Keep it to yourself, jerk! — Rule #28 of 32 Simple Rules to the Writing the Best Novel Ever


I’m dissecting the article Hunting Down the Pleonasm, by Allen Guthrie, using it as a cattle prod to search for little nasties in my manuscript.  Yep, you can join in the fun, too.  Let’s take a looksee at topic #28

28: If an opinion expressed through dialogue makes your POV character look like a jerk, allow him to think it rather than say it. He’ll express the same opinion, but seem like a lot less of a jerk.

Hmm.  Depending on how this is used, he can still look like a jerk just thinking about it.

I’d like to expound on this and say be careful of making your main character unlikable. Period. I’m reading a novel for crit right now in which I really can’t stand the MC, and she has no concrete reason for doing the dumb things she does.  If I had picked up this novel in a bookstore, I would have put it back by now.

The author said “It’s good that you don’t like her. I’m doing my job.”

This author just doesn’t get it, and is waiting with bated breath for rejection #215 on her queries.

You need to connect with the main character.  No one is going to want to read about a character they do not care about.  They can be a jerk, but you have to make them relatable, and your reader has to care.

If you don’t have that engagement with your reader, you don’t have an audience.



10 responses to “Keep it to yourself, jerk! — Rule #28 of 32 Simple Rules to the Writing the Best Novel Ever

  1. I totally agree. The MC can have his/her faults but she/he definitely needs some redeeming qualities or a reader will lose interest.

  2. I received a critique once that changed the entire book. My critiquer told me flat out, “Your character is mean. No one will like her,” She was right and as painful as that was to hear.. it taught me more than all the “how to books out there.”

    Your post is spot on. If you want me to invest time in your character then put some time in it and show me something to like. Otherwise i’ll bounce the novel against the wall, or worse, delete it off my kindle before I get to chapter two.

    Thanx Jenn. Another piece of sage advise.

  3. A character can be a total jerk, and still be likable if there’s some aspect of her/his personality that engages with the reader. It can be something as simple as a tiny quirk that the character isn’t aware of, but if the reader knows that whenever they see this quirk the character is experiencing something that makes them vulnerable, then, there’s your hook.

  4. Hmmm, I remember you telling me something very similar about one of my MC’s. I’ve still not figured out how to make her likeable. 😦 At least I’ve done better with my other ones. But you bring up a good point. Who’s going to stick with a character if they don’t like them?

  5. Yep, I’m with you. People have to sympathize with the main character(s), OR the situation has to be truly compelling. Maybe it makes us all shallow people, but we’re reading for enjoyment in most cases. So the story has to be enjoyable.

  6. I agree. More and more I put down books because I don’t get the MC. Shouldn’t everyone have at least some redeeming characteristics? More, if they are the main character?
    Good point.

  7. This was hard for me at the beginning . . . and then I made my characters too likeable! I think I found the right amount of balance in 18 Things *crosses fingers* but it is a fine line I walked in 18 Truths.

  8. I think that’s a lot of the criticism Gillian Flynn got for ‘Gone Girl’ (and her other novels, too). Her characters really aren’t likable. I found this especially true in ‘Dark Places’ because at least in ‘Gone Girl’ I was interested in seeing what happened with the characters even if I didn’t like them much. I think that’s why people either loved or hated ‘Gone Girl.’ I happened to love it, but I know many people who hated it.

  9. I completely agree. The MC can be relatable and a punk (think Scarlett O’Hara, who was vain and selfish, but she was pushing for her survival, so we totally were pulling for her). However, if the MC is completely unrelatable (like Native Son, a book I had to read in high school that I hate more than almost any book I’ve ever read; not a single character in that horrible book was relatable. I was actually rooting for them all to die so the book would end sooner), I’m just going to hate the book and possibly throw it away rather than even donating it. I have a stack of these books at home that are so poorly done that I feel guilty giving them to used book stores (Egads! It makes me wonder if the editors of these books were snoozing on the job). Like you mentioned, if the reader isn’t engaged, you don’t have an audience.