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The Fear of Breaking Things

Today is the first day of Fall term at my community college. While the faculty and students are dragging themselves zombie-like through the campus, groaning about how hard it is to come back to school, I'm celebrating. When everyone else comes back to work, I can finally put my feet up.

Summer is the craziest season for people who work behind the scenes in higher education. As soon as the graduating students finish posing for pictures in their caps and gowns and the faculty turn in their grades and head for the bars, the staff left behind lock the gates and say, "They're gone! Quick, finish all the projects!"

My department schedules the big projects over the summer for two reasons. The first is that when nobody's around, we don't have emails titled "HELP!!!" coming in every hour. But the second, and more important, is that when we build things, we break things.

Every time I develop an application or web feature, I break it a thousand times. I often break everything my project touches, too. I regularly crash the entire library website and/or catalog with some silly syntax error (in a test environment, of course). Even after a project has been tested backwards and forwards and declared error-free, the implementation of it is often disastrous. So we work over the summer, in the middle of the night, and over weekends, when we can burn everything to the ground and build it back up before anyone notices.

If you're afraid of breaking things, it's impossible to become a good programmer. The same can be said of writers.

The fear of breaking things will kill your stories in the womb.

When I took a drawing class last winter, my instructor said the students who are hardest to teach are the perfectionists. Every term, she has some students who are terrified of putting charcoal to paper, because they might mess up. They take a long time to draw a small part of the composition, like one eye of a portrait. The eye doesn't look quite right, so they immediately erase it and draw it again. And again. And again. They don't finish their assignments on time, get frustrated, and drop the class, saying drawing is "too hard" or they "just don't have the talent."

We all know aspiring novelists like those art students. I secretly call them "chapterists." They never write whole novels, only the first chapters of novels. They'll write one to three chapters and show them to friends or post them on critique sites. When the feedback is less than glowing, they'll instantly give up writing the book. Or they'll tweak that first chapter over and over, never moving on to the rest of the story.

We also all know people who don't even make it to the first chapter. They say they have a fabulous novel or screenplay in their heads that they've wanted to write for years. They'll talk about their stories with great excitement. But when you say, "That sounds awesome! You should write it! Like, now," they avert their eyes. They say, "Oh, well, maybe one day, when I have the time...."

Why do people do this? Ann Patchett explains it like this.

[A] book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.

And so I do. When I can't think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It's not that I want to kill it, but it's the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing—all the color, the light and movement—is gone. What I'm left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That's my book.

The invisible force that prevents many people from writing, and prevents the chapterists from becoming novelists, is the fear that these fabulous ideas in their heads, these glittering dream books and movies, will turn into sludge as soon as they're realized.

The fact is, nothing written down in any language can fully capture everything about the idea it's attempting to convey. People don't think in words. We think in pictures, sounds, and physical/emotional sensations. To transfer our ideas to others, we have to translate them into a linear string of written characters and hope that when people read them, they'll experience the same pictures, sounds, and sensations we do.

So writing always requires compromises. We have to pick and choose which aspects of our ideas to write down based on what can be conveyed in a clear, concise, and interesting way. The work will always be stressful and the final result will always be a little disappointing. Sometimes it will be very disappointing, if it turns out the story you imagined doesn't work well in written form.

The fear of disappointment is understandable, but it's also irrational. What's the worst that could happen if your finished story is less awesome than you'd hoped? You'll feel ashamed of your inadequacies? You'll have "wasted" a few months of evenings that you could've wasted zoning out to Keeping Up with the Kardashians instead?

Honestly, not trying at all is much more embarrassing than trying and failing. Would you rather tell your friends and family that yes, you did write that book, but it's terrible, or would you rather tell them you gave up because you were afraid of murdering your twinkling butterfly of an idea?

The fear of breaking things will prevent you from improving.

One small step up from the chapterists are the drafters. They complete messy first drafts of novels, then come up with dodgy excuses not to clean them up.

"The first draft is my true voice. Rewriting would suck all the spontaneity and personality out of it!"

"This one famous writer says you should never revise your work."

"I need to publish this now and start the next book, or I won't make any money. That's the reality of the business."

All of these can be translated to mean, "I'm insecure about my writing abilities, and I'm afraid if I touch this draft, I'll break it."

Have you seen this commercial for Luvs diapers?

The first half sums up how drafters feel about their baby novels.

