I picked up a book the other day that sounded like it might be a really fun read and just the kind of thing I was looking for. But after struggling through the first chapters over a couple of days (which is unusually slow for me), I finally put the book down in puzzlement. Why was this book not working for me? The writing was fine, the situation was interesting, so what was the problem?
The problem was that the main character was so whiny. All she did was complain about her situation, how she didn’t like being the poor relation, and how it wasn’t what she wanted to do with her life. This made her really unlikable and not someone I wanted to spend hundreds of pages with.
It’s hard to have an unhappy character with legitimate complaints about their lives and still make them likable to readers. Or, if not likable, at least to craft a story that still pulls readers into it. Since there are times when you might need to start a story with a character like this, I wanted to talk about some of the ways I’ve seen it successfully dealt with.
1. Add humor. Often a character can go from irritatingly whiny to someone readers like and cheer for by giving them a sense of humor, whether it’s self-deprecating or dry or whatever fits them best. Adding humor is a great way to make an unhappy character more likable.
2. Contrast them with another character. This is something J.K. Rowling did well in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Like the book I mentioned earlier, Harry is also a poor relative in unpleasant circumstances. Some of his unhappy thoughts are even voiced in the 3rd person narrative. But Harry (at least in this book) does not come across as whiny because he is in such stark contrast to Dudley. Dudley who is throwing a massive fit about only having thirty-six presents. Harry has much worse things to complain about, but because Dudley is being so awful about something so absurd—who gets thirty-six birthday presents?—readers identify with Harry and sympathize with his predicament.
3. Give readers another character to care about. One memorable example of this is the Korean drama The Great Doctor (or Faith, depending on where you’re watching it), which I’ve heard described as “A love story between a man with nothing left to live for and a woman who lives only for herself.” And the woman, Yoo Eun-Soo, in the beginning of the show is absolutely awful. Whiny, spoiled, selfish, and all that. But so many of the other characters (like Lee Min-ho with a sword…) are fascinating and so I was able to overlook my dislike of her in favor of them until she grew and changed into a strong, likable character.
(Not that all characters need to grow and change like that, but I do admire storytellers who can take someone I dislike and make me love and cheer for them as they struggle.)
4. Change the Point-of-View. The book I mentioned earlier was told in first person point-of-view, which be grating if you need to have your character in a miserable situation and so obviously unhappy about it. Harry Potter, in contrast, is in a third person point-of-view, which makes the unhappiness more palatable for readers since the complaining and unhappiness isn’t so close. So if you need to start your story like this and are struggling with making an empathetic character, consider changing the POV.
5. Change the Tense. This worked well in The Hunger Games because readers only get the emotions Katniss feels at a particular moment in the present tense narrative. So even though her situation is awful and the story is told through her first person POV, it’s filtered through each moment so readers aren’t forced to deal with all of the years of pent-up anger and frustration dumping down on them in the first couple chapters.
What about you? What are some ways you’ve seen authors deal with whiny characters, particularly at the beginning of a story? Who are some whiny characters that you loved despite their flaws?
Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.