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September 17, 2015

Character Likability and Subtext

Layers in red rock with text: Add Layers to Non-POV Characters

How are villains, subtext, character likability, and point-of-view (POV) all related? Thanks to my commenters in my previous post, I have a few ideas. *smile*

In my last post, we talked about how to fix an unlikable character. The questions and conversations in the comments brought up deeper issues that are all related on some level, so let’s dig deeper to discover more.

  • Kassandra Lamb pointed out that it’s often harder to make non-POV characters layered.
  • Glynis Jolly mentioned that she struggles to prevent flat villains.
  • Emerald O’Brien shared that sometimes readers like her characters even when she hadn’t been trying for likability.
  • Davonne Burns asked if I had any tips about how to work in successful subtext.

If we understand how those are related, we might be able to improve all our characters—hero and villain alike.

The Limitations of POV

Let’s first take a look at the effects of POV on reader impressions of our characters. As Kassandra said, it’s harder to make non-POV characters layered. Readers don’t benefit from being privy to their thoughts and emotions.

Of my 3 1/2 tips in the previous post, some can easily be used with non-POV characters, and some are harder. For each of those tips, let’s look at how they work for non-POV characters:

  • The 1/2 Tip: Tone Down the Character

Yes. Whether a character has POV scenes or not, we can always tone them down.

However, as discussed in the post, we sometimes have reasons for not wanting to tone down a character, even if they’re the hero. And if that’s the case, we can guess that we often might not want to tone down an antagonist.

  • Tip #1: Make Motivations Clear

Sort of. Obviously, with internal dialogue, we can do a lot more to make motivations clear for POV characters. With non-POV characters, we’re left with action, body language, and dialogue.

Action and body language usually just give hints. They can be misinterpreted or go unnoticed. The only way to be clear is to share motivations in dialogue (and that’s only if they’re telling the truth).

However, the cliché of having the Big Bad Guy monologue at the end of a movie—talking about their plan while the hero tries to escape—comes from the clumsy effect of non-POV characters attempting to share their motivations through dialogue, so there are pitfalls with that approach as well.

  • Tip #2: Give Them Internal Conflict

Sort of. As this tip is all about showing how a character is struggling, non-POV characters are at a disadvantage with this.

Like in Tip #1, we can hint at their conflict with action, body language, or yes, even dialogue. (Imagine a character who gets frustrated and bursts out with a statement about what’s really bothering them.)

However, on some level, even a big outburst might feel distant for a reader—like they’re being told about the conflict rather than experiencing the struggle for themselves. So this tip might not have the same affect on readers when it comes to non-POV characters.

  • Tip #3: Introduce Doubt in the Reader

Yes. As this tip is about using subtext to make readers question what they think they know about a character, we can add subtext to create doubt for non-POV characters too.

However, as I mentioned in the previous post, the use of subtext can be tricky. We don’t want to be too on-the-nose, but we also want to give enough of a hint for readers to get it.

So, while all of the tips can be used to some extent with non-POV characters, many of the tips will be reduced to subtext rather than direct information.

The Difficulties of Layering Antagonists

Unless our story’s antagonist is nature, like in a man vs. nature story, our antagonists will usually be another character (or characters). Even if the conflict is man vs. society or man vs. self, we probably want another character to focus the antagonistic force around.

For example, in a man vs. self story about a protagonist struggling with addiction, we need an antagonistic force to make the conflict come to a head. Why are they confronting their addiction problem now? We need an antagonistic boss threatening to fire the protagonist if they miss one more day of work, or we need an antagonistic child running away from home to get away from the protagonist’s drunken tirades.

We’ve probably all seen stories with the stereotypical mustache-twirling villain. They feel like cardboard cut-outs. They feel like puppets to the plot, simply there to give the protagonist something to fight against.

I struggle with layered villains myself—and probably fail more than I succeed—so by no means am I holding up myself as an expert. But the comments on my previous post made me realize one reason why we struggle with layered antagonists or villains: point of view.

