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    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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If You Don’t Know Me By Now (redux)

I’ve now heard from three of my four readers about the script. The feedback was better than I had hoped for, especially from the youngest and toughest critic. He thought the action was suspenseful. The script tight. He was really flattering. There was only one problem: the main character. He hated him. Everybody hates him. I think I probably hate him. He’s a shit. He’s in pain. So what. I don’t have the first clue as to how to rewrite him. He’s that guy that people hate, mostly because his life looks so easy and he’s smart and good looking. Maybe I should give him a pair of glasses.

How do you rewrite a character? Or do you just have to kill him? Dig a hole?

70 Responses

  1. You just keep going sweetie.

    Can’t believe I said this, I don’t even know you.

    But you sound right.

    You keep bullying. You don’t sound like a likeable character either.

    Do YOU wear glasses?

  2. Oh, God. I had that problem in my second novel. Main character-whom I admired (envied), everyone disliked.

    My advice-find the metaphorical glasses he has, and love him for them.


    But I’m not published, so what do I know?

    • It seems the key word there is “admired.” I think admiration is a secondary feeling. What a reader/viewer often does is to identify with the character. If we can see ourselves in someone, we can forgive a few flaws, maybe even some downright pathologies.

  3. If he’s facinating he doesn’t need to be likable.

  4. just give him some weird, secret perversion that makes him detestable.

  5. You know the answer to this. You’re just a million miles away from it in your own work, like we all are. Your guy just needs a tiny nuance of vulnerability. It doesn’t take much. Don’t (oh, wow, channeling my mom) throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  6. Give the audience a voice. Have someone throw a plate of spaghetti at him.

    • I agree – give the reader some acknowledgement of their feelings then throw them a curve, show another side of your character to make them reconsider if hate is what they really feel for him.

  7. I ‘fixed’ (for a given value of ‘fix’) a main character once by switching from third to first person . . . but that method probably doesn’t work on scripts.

    But does the story hinge on the likeability of the character? I didn’t like the main character in The Limey, but I loved the film.

  8. Rewriting “a character” and rewriting the work’s main character are two quite different things. Without having read the script, there’s not much I could offer that could be much use, but I think Shanna (see above) may be onto something. Whatever you do to him, it can’t be much–it may be less than you may at first imagine–and it has to flow seamlessly from what you’ve already made of him.

  9. Three words: About a Boy. Nick Hornby has made a career of writing about narcissistic idiots. And we love him for it.

  10. Try thinking about the best thing he ever did, the best thing that ever happened to him, his best trait, the best thing that WILL happen to him and the best thing he WILL do.

    Or give him a cat. That usually works.

  11. If you rewrite him he’s not what you created. You are his Creator. Don’t let him down.

  12. Get a professional opinion.

  13. (This is probably why I am unpublished) Is this main character supposed to be likable? Or are we supposed to be willing to watch/wait until he finally gets his due? If he still walks away unscathed, then, I can understand why the betas aren’t happy.

    If he needs a flaw, I’d vote for bad breath; the glasses/bald spot/paunch issues don’t sway me. Most of the men I encounter these days have at least 2 of these traits and most are likable.

  14. Who cares if he’s likable or not. Is it a character than an actor will be dying to play? Actors like having “something to do” besides reciting the lines. If the character’s bad, make him deliciously bad. Make him cool and give him clever, witty, cutting dialog.

  15. Follow your gut about this character.

    Likeable=snoresville. Unlikeable shits=winning. Why else does anyone watch reality TV? Why did the Golden Globes invite Ricky Gervais back? Why do we all love August?

  16. I trust my characters to write themselves. Sometimes I’m like, “do you really want to do that?” and the answer is almost always yes…

  17. Unlikeable characters are my specialty. Ask my agent. I had two main characters in my book. The editors all loved one and hated the other. So I dove back in to fix the unlikeable (but in my own fucked up opinion compelling, challenging, damaged-yet-fascinating) character. I made her struggle more relatable (I thought), I made her funnier (I thought), I gave her ample reason to be snarky (I thought). I sent the ms back. It went out again. Same feedback.

    So. I just spent the last three months eviscerating the book and writing the hateful character out completely. She’s still just as beloved to me though, and on some level the excision was like giving birth to a dead baby.

  18. Gordon Gecko wasn’t exactly loveable.

    • Gordon Gekko wasn’t the protagonist.

      • Yes, he was the antagonist, which qualifies him as a “main” character in my book. I can’t call up anyone else from the movie in my mind as well as I do Gekko.