Writing a book takes a lot of work, patience, and persistence. A writer can spend many months or years crafting her masterpiece. Because this masterpiece was so gosh-darned hard to finish, she'll be very proud and fiercely protective of it. She'll feel like it's a delicate miracle that will die a horrible death if anyone so much as pokes at it.

When Sweetie suggested that I rewrite a character in Bubbles Pop, I shed many tears and inhaled many Oreos. (Then I rewrote the dang character.) Whenever I critique the first novel of another writer, I put all of my comments in the nicest and most playful way possible, but the reaction is always hyper-defensive regardless.

"No, I'm not going to change even one word of this sentence. Every grammatical error in it is necessary."

"No, I can't cut out the boring prologue. It's impossible to convey the same information any other way."

"I don't see anything wrong with hopping heads five times in three sentences. That's my style. You're just not used to it."

To my shame, the first two I actually said to other people during the Bubbles Pop days. The third someone else said to me. He truly believed that readers should change the way they read to suit the way he writes, not the other way around.

Resistance to editing comes from many different fears: the fear of confronting your weaknesses, the fear of conceding control of your baby to other people, and the fear of committing to even more months of arduous work.

But I think the biggest is the fear of messing everything up. The first step of rewriting is deleting. Pressing the delete key can feel like removing a block from a Jenga tower—you expect the whole thing to come crashing down at any second. It won't, though. A story is an abstract thing. You can rip as many holes into it as you want and patch them up at your leisure; the other pieces aren't going anywhere.

The fear of messing up also causes many writers to avoid trying anything new. They refuse to read widely (or even narrowly), because they're afraid other authors would "influence" their own fragile voices. They refuse to try writing in different styles or genres or forms, because they're convinced they'd be horrible at it without even trying. They vehemently refuse to try self-publishing, or they vehemently refuse to try traditional publishing, for reasons that are a lot more emotional than logical. So their careers and their skills stall as they write the same stories over and over, too afraid to leave their familiar bubbles.

How do you get over this fear?

Many bloggers have addressed this topic before me, but usually their conclusion is, "You have get over it. The only way to finish a book is to sit down and start writing." Which is perfectly true, but also about as useful as Bob Newhart's advice in this MADtv sketch.

If conquering the fears holding you back were as simple as "get over it" (or "STOP IT"), nobody would stay in an awful job or a rotting relationship. Everyone would follow their dreams and we'd live in a happy Disney universe filled with music and rainbows.

Since it's not that simple, here are some tricks to help you (and me!) "sit down and start writing."

Remind yourself it's just a draft.

A lot of people fear starting a novel because they feel immense pressure to write, as Anne Pachett put it, "the greatest novel in the history of literature." Worse, they feel like they're expected to write this work of staggering genius on the very first pass.

I blame two sets of people. First, I blame the K-12 and college teachers who evaluate students through in-class essays and written exams, conditioning us to believe a first draft is a final product that represents a writer's innate talents. Second, I blame the writers out there who preach that editing is artistic sacrilege, and that the rambling nonsense that flows from their fingers onto the blank page should be published as-is.

The first draft of a story is just that: a draft. Definition: "a preliminary sketch, outline, or version." Synonyms: "plan, scheme, design." It is a rough mock-up of your final product, not the final product itself.

When I took that drawing class, I was scared of making the first mark, too. The big paper cost some $2 a sheet and my art skills were a little below the level of a sixth grader's. Then my instructor introduced us to the miracle of scrap paper. Instead of starting on the big paper right away, she told us to first draw the compositions in sketch books, or on the backs of class notes and printouts. When I knew it was just a draft on cheap paper, and nobody was going to see it but me, it was much easier to draw uninhibited. I'd practice that way until I felt comfortable enough to start on the final drawing.

So if the blank Word document terrifies you, remember that you're just scribbling on scratch paper. If you write something truly awful, you can simply throw it away. Nobody will ever know.

Reward yourself for writing. Don't punish yourself for not writing.

A piece of advice I see a lot is to "hold yourself accountable" by publicly recording your progress on a blog or forum, or by telling everyone you know that you're working on a book. Then you'll feel pressured to deliver, and you'll force yourself to sit down and write.

My advice is the opposite: don't say a word.

Don't tweet your daily word counts. Don't join groups of writers who judge each other based on how quickly they can churn out pages. Don't talk about your project to any well-meaning acquaintances who will "help keep you on track" by demanding regular reports.