Most of the tips I gave before for fixing an unlikable character will help create a nuanced reader impression despite the character’s flaws. That means the tips are potentially helpful even when we don’t care about likability at all.

There are a lot of similar issues between the ability to like a character despite their flaws and the ability to understand a character despite their flaws. And if readers understand why an antagonist wants what they want or why they’re fighting the protagonist (understanding doesn’t mean agreeing with their reasons), the antagonist will feel less flat.

However, in many stories, our antagonistic force is a non-POV character. So all of those problems I mentioned above about non-POV characters often apply to our antagonist, even though we might not be trying to make them likable.

Using Subtext to Improve Reader Impressions

Whether we want to make a character likable or more understandable, we still want to add nuances to readers’ impressions of them. So how can we add layers or understanding or likability to characters, even when they’re not a POV character?

As my rundown of the tips above point out, we’re often limited to subtext for non-POV characters. Yet on some level, everything related to likability comes down to subtext.

It’s not like our character is going to become likable simply because of direct information. “Hey, everyone, like me! I’m nice!” *smile*

Instead, we show our character being likable, doing likable things, or acting in likable (or at least relatable) ways. Readers choose to like a character because of what they see or feel.

This is why we can sometimes make characters likable without trying. Readers like what they see, or what they see is meaningful to them.

Subtext Comes from Meaning:

As I mentioned to Emerald about one of my secondary characters, who’s a beta reader and editor favorite:

“He stood up and called the hero on his bad behavior, so characters that push others to be better are often “likable,” even if they’re being “mean” by arguing.

I hadn’t consciously tried to make that secondary character likable, but I think the subtext of what his outburst meant for him, the hero, and the story/heroine all worked together to make readers cheer.”

The subtext of what a character’s actions, dialogue, or behavior means to the story, theme, or other characters can make the difference.

A Closer Look at Options for Subtext

A long time ago, I wrote about how the conflicts we create with antagonists can work together with the theme to add layers:

“As we’re developing stories, we can use the conflict(s) with the antagonist(s) to reveal aspects of the theme. Stories about trust can have antagonists who bring trust issues to the forefront. Stories about family can have conflicts that undermine or diminish families. Stories about loyalty can have antagonists who force protagonists to question their loyalties.”

The plot events we choose create subtext and add layers. And plot events work just as well for non-POV characters:

“The author has hundreds of options for a scene that will make the character likable, and each of those options will create a different impression in the reader.

If we have the hero literally save a cat, readers might find them likable, yes. But why? A scene like that could have the subtext that the hero likes cats, that he’ll save the damsel in distress later, or that the hero’s willing to do something uncomfortable (claws and fur on his Armani suit?). Or all of the above.

Those are all “good” qualities. But what if we’re writing a romance and want the reader to come away with the impression that the hero would make a good husband/future father? Saving a cat—no matter how noble of an act—might not cut it.

On the other hand, a plot point of the hero “saving” the neighbor kid’s football from his roof isn’t as dramatic as saving a life, but the impression it leaves with the reader might be closer to our goal. The subtext there could include that he’s patient with children, that he’s in touch with his childhood memories (not too psychologically broken), or that he’s not high-strung about his property, etc.”

Similarly, some character-specific ways of adding subtext will work with non-POV characters too:

  • Character Choices: Characters make choices in every scene. Every action provokes a chosen reaction. They’re faced with a dilemma and must decide how to respond. … Each decision creates subtext about the character’s values and the story’s themes.
  • Character Interactions: How characters treat each other says loads about the kind of people they are. What they choose to reveal or keep secret says even more…”

Those ideas are in addition to the ways we can add understanding in non-POV characters through the adjustments mentioned above to the tips from the last post, such as using dialogue, body language, and actions. All of these add together to create an impression of the characters in the reader’s mind.

