Author Topic: Soften a negative character  (Read 9414 times)

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Offline mollymom103

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Soften a negative character
« on: November 20, 2006, 02:34 PM »
Hi folks: I'm looking for suggestions on how to soften a negative character and also your favorite negative, pessimistic characters in existing stories, so that I might take a look. I already know, Gilly Hopkins, Sammy Keyes and the novels SPEAK and MILLICENT MIN.   I appreciate any and all thoughts on this topic. 
Thanks, Molly.
« Last Edit: November 20, 2006, 02:42 PM by mollymom103 »
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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #1 on: November 20, 2006, 02:57 PM »
It seems to me the best way to soften a negative character would be to give him/her some kind of likable vulnerability that the readers can identify with, like taking in stray animals or giving them a humorous quirk. One of my favorite negative character is the Glass Cat from one of the Oz books (don't remember which one). She is exceptionally and irritatingly vain. She struts around commenting on her brains. "See my brains? They're pink. You can see them work."

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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #2 on: November 20, 2006, 02:58 PM »
I don't have a single example in mind, but "animals" immediately occurred to me, as in, how does this character act and interact with pets and/or wild creatures?

Offline kabarson

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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #3 on: November 20, 2006, 03:11 PM »
This is non-fiction, but I was at a workshop with Jim Giblin once where he spoke of how difficult it was to portray Hitler in a way that didn't white-wash who he was but gave him depth. Even the most vile, inhumane characters need some humanity to show their depth. He also wrote a book about John Wilkes Booth. He masterful at creating characters (or should I say recreating?)
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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #4 on: November 20, 2006, 03:17 PM »
Mollymom103, Is the character negative because s/he plays the "bad guy" or is this a primary character with whom you want readers to identify? FOr an example of both in one story, take a look at FRINDLE for how Andrew Clements created a very likeable villian of a teacher and made a know-it-all mc a likeable kid. In general, it helps me as a reader to find something in common with the unlikeable character to make him/her more likeable such as seeing a fear, the response to a crisis, basic politeness to others, that kind of thing, and then I start to grow more attached. dlan

Offline andracill

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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #5 on: November 20, 2006, 03:17 PM »
Another adult example is Peter from the Ender quartet (and the followup series, Ender's Shadow)...he starts out as pretty vile and self-centered, but of course, as he matures, he ends up being the ruler of the world (and a good one).

I think any time you can show motivations for actions you'll add some humanity to a character -- even someone like Hitler, for example -- he did so many horrible things, but his motives, if we could have known them, were probably very much like everyone else's, just so much more extreme and narrow-minded...?

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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #6 on: November 20, 2006, 03:18 PM »
One of my favorites, though it's been ten years since I've read this, is the main character from Remains of the Day--sorry, I know--not a kids' book.

The narrator is the butler character Anthony Hopkins played in the movie.  But the writing is oooooooh, so good--please give this book a read!  He's an unreliable narrator--telling the story, but not really telling things the way they truly are, and you, the reader, can read between the lines.  Like in the movie, you just want to shake him.  Yet something must keep us reading.  I suppose you admire aspects of his character (self-control, dignity or some such) and it's fascinating to watch how these things can also hurt a person or destroy their chances at happiness.  It's not quite the same as watching a train wreck.  Probably there's an element of pathos to it that makes (some of) us love this kind of character--I understand this is the case with Millicent Min.  

Once again, I haven't read the book for over ten years, so I don't really recall details.  I agree that having a surprising interest or hobby that goes against the character type would be a way to soften the character a bit.

Offline mollymom103

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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #7 on: November 20, 2006, 04:48 PM »
My negative character is a main character.  She is not a very likable soul, but I like her anyway.  She tends to react angrily with others and does not consider the consequences of her negative behavior. 

No, she's not very good with animals, mainly because of inexperience.  A lot of this character's journey is learning how to care about others, human or otherwise. 

BTW, I think I posted this thread under the wrong heading.  Please move if this is the case. Thanks.
« Last Edit: November 20, 2006, 04:49 PM by mollymom103 »
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Offline andracill

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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #8 on: November 20, 2006, 04:50 PM »
Have you read any of the ender books?  your mc sounds a little bit like Peter, who becomes a main character.  Anyway, from my perspective, it seems like OSC basically humanized Peter by showing us more of his insecurities and his fears...he showed us how Peter was human, even though he could also be cruel and selfish.  He pointed out how every good leder has to be selfish and goal-oriented...things that can also be obnoxious.

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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #9 on: November 20, 2006, 05:06 PM »
My negative character is a main character.  She is not a very likable soul, but I like her anyway.  She tends to react angrily with others and does not consider the consequences of her negative behavior. 

Your comment made me think of MANIAC MAGEE by Jerry Spinelli (1991 Newbery). There are a couple of major characters who are like your gal - they are angry guys who pick on others, bully and boss others around; one of them only talks to Maniac because Maniac's the only guy he couldn't strike out in baseball. Anyway, Maniac spends time in the home of that guy and the reader very quickly realizes why that character is the way he is, and for me, that made him more real and acceptable as a major character. As for the other guy, Mars Bar, well, he's one of my all-time fave characters now! Unforgettable, that guy.

