instead of showing her emotion. Trust the reader enough to know that they will pick up on the emotion without you hitting them over the head with it.

3) Utilize a little humor and/or sarcasm.

This can be accomplished through the character's voice or even the narrator's. When a character knows how to laugh at herself, even if the moment is more serious...this can lighten the mood for the reader.

4) Have her be proactive about her pain.

It's one thing for a character to sit around and lament their woes day in and day out. But it's another who laments their woes and actually gets off the couch to try to do something about it. If she's got issues with the rape, have her seek counseling services. If she regrets what she said to her mom, have her journal her thoughts or write her a letter to leave at the graveside. The gestures don't have to be life-changing, and it actually makes for a better story when the character makes some misguided gestures to alleviate their pain.

Let's Analyze

What other ways could someone prevent having a whiny character? What examples of whiny characters come to mind, so that we can learn how NOT to do it?