Putting yourself under social pressure like this doesn't address your underlying fear of writing. It only buries that fear under even stronger fears: the fear of looking like a lazy good-for-nothing, the fear of disappointing your friends and family, and the fear that your life-long dream will vanish into dust because you veered briefly off schedule.

Forcing people to do things out of fear never ends well. Instead of threatening yourself with public shame when you don't write, why don't you motivate yourself with rewards when you do write?

My personal rewards system is very cheap and simple. I have a whiteboard above my desk where I write the chapters of my WIP with red Xs next to them. When I finish a chapter, I erase the red X and replace it with a green check mark. I get a thrill every time I look up and see those green check marks. When I finish the book, I get to replace that last red X and see a whole column of green!

Kagemusha Inventory

If green check marks don't excite you (though I don't understand why they wouldn't), you could come up with other ways to reward yourself when you make progress. For example, pick something expensive that you want but don't strictly need, like a new computer or a fun vacation. Every time you finish a chapter, squirrel away a fraction of the cost. Do it even if you're not 100% happy with the chapter. Then if you get discouraged and start dragging your feet, remind yourself that even if you write a sucky book, you still get to go to Hawaii. You can turn it into a less sucky book when you get back.

Break up the huge task of writing a novel into smaller chunks.

Once I read a blog post from an author who said the idea of writing a whole novel was terrifying, but she could trick herself into starting one by committing to only "the first 100 pages." She would tell herself she's not actually writing the book, she's just writing a rough 100 pages for her agent before she starts the real thing. Those 100 pages always turned out to be the real thing, and she'd be halfway done by the time she officially "started."

Like most people, I procrastinate if a chore or project seems too big and daunting. Writing a book seems like A Big Deal. Writing a trilogy or series is An Even Bigger Deal. But if you break it down into smaller tasks than "write a whole dang trilogy," it becomes much more manageable.

Here's my general plan for writing my next three books, which are more like three acts of one book.

  1. Find popular books in the genre. Read them and take notes.
  2. Write very rough outlines of the three books (settings, characters, major plot points, beginning/middle/end arcs).
  3. Write a detailed outline of book one.
  4. Write the first draft of book one. Revise along the way as needed.
  5. Let book one rest, then show to critique partners. Revise based on feedback.
  6. Repeat with books two and three.
  7. Let all the books rest, then revise and polish them as a whole.

Within the "writing" bullet points I'll break it down even further. One day I'll focus on finishing one scene, the next another, until I can change one red X to a check mark. As long as I focus on one check mark at a time, I won't freak out so much about the enormity of the whole.

Fun with Research

While outlining my YA fantasy trilogy, I've been reading every historical novel in an East Asian setting that I can get my hands on. After I finish each one, I take notes on the Dos and Dont's I've learned from the reading experience. Some books teach me a lot of Dos, like the Moribito series, which was tragically dropped by Scholastic after the translation of book two (there are twelve in Japanese, but I can't read Japanese).

  • Do give rich, realistic detail about the experience of high-action events.
  • Do provide an interesting mythology and national history for the fictional world.
  • Do make sympathetic enemies who aren't necessarily evil, just short-sighted or wrapped up in their own affairs.

Other novels teach me a lot of Don'ts, like a certain title that shall not be named.

  • Don't give every single city and building "the stench of human waste." Switch up the descriptive language, or better yet, create distinctive settings in the first place.
  • Don't give a hero cool magical abilities if he's not going to use them. Super-powered ninjas are not awesome if they spend all their time mooning over pale-faced damsels and sighing over the inevitability of death. They need to do super-powered ninja things.
  • Don't place your big romantic love scene a few feet away from a freshly murdered corpse, with the star-crossed couple soaked in blood.

It's mystifying that anyone would consider that last bullet point a good idea, but somehow at least one author, literary agent, editor, and publishing house did.

For the fight scenes, I've also been watching fantasy/action movies like Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame and Woochi. Now Netflix thinks I'm a kung fu enthusiast and keeps showing me suggestions with "Shaolin" in the title.

Then there's my historical and cultural research, which consists of reading translated versions of very old books (Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, Romance of the Three Kingdoms) and watching documentaries like The Search for General Tso. I spend about an hour each day learning basic Mandarin. This hour mainly consists of shouting at my computer, "These flowers are small!" and, "This man is not a doctor!"

In addition to teaching me such useful phrases, the language program has shown me some interesting tidbits about Chinese culture.

