The Character Cringe Factor (Or, Why Won’t They Just…)

It’s the second Tuesday of May, which means my newsletter is out! You can read it here or subscribe to ensure you never miss one. I often include subscriber-exclusive giveaways.

This week I’ve been musing on frustrating characters. It started because my teen reader was venting to me about her most recent re-read–and the fact it’s a re-read is very important. She loves this book series, and she’s re-read it multiple times, but it aggravates her every time because she wants the main character to make a different choice. The problem is, if that character made a different choice too early in the story, it would be over. It’s a delicate balance, frustrating the reader just enough to keep them hooked. If characters made the right decisions 100 percent of the time, there wouldn’t be any conflict.

It’s exactly how I feel when I read the Shopaholic series by Sophia Kinsella. Whenever I pick up one of those books, I cringe through about 200 pages, wondering how Becky’s going to redeem herself. Yet somehow, she does it EVERY TIME.

If you aren’t familiar with the series, the setup is that Rebecca Bloomwood is a financial journalist who writes articles about how to wisely manage money. Unfortunately, Becky has a serious shopping addiction, which means she takes none of her own advice. On top of that, the addiction leads to a spiral of lies and relationship issues. She is one of the most cringe-worthy characters I’ve ever read, but even as I wonder how she’s going to fix things, somehow by the end I’m satisfied and cheering her on to the next adventure.

As a reader, I’m often right there with my daughter in the middle of a book. I’m ready to reach in, shake a character, and talk some sense into them. But as a writer, if it’s done well, I’m ready to congratulate the author. That requires two main things.

  1. I have to believe the character’s reasons for making the decisions, no matter how frustrating they are. In Becky’s case, she’s dealing with an actual addiction, and as a result, she digs herself into a deeper and deeper hole each time. While her justifications don’t work for me, I do believe that they make sense to her.
  2. I must be satisfied with the character’s resolution. If the character hasn’t significantly changed or worked toward correcting their mistakes, leaving me frustrated, then I won’t feel like the author delivered on the promise of the character arc.

How do you know if it works? Well, readers will tell you that. Obviously that book series my daughter’s venting about works, as she continually restarts at the beginning. Just like me with Becky Bloomwood, my daughter can’t believe how wrong that character gets it at the beginning, but she keeps coming back to the story to watch the character redeem herself. These authors succeeded in writing characters who feel real–and in real life, we mess up a lot before we get things right.

That’s the mark of a masterful character and a successful character arc. I go along with Becky Bloomwood’s adventures over and over again because I trust that in the end she’ll figure things out–not because I expect her to make all of the right decisions along the way. Characters who make mistakes but correct them in the end are the ones who stick with readers for the long haul.

Do you have any characters to share who fit this profile? Or, on the other end, frustrated you but didn’t quite reach the redemption point?

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