So to work the subtext we want into a story, we have to constantly keep one eye on the reader’s impression. We want to ensure that…

  • the themes we’re evoking,
  • the plot events we’re using,
  • the choices a character is making,
  • the interactions a character is having, and
  • the actions/dialogue/body language of the character…

…all will create the impression we want in the reader.

It’s hard (if not impossible) to know how readers (who aren’t familiar with our story and characters the way we are) will interpret aspects of our story. Once again, we must rely on our beta readers and editors to help us strike the right cord. And sometimes, it might take more than a few adjustments. *smile*

Have you ever created a likable character without trying? What do you think made them likable to readers? Do you struggle with flat villains or non-POV characters? Do you have any additional tips for how to add layers to non-POV characters? Do you have any other insights for how to use subtext to help our villains or non-POV characters?

Join Jami in her upcoming workshop:
Get ready for NaNo by learning how to do just enough story development to write faster with “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.”

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36 Comments on "Character Likability and Subtext"

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Davonne Burns

Awesome tips! This gives me several ideas for how to more effectively tone down the antagonist in my current WIP. I really like the ‘save the cat’ analogy. Sometimes we do need something a bit more than a cat to save to get the point across to our readers. With my character Jasper it’s pretty easy to show he’s a good guy, he’s kind nearly to a fault. Lafayette has been a little trickier, but letting the reader see his internal conflict and insecurities seems to be working. The antagonist Roderick is the one I’ve been struggling with. Right now he’s very easy to hate and I worry that he seems too over the top and stereotypical cis white male racist homophobe. >_< But since he's not a POV character I'd been having a hard time showing his motivations.

That's why I'd asked about subtext. Most of his interactions with Lafayette (who is a POC) are harsh and blatantly racist so working on the character interactions should help. I'd rather the reader not instantly finger him as the big bad, but toning him down has proved a challenge.

Thanks so much for this!!!

Carradee
There’s also difficulty when you use “deep” PoV—if your narrator doesn’t notice things, how do you put them on the page? In A Fistful of Fire, there’s one side character who dies fairly early in the book, but she was obviously resentful of the narrator…and yet never did anything significant to hurt the narrator, even though she had full ability to do so. It isn’t until book 5, which jumps back in time 2 decades, that readers find out why the woman was so sour—and book 1’s narrator will probably never know that the woman was outright protecting her by making clear that she disliked her so. By book 5, that also isn’t a surprise. The series as a whole shows how stereotypical behavior is used to hide reality. But readers have to get through the “flat” aspects of book 1 to be able to get to the, “Hey, wait a minute…” parts. There’s a character who readers often like in book 2—he’s fun and considerate—who then in book 3 demonstrates that he has a huge gaping blind spot in how he interprets people and does something that’s downright cruel. The narrator observes enough hints that a reader might guess what’s driving the action (he’s had a horrific life and just wants something he longs for, for once—plus resents that his illegitimate half-sister has gotten so much more of a good life and what she wants than he has), but it isn’t directly on the page, so some readers have… Read more »
Carradee

A comment I made on the last post that Jami’s asked me to repost over here:

Does the character (even an unsympathetic villain) have a phobia? A skill that s/he’s good at, like painting? Either one or both could provide a vulnerability.

And in my experience, people who are overconfident are compensating, because they actually feel vulnerable. Everyone has a fear, even if it’s just that others won’t like them or that their plan will fail. What’s your character’s?

Karen McFarland

I love layering, symbolism and subtext. It just adds so much flavor to the story. I’m not sure if I have what you would call a typical “villain”, a real bad guy per se. But, I so like to bring out my antagonist’s personality through dialogue. Whether it is brought out by the POV character, or one of the other characters in the conversation. Dialogue shows attitude, which gives us a glimpse into the villain’s personality. Dialogue can also add subtext that will also give the villain dimension. It’s the internal dialogue that I struggle with. And apparently I am a fan of backstory. lol. Which Marcy is gingerly weaning me from. So that would be why it’s taking me so long to get a hang of this craft thing. Are we having fun yet? lol. Great post Jami! 🙂