1. Chinese librarians love to hold up books and announce what color they are.

People with colored books

2. Chinese doctors wear lab coats and stethoscopes everywhere they go.

Doctor in park

3. People in China buy a lot of hats and frequently ask their neighbors how many plates they have.

People buying hats
Number of plates

But the most fun is the food.

Every week I go to Uwajimaya, a popular Asian grocery chain in Washington and Oregon. They have a business to run, so they tend to cater to Americans who think Pocky is exotic cuisine, but they also carry imported Chinese, Japanese, and Korean foods for reasonable prices. Each trip I buy one thing I've never eaten before. Two weeks ago I tried some lychees, which look like spiky red kumquats and taste like cantaloupe-flavored grapes. Last week I purchased some frozen buns filled with taro paste, which tastes like sweet potatoes mashed with peanut butter.

And on Saturday I played with this, my new silicone mooncake mold.

Mooncake Mold

Originally I was going to buy this other mold, which is popular with soapmakers.

Anne Princess Mooncake Mold

But there was a slight problem with this well in the bottom right.

Anne Princess Mooncake Mold Close Up

I've flipped the image so you can see what it would say on the finished cake: 安妮公主. The characters on the right, 安 and 妮, are read "an" and "ni", Annie or Anne, and the characters on the left, 公主 mean "princess." Together, "Anne Princess."

Now when the Amazon seller claimed the characters meant Princess Anne, Sweetie and I didn't believe them. We thought maybe they just stuck the characters into Google Translate and copy/pasted whatever nonsense popped out, because why on earth would you want Princess Anne stamped on a mooncake? You'd put something like "good fortune" or "longevity," not "Anne Princess"...

...unless you're the Anne Princess Ice Cream company, of course!

Anne Princess Ice Cream Company Banner

Anne Princess Ice Cream Mooncakes

Don't those delectable treats look familiar? Thanks to the miracle of the Information Age, Sweetie and I figured out that these are the molds Anne Princess restaurants use to make ice cream mooncakes. They also sell some scrumptious-looking steaks and pizzas.

And if you're in a whimsical mood, you can chow down on one of your favorite celebrities, like Osama Bin Laden, Bruce Lee, President Obama, or Muammar Gaddafi.

Anne Princess Celebrity Ice Creams

Unfortunately, the Saddam Hussein ice cream wasn't pictured on the website. We were very disappointed.

Anyway, I don't know if someone's selling surplus restaurant supplies, or if they sell these molds in Chinese stores the way we sell Hostess Twinkie makers at Fred Meyer. Either way, those soapmakers are essentially selling organic rose-scented lotion bars with a Dairy Queen logo on top.

So I went with this mold from the same seller, which has only patterns, not words. I used it for the first time Saturday afternoon to make 綠豆糕, mung bean cakes.

Mung bean cakes
Mung bean cakes with bite

The flavor of the mung bean cakes was surprising. They're earthy and very rich, almost buttery. But like red bean paste and kimchi, the taste grew on me after the initial shock.

Sweetie, however, is not a fan. For him I used the mold to make some comfortably American cheesecakes in fun colors.

Mooncake cheesecakes

Mooncake cheesecakes 2

Bubbles were a problem for the wells with intricate patterns. If I make them again, I'll have to find a no-bake recipe.

What Makes People Like Hateful Characters?

A couple of months ago I watched Perfect Couple, a Chinese historical screwball kung fu soap opera. One minute the hero and heroine were doing slapstick comedy. The next minute assassins were attacking and everyone was flying through the air on wires. Then hearts were breaking, main characters were dying, and people were sobbing in the rain. Then everyone went on a picnic.

In other words, it was amazing.

I noticed, while skimming the comments on DramaFever, that many people didn't like the hero. As is often the case in East Asian dramas, the writers gave the hero many flaws in the beginning to leave room for growth later. He started out conceited, petty, and pampered. The writers played up his over-the-top arrogance for laughs, then slowly made him grow up and become more serious and sensitive.

The hero's immaturity didn't bother me, since it was obviously deliberate and I've seen the same pattern in many Korean/Chinese/Taiwanese shows. But other Western viewers were very annoyed. Many comments followed the vein of, "It's been ten episodes already and Jin Yuan Bao is still such a jerk! I want Qi Ling to end up with Liu Wen Zhao instead. He's so nice to her, unlike Yuan Bao!"

Let me tell you about this Liu Wen Zhao, the hero's cousin. He secretly works for the evil Second Prince, who plots to steal the throne from his elder brother. Wen Zhao attempts to kill the hero and heroine multiple times. He organizes a human trafficking operation that kidnaps young girls and sells them to brothels. He murders innocent bystanders left and right and literally stabs his allies in the back.