      • Yet another popular movie I’ve never seen. It is becoming increasingly clear to me that although I grew up in the heart of NYC, I led a very sheltered life.

  19. Make him hate himself, too.

  20. Don’t rewrite to nice him up. You’ll throw it all out of kilter. What the hell were you expecting? Your readers had to say something gnawing. Keep him nasty.

  21. Must you rewrite him? Must all main characters be likeable? There’s a history of main characters being shits, from Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment to Holden Caulfield. Maybe he should learn something about himself by the end

  22. Introduce us to his hateful parents, the ones who diminished him at every turn, who kicked him when he was down, bleeding on the asphalt. Then we’re bound to like him. America loves it when the disenfranchised finally succeed.

  23. Do any likable characters get introduced early on? I’m a big fan of the “B” characters in books and movies. Sidekicks often draw me in when I dislike the main character. I’ve been paying fairly big bucks for a mystery series in which I only like the sidekick (an older woman) and the setting (a small town newspaper). I reread them, too.

    There’s more to a story than a main character. Your readers hate the main character but they like the script. That’s saying something.

  24. Off the page, I’ve never known anyone who wasn’t flawed, some insufferably so. Some of the memorable were those perfect assholes who were born holding life by the short hairs, whose flaw was in the perfection, the unspeakable ease with which they waltzed through the bullshit while the rest of us slipped, slid, and squished it between our toes. Those lucky fuckers. Where is karma when you need it?

  25. Don’t worry about it. Keep him as is, unless you filter in the teeniest bit of self-deprecating humor so that the audience knows he knows. Ya know?

    And, hey, that is such good news about their reactions!

  26. I’m in the midst of this process. My story is told from 3 POV’s. One of the characters is coming off as a pain-in-the-butt wonder woman, when I see her as tragic and heroic. I’m going through the manuscript and revising her interaction with the others, having her talk less, showing how she misreads critical clues and situations, how she’s caught between, belonging no where. And then when it’s her turn to speak I’m showing her tragic desire to please.

    My point is, you’re not alone and I don’t think this is unusual. It’s a process, a journey. Write, revise, rewrite, cut, write again. Someone commented, “Get a professional opinion.” This is a good idea. There are writing programs that offer critical feedback and crucial direction. Ultimately, however, you have to embrace the refining process.

  27. Give him a redeeming moment near the end.

    • You have to be a tiny bit careful there. I did that with the mother in my last novel and got called on it by a few reviewers.

      • Then he is what he is. But I think it is difficult to make a story work when readers dislike the main character. People have trouble relating to or siding with someone they do not like.

      • I agree, but don’t leave the good trait(s) till the end.

      • You’re right. Waiting until the end, an add-on as I suggested will not work either. Some subtle hints through the early going would. That could make an interesting character, one just short of being a total jerk who turns out to be a softie.

  28. I don’t know the type of script this is, but one way to make him less perfect is to have him want something or someone he can’t have…in other words, frustrate him. Even if this still makes him too perfect a character, the reader might hook into the feelings of rejection or disappointment and thus create some connection.

  29. Oops, sorry…didn’t mean to send the comment anonymously!

  30. For me, the hardest thing is adequately portraying a character’s complexity — how to get beyond the obvious in a limited amount of time without it seeming too forced. The character is probably somewhat based on a person you know. What is it about that person that surprised you? And, as Tamara stated above, a good actor will pull something out of nearly nothing. Just give some clues. Or cues?

  31. Don’t kill him, because you’ll be killing reality. I know you know that our world is made up of the good, the bad and the downright ugly. And although many of us write fiction, there still has to be truth in what we do. I’ve known loads of shits…mostly good looking unfortunately. They still have something attractive about them, a trait that makes us want to know more about them. It can be fascinating. And this can happen even when you get past the eye candy thing (male or female, they can still have the shit factor) and you discover they’re a shit…they’re still interesting.
    No, keep him in and make him an even bigger shit.

  32. Aspirational idiocy of the changed sociopath–only in America.

  33. Just cast Denzel in the role.

    Or if that won’t do, I try the list thing sometimes. I write out all kinds of weird things about the character that most likely will never get in the novel but help me think about him/her in a different way. Like allergic to tree nuts, wears pink fuzzy slippers, loves the movie St. Elmos Fire, is afraid of nuns, can burp the alphabet…whatever…

  34. Agree with all above. Give him just one little moment that gives us a glimpse as to WHY he’s such a dick.

  35. Do the readers hate him as a character, or as a person? If it’s the former, he may need some work. If it’s the latter, maybe he’s fine just as he is. If they see him as a person and have an opinion about him, you have done your job.