E.G. Moore

This is a great post. For me, the best way I can use subplot and make non-pov characters more real is to know their stories as well as I know the one I’m writing. Knowing where they are coming from and their motivation for each thing I have them say or do helps me round out their personality. In the fantasy trilogy I’m writing now, I originally planned a two book series. But so many of my beta readers/critique partners wanted to know more about my villian. It’s like I’d written him so dynamic that they wanted to like him, but couldn’t. What did I do in response? I made the series a trilogy, starting with his story in the form of a tragedy. I think subplot/subtext is easier when you have a larger perspective in your mind as you write.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
This may not be entirely relevant, but I for some reason tend to feel more emotionally detached from first person narrators, unless there are other narrators as well. It could be because I don’t see the narrator character from an outsider’s perspective, so I find it harder to feel attached to them or like them. unsure emoticon Does that make any sense at all? LOL. It’s like how I find it hard to like myself that much, but find it a lot easier to like others, partly because I can see others but can’t see myself. But I find Serena a lot more likable if I imagine myself from someone else’s perspective… Interesting, eh? ^_^ Related to this, I’m reading a pokemon fanfic written in the first person, and I feel that the narrator lacks emotion. This is an irrational feeling of mine, since he does actually show a lot of emotion in crying, reacting angrily, being in love, etc. But I still feel some emotional blankness maybe because he’s the first person narrator. In one of my pokemon fanfics, it’s told in first person, but it’s multiple first person, so I can view all main characters from both the outside and inside. Regardless, the relative “invisibility” of the 1st person narrator makes it harder for me to see their emotions and personality, so I try to make sure they show personality and emotion somehow. E.g. in smiling, laughing, crying, frowning, shouting, expressing likes or dislikes, saying emotional or opinionated/… Read more »
Carradee

First person encourages sympathy (compassion w/o necessarily sharing the feelings). Empathy is more the realm of third person PoV.

That’s one of the reasons I tend to use first person more than third person, since my PoV characters are often traumatized, suicidal, etc.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Carradee:

Oh! I’ve never thought of it in that way. 😀 Sympathy for first person but empathy for third person. You mean sympathy for the first person narrator, rather than for the characters the narrator sees, right?

Yeah, I think I had more sympathy than empathy for Evonalé, lol.

Carradee

You mean sympathy for the first person narrator, rather than for the characters the narrator sees, right?

Yep. 🙂

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[…] a sibling’s betrayal as emotional backstory for your character, while Jami Gold discusses character likability and subtext. And when you are ready to have those well-rounded characters talk to one another, Jody Hedlund […]

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Jami, I just HAVE to tell you this. I have finally met my main villain in my story, and I think I am “in love.” Seriously he is the most evil but also most fascinating villain I have ever written. He is my favorite villain I’ve ever had!! You would shudder if you knew what terrible things he does and that I could have a “villain crush” on him, haha. But I adore him as a villain, not as a person, lol. I hate him as a person because he is just so unbelievably evil… What is even more cool, is that though he is 100% evil, i.e. a “black and white” villain with not an inch of goodness in him, he still manages to be a complex and super fascinating character. Some reasons why he manages to be complex: 1) He is not randomly evil. From his implied (not yet explicitly talked about) back story, we can easily guess why and how he came to be so purely evil. 2) He has clear motivations, burning desires, frustrations, etc. just like the rest of us and these make him more relatable. We also see glimpses of his internal monologue, which also help us connect with him as a person. So even if you hate him intensely and think he has really warped logic, you still kind of understand why he thinks the way he does. He’s understandable despite his insanity. 3) He has a strange relationship with his son, and… Read more »
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[…] Character Likability and Subtext This post shares tips for using subtext to add layers to our characters and create the reader impression we want, even when they don’t get point-of-view scenes. […]

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[…] Character Likability and Subtext The follow-up to the above post delves deeper into applying those tips on a subtextual level, which can also help create layered antagonists. […]

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