But because Wen Zhao is very good at pretending to be sweet and humble, many viewers love him. They say, "Oh, he's not really evil. He's just blinded by his hatred for Yuan Bao, and can you blame him? Yuan Bao is so mean to him!" They're willing to overlook little things like strangling the maids because he suffers Yuan Bao's verbal barbs in silence and gazes at the heroine with the eyes of a lovelorn puppy.

On the other hand, you have Yuan Bao rescuing the kidnapped girls, helping poor villages by forgiving their tax debts, and saving the heroine from execution for murders Wen Zhao committed. But because he speaks sharply and sometimes bosses the heroine around, viewers don't like him.

People often judge others by their words and interpersonal behavior, not by their actions. They identify with characters who are likeable on the surface, even if they're rotten to the core.

Here are some examples from Western fiction.

Silence of the Lambs: Hannibal Lecter is a sadistic psychopath. He gets off on seeing others in physical and mental anguish, and he doesn't feel a soupçon of guilt for literally eating them alive. But audiences root for him because he seems to treat Clarice Starling as an equal, unlike the macho guys she works with, and he seems to be the victim of bullies like the odious Dr. Chilton and the bumbling police.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Lisbeth Salander is a horrible, horrible person. She tortures, manipulates, and steals without compunction. But she seems like a vulnerable little girl ruined by The System, so people call her "a strong female character."

Gone Girl: Amy is a demented woman who hatches a malicious plot to frame her husband for murder; who stabs her old boyfriend after having sex with him and lies that she was raped; and who even drinks antifreeze, throws it up, and keeps the vomit as "proof" that her husband tried to poison her. But because she acts gumdrop sweet, she fools not only the characters in the book, but the audience as well. Readers and movie-goers proudly announce they're on "Team Amy," and journalists write disturbing headlines like, "Gone Girl Offers Feminism a New Hero."

I don't believe people root for these characters because they have poor morals. Everyone knows lying and stealing and murdering are bad things to do. But people identify with certain aspects of these characters, so they relax their moral codes temporarily out of sympathy.

Examining characters like these can tell you a lot about what really makes a character "likeable" in fiction, whether they're heroes, antiheroes, or villains.

They're victims.

People feel sorry for victims and underdogs, even if they're not really victims or underdogs. Hannibal Lecter seems like a victim because we see him trapped in dark, tiny cells and belittled by his keepers. Lisbeth Salander seems like a victim because we see her raped by her parole officer and persecuted by a corrupt government. Amy seems like a victim because we see her husband badmouthing her and sleeping around.

A quick and easy way to get the audience on a character's side from page one is portray him/her as a victim of bullies or circumstances. Cozy mysteries often start with the heroine fleeing to a new town after discovering that her fiance cheated on her with a pretty young seductress. Romances and children's/YA books often start with the protagonist trapped in the house of a domineering, unappreciative family. Books that feature male protagonists often start with the hero recovering from the death of his wife or enduring a life of poverty and abuse he longs to escape.

They hurt people the audience doesn't like or care about.

Hannibal's and Lisbeth's and Amy's victims are all unlikeable or downright terrible people, so readers aren't too bothered when they're killed. Liu Wen Zhao's victims are mostly bit characters who appear for one or two scenes only, so viewers don't care much about them.

If a hero is awful to a bully, audiences root for him. But if a hero or heroine is awful to someone likeable, audiences immediately dislike them. Jin Yuan Bao, the aristocratic hero of Perfect Couple, entered the viewers' bad books the moment he said unkind words to the cheerful peasant heroine, Qi Ling.

And once audiences form their alliances with characters, it's very difficult to break them. Many want to keep liking whom they liked at the beginning and hating whom they hated at the beginning, regardless of what the characters do later. They get upset when their favorite villain does villainous things and they can't sympathize with him anymore. They say, "I really liked Wen Zhao until he strangled that maid! He and Qi Ling would've been perfect together! I wish the writers hadn't ruined him!"

They're likeable on the surface.

I once watched a documentary about Al Capone. People who'd met him said he was the nicest guy around. He acted kind, generous, and neighborly. He was stylish and vivacious with a quick sense of humor. Because of this, he was very popular with the public and the press throughout the Prohibition era, despite the fact that he was responsible for brutal acts of violence—assassinating rival mobsters, intimidating voters to put "the right people" in power, and gunning down anyone who got in his way.

