Recently I submitted a manuscript to my critique group. I loved my story and I loved the main character, and I was anxious to get their feedback.
Let’s just say they didn’t feel the love. After sinking into despair for a few days and then revisiting the manuscript I saw why. I’d submitted way too early a draft to them. My story needed work, work, work!
And so to work I went. It’s a much better story now, and I credit my critique group for that.
But one thing has niggled at me. Some commented that my main character isn’t always likeable. And so I changed her. I made her spunkier. Less introspective and more active. And I’m worried that I’ve changed her in a fundamental way that makes her less the girl I want to write to.
As readers we have to feel that a main character is worth our time. We have to root for him or her enough to want to read their story to the final page. An easy way to show a character’s worth is to make them likeable.
When I was a little girl, I devoured the Anne of Green Gables books. I loved Anne Shirley as if she were my best friend. But I was no Anne Shirley. I wasn’t spunky and effervescent and unself-conscious. I was shy and withdrawn and watchful. I was not a particularly likeable child, and so I didn’t see myself in many stories, except as a side character.
I’m not saying the quiet kids can’t learn a thing or two from all those fearless, charming heroines. Imagining ourselves into a different way of being is a powerful tool for change and growth.
But don’t we all deserve to be the main character once in a while? I’m not writing my stories for the feisty, fearless girls. I’m not writing to the popular girl or to the class president or the class athlete or the smartest girl in the room.
I’m writing to the quiet girl sitting midway down the side row. She has a couple of friends or maybe none. She walks quickly from class to class, head down, holding her books like a shield across her chest. She gets good enough grades to escape notice but not so good as to gain any. She’s not anything extraordinary to look at, and she doesn’t offer anything willingly in class. She’s no talkative, redhaired firebrand. When you look her way, you might not even see her.
But this quiet, unobtrusive girl is fighting battles on the inside. With nobody telling her otherwise, she’s starting to think she’s not worth the space she takes up. And so, without any fuss at all, she is giving up hope. She is falling through the cracks.
When I was fourteen years old, I would go to school and slink through my days, trying desperately to escape notice. Then I went home and tried desperately to escape notice. Mostly I managed to stay under the radar, but when I didn’t it was bad.
One night everything hurt enough that I took a whole bunch of pills and went to sleep hoping I wouldn’t wake up in the morning.
I did wake up. I went to school, and there I got very sick, so they sent me home. That was all. No one noticed. No one helped me. No one knew.
I hope and believe that today those kids have more resources than I did. I hope people are noticing the quietly desperate kids and giving them the help they deserve. And I hope those kids are learning to speak up, not be ashamed of their pain. But in 2013, suicide was the third leading cause of teen deaths. That’s thousands of kids. Even more try and fail. Kids are still falling through the cracks. Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.
I made it though, and I do believe I’m a stronger and more compassionate person for it. However, I’m still quiet and more inclined to think than to act. Am I likeable? Only to a few people, but I know I’m worth the world to those few.
So when I write my characters, I guess I’m just not thinking of likeability.
I’m thinking of quiet, desperate girls who are worth a story too.