Posts Tagged unlikable characters

How NOT to get the reader empathizing with frustrated characters

Don’t make this big mistake when you’re writing about a character in a dull or frustrating job

I was looking at a thriller script. It featured police officers protecting witnesses. There’s a scene where one of the MCs is sitting in the car reading Marvel comics instead of watching the house they’re in. One of the other officers says to him ‘can’t you act professionally?’. The comic-reading MC says ‘when I’m put in the front car I’ll act like a pro’. The screenplay is full of bickering like this.

Can we really believe that anyone who has a job would behave this way? Much less someone who has had to go through police selection and training. The writer wanted him to be a likable maverick, frustrated that he’s getting nowhere. But instead of empathizing with him, we think he’s an unbelievable jerk.

This is a problem I see quite often – in novels as well as screenplays. The character is frustrated with a ‘normal’ life. Usually that’s a rich seam to mine because readers find plenty of frustrations in their own lives and will understand them. But the writer shows them bickering, sniping, slacking off and being superior. They toss aside the dull report they’re supposed to be writing and they read scriptwriting manuals instead. They tell their colleagues how boring the company is. They act like they’re trying to get sacked because they really want to join a rock band.

 This is not how people in frustrating jobs really behave. Even when they are dreaming of something better.

 Ricky Gervais got it right in The Office. And Richard Yates has frustrating office life down to a T in Revolutionary Road.

Most of these characters hate their jobs. But they find ways to put up with it. They genuinely try to hide their frustrations and resentments, except with a few trusted people. Perhaps a collusive comment to an equally frazzled colleague at the water cooler; or letting off steam in the pub. Even then they may not dare expose their discontent fully – to other people or even to themselves.

Most people in frustrating jobs don’t bicker with their colleagues. They muddle along with them. They might even jolly each other through so it’s not so bad.

This is the key. Because these characters care about keeping the job. And that’s what makes their lives so frustrating. It’s why they don’t swagger around with an attitude that says ‘I’m a maverick and the rest of you are fools’. That version is the fantasy of a writer who’s been working on their own in Writerland for years and mixing only with other writers with the same lifestyle. (It’s possibly also why it has taken many writers so long to feature things that the rest of the world have had for years – like mobile phones.)

A frustrating life is an emotional state – usually a complex trap that the character is colluding with and has tangled feelings about. If it is being used to engage the reader’s sympathies, it needs to be presented with understanding, not superiority.

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