Like Al Capone, each of the villains/antiheroes above appear likeable on the surface. Hannibal Lecter is intelligent and refined. Lisbeth appears meek and quiet. And Amy, the master manipulator, is brilliant at acting the part of the chipper and naive young housewife. Compared to the misogynists, rapists, and philanderers around them, these characters practically wear halos on their heads.

Audiences identify with characters who are sympathetic, cool, or fun, even if they do terrible things. They don't identify with characters who are irritating, even if they do nothing wrong.

The whiny Holden Caulfield and vapid Bella Swan top the lists of "Most Annoying Book Characters." People dislike the meddling Emma Woodhouse for being a snobbish busybody, though she has kind intentions. They roll their eyes at the melodramatic Marianne Dashwood, though she doesn't do anything worse than cry herself sick over a fickle boyfriend. And they hate the mopy Tess Durbeyfield, not because she murders a man at the end, but because she's infuriatingly spineless and passive for five hundred pages before that.

All of this is totally natural.

Readers who like charismatic villains and dislike annoying heroes aren't shallow or immoral. They're just human.

Imagine you have two coworkers. One is an outstanding employee, but she's authoritative and demanding. She criticizes every imperfection in your work and often "helps" by taking total control of your projects.

The other is lazy and irresponsible, but she's sweet as apple pie. She forgets half of her promises and never finishes her work on time, but she bakes cupcakes for every birthday and gives compliments freely.

Whom would you rather work with? Probably not the bossy one, even if she's objectively the better choice for your career. She might improve the quality of your work, but she'd also annoy you to no end. Most people would prefer the useless one, even if she makes life harder for everyone around her.

In essence, when people choose their friends, lovers, and leaders, they base their choices on how pleasant and charismatic he/she is, not so much on the quality of his/her character or skills. Audiences evaluate fictional characters the same way.

So how can we create complex protagonists with many flaws, like Jin Yuan Bao, without ticking readers off?

Put your character's best foot forward.

Here's my favorite word order test again, which I first included in my 2012 post "The Permanence of Snap Judgements."

Read this list of adjectives and decide whether you like the woman described.

  • Vain
  • Intelligent
  • Beautiful
  • Hardworking
  • Shy

Now read this one and do the same.

  • Shy
  • Hardworking
  • Beautiful
  • Intelligent
  • Vain

Most likely, you didn't like the first person, but you did the second. You imagined the first as a cold fish, but the second as an underdog. They're the exact same characteristics, but order is everything.

If you introduce your protagonist as likeable on page one, you're more likely to get away with slipping in the unlikeable traits later. But if you try to be artsy and show the protagonist at his/her worst on page one, readers will probably put the book down without buying. Establish your characters as heroes first, then delve into their complexities.

Make your villains really villainous.

You don't have to make saintly protagonists if your antagonists are Satan's spawn. As evidenced by Lisbeth Salander, audiences will cheer for even the most dubious of "heroes" if the enemies they're abusing are the scum of the earth.

Take some cues from Dexter, The Godfather, and other stories that make us feel sorry for murderous psychopaths. We feel sorry for them only because the "bad guys" are much more despicable than they are.

Even if your protagonist isn't a murderous psychopath, to be on his or her side the audience needs to see that the other side is much worse. Is your heroine vain and acid-tongued? Make her rivals insufferably selfish and sly, her work superiors arrogant and petty, and the Big Bad Guy inhumane. MaryJanice Davidson's comedic Undead series provides a good example of how to pull off a mean, prickly heroine by making the other characters truly awful.

Make up for "bad" characters with good writing.

If you really, really can't shape your character into someone the audience will like, your only remaining recourse is to make up for their shortcomings with language.

People tolerate aggravating protagonists in classic books like Vanity Fair, Wuthering Heights, and The Picture of Dorian Gray because the narrative voices are lively and seductive enough to make up for the annoyance of watching flawed characters make dumb, destructive choices. Like a sprinkling of sugar on grapefruit, excellent writing can sweeten the reading experience just enough to redeem a bitter story.

Of course this is the most dangerous of options, because you're probably not equal to Oscar Wilde. If you think you're equal to Oscar Wilde, you're definitely not equal to Oscar Wilde.

So until a significant number of strangers compare you to Oscar Wilde, I suggest writing likeable protagonists. You can show the dark complexities of humanity through villains and side characters.

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