  36. Secondary characters you can do a tailoring job on, but if your guy’s an anti-hero…

    I adapted Jodi Picoult’s “Change of Heart” (together with the author) and the main character there is a guy on death row for murder and child molestation.

    The producers have heard much about the “ick” factor that chased some players away, but they are firm mostly because the author is not interested in yielding the point.

    Removing, say, the child molestation element screws up so much of what comes after. It’s a death penalty story and this guy can’t be an angel for it to work.

    Upshot: You gotta stick with.

  37. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting to know them better. Some people make a terrible first impression but are great once you get to know them, it’s a matter of seeing them under different circumstances. Characters are the same. Whenever I’ve had to rewrite a character, I try to examine them more thoroughly, see what other sides there might be to them.

  38. Geez, what about Charlize Theron in Young Adult? I haven’t seen it yet, but isn’t that character credited with bringing “unlikeable” to a whole new level? Maybe the times are a-changin’, and unlikeable is the new likeable? The internet has made it so easy for people to hate and criticize openly, that maybe it’s a cultural hunger that requires ever-fresh chunks of meat thrown at it.

  39. my characters are dislikable and i manage them by:

    1. liking them
    2. presenting them in a non-judgmental way

    i think the lack of judgment is key to managing dislikable characters and i firmly do not believe in social-working characters into someone they are not.

    good luck!

  40. I had a novel and had the same problem with my MC. All my betas hated her. Then I rewrote the opening to show her in a vulnerable situation and I did some minor changes through the manuscript. After that, my other betas loved her. I didn’t think it could be so simple, but…

  41. Go watch “House, M.D.” He’s narcissistic, rude, abrasive, and eminently watchable.

  42. Is there something he yearns for? That’s usually enough to put the reader/viewer in his corner.

    Another tactic is to have one of your likable characters like him.

    Hope this doesn’t sound too facile. Good luck, Betsy!

  43. Some redeeming characteristic to somewhat compensate for his unlikeability. Something. One little thing that hints at the one thing that raises him from shit to semi-shit, maybe elevates him to a fart but not complete shit on a shingle. Shit, maybe his don’t stink. Maybe he has this soft spot for someone or something that makes up for his shitiness. I don’t know, even ass-wipes sometimes rise to the occassion. I’ve seen some floaters. Maybe he floats.

    • OMG – I was busy typing my comment and I guess I said the same damn thing – but I like the way you said it better. LOL! Maybe he floats (well crap, I mean shit – maybe she’ll drown him)

  44. Love/hate….love/hate. We all know it’s better to evoke love or hate than no emotion at all – otherwise “they” are nothing to you.

    However, all the above – about giving him something…something is on track. I like the idea of a nervous tic. Maybe he’s rock solid, but …? What was that? I see a flicker of some nerves there. Maybe he picks his nose when he’s nervous. (j/k! gross) Maybe he stutters. Maybe he throws up. Maybe he’s afraid of something, heights, dogs (even a puppy).

    Or you kill/torture/give him his due n some justifiable, deserving way. As mentioned above, don’t know much about the script…but after you read all these comments I bet you figure it out.

  45. Don’t make him likable! Some people are meant to be hated. That is life. I can’t stand my older brother, even our mother doesn’t like him, but we love him because he is ours and we all feel sorry for him because he is such a miserable bastard.
    One doesn’t have to like a character to empathize or sympathize or identify with him.

    We just have to relate to his journey.

  46. Betsy,
    All despicable characters have at least one good trait. The captain of that Italian cruise ship had a friend… the one he wanted to wave to on the shore.
    But, only give him one.

  47. I’m a shit. I’m in pain. People THINK my life is easy. I’m smart and good looking.
    Yet people like me. Some people. Why ?
    Maybe because…
    My inner life isn’t, never was, never will be, easy.
    I’m totally, seriously, dumbfuck stupid in a couple of ways. And I dress funny, cut my own hair really badly, and grow weird facial hair so as not to appear good looking.
    I’m also egotistical and lack social skills. You can probably tell.
    Your character may just need one of the above. I probably need them all. I am that much of a shit.

  48. A Smith and Wesson works well for getting rid of bad characters.

  49. Reading the responses to this post was an education, thanks for the advice people gave. Wonder about giving him a secret vice – people hate him, but the audience knows a part of him that the others don’t know.

  50. Someone may have already said this, but does he ever show any sort of vulnerability? (Besides being in pain.) Is there someone or something (a dog? a turtle?) he loves more than himself? Ratchet that up a tad, and see where it takes you/him. He still may not be likable, but he’ll definitely be easier to relate to.

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