Offline Betsy

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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #10 on: November 20, 2006, 05:33 PM »
You might try giving her a sense of humor and a sharp tongue.  If she skewers someone, maybe she could do it in a truthful, but funny way
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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #11 on: November 20, 2006, 06:14 PM »
You might take a look at Barbary by Vonda McIntyre.  The main character is a somewhat angry girl who makes a mess of relationships until she learns to trust.  She's not all that likable for the first half of the book, but you can understand why, too.

Offline Laurie

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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #12 on: November 20, 2006, 08:49 PM »
For YA, I highly recommend Ellen Wittlinger's HARD LOVE. The main character starts out as a jerk, but is a pretty amazing guy by the end.

Some funny MG characters, who might be considered negative: Sue Stauffacher's DONUTHEAD and Gail Gauthier's HAPPY KID. 

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Offline olmue

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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #13 on: November 21, 2006, 04:03 AM »
SEVERUS SNAPE.

SO unfair to poor Harry and his friends. But then you see him in Harry's occlumency lesson, sitting miserably on his bed, friendless, zapping flies with his wand while his parents fight, and later, you see fine, upstanding Gryffindors taunting him. Given his most recent actions, he's definitely a "negative character," although I can't help hoping that there's hope for him...

For a main character, there's always Mary in THE SECRET GARDEN. One of the few negative MCs I actually like. ARTEMIS FOWL is generally pretty popular, despite being a nasty kid, but I admit that even though he--very gradually--reforms a bit, I never really bonded with him.

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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #14 on: November 21, 2006, 04:24 AM »
For a main character, there's always Mary in THE SECRET GARDEN.

Definitely - you so love her eventually!  And - though not a children's book - (I read it every year in December, so it's on my mind right now) Dicken's A Christmas Carol - Ebeneezer Scrooge

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Offline Jen

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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #15 on: November 21, 2006, 04:39 AM »
I agree that Snape is a really good example.  It's amazing how adored he is within Harry Potter fandom. 

I've written two "negative" characters before, and been asked to soften both. For the sequel to my first novel, I wrote from the POV of a supporting character in the first book, who happens to be the high school's ruling bitca.  It was really important to me, when writing the second book, not to change the way she acts at all, but I ended up humanizing her through (a) vulnerability, (b) acknowledging the fact that her inner monologue wasn't all cattiness, all the time, (c) emphasizing the soft spots that she does have (particularly one of the younger characters), and (d) giving the reader a glimpse into how she came to be who she is now.  I also played up themes that I feel like a lot of people can relate to- like trying to be who you think you're supposed to be, rather than who you are, and growing up and out of relationships that used to mean a lot to you.

My second character wasn't what I would call negative per se, but she was a real smart mouth, and she's quick to make judgments about people.  A lot of her likeability factor comes from humor, and from the fact that she's hard to win over, but very loyal once someone has managed to win her over.  She's also aware of her own faults, and is as likely to make sarcastic comments about herself as anyone else.

I think some of the best examples of making a "negative" character positive come from television shows.  Julie Cooper was a huge villain in the first season of The OC- she was shallow, mean, tried to have her daughter committed, married for money, etc, but as the seasons went on, she became one of the characters on the show with the most depth.  She's certainly one of my favorite characters on the show.  Another fabulous example is the Addison Sheppard character on Grey's Anatomy- she was completely introduced as a villain-type, but in a single season, they turned her into one of the most endearing and relatable characters on the show.  They did this in several ways- showing her own heartbreak, showing her in her soft moments, showing that she had very real emotions and that she wasn't just some Machiavellian mastermind- and, most notably, through a really humorous scene in which something comically bad happens to her and she literally asks if she's suffered enough for her sins now.  Cordelia on Buffy is another great example.  And, since I mentioned Grey's Anatomy, Alex is another really jerky character who's still oddly compelling.

Another thing that I think can be key is having a really likeable character who likes and forms a bond with your character.  This helps the reader in two ways- first, it lets them see that a really nice person could see something good in your character, and it softens your character by showing that they can come to care about someone the reader likes.

And, olmue, I have MORE than hope for Snape.  I'm of the belief that his most recent actions were part of a master plan and that they were the ultimate sacrifice on his part, rather than some kind of sin.

Offline olmue

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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #16 on: November 21, 2006, 04:46 AM »
>And, olmue, I have MORE than hope for Snape.  I'm of the belief that his most recent actions were part of a master plan and that they were the ultimate sacrifice on his part, rather than some kind of sin.

I SO hope so! He's definitely one of the more interesting characters in modern children's literature. (Says this while listening to the HP# soundtrack...)

Offline Natalie

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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #17 on: November 21, 2006, 05:13 AM »
Ok, I know I've got Markus-Zusak-on-the-brain after hearing him speak last weekend, but take a look at Rosa Hubermann, Liesl's step mother in THE BOOK THIEF. I went from completely loathing her to "maybe she's not SO bad afterall..." I certainly didn't love her by the end, but realized that she had much more depth than I'd been giving her credit for.

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Offline olmue

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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #18 on: November 21, 2006, 06:57 AM »
Or how about the narrator of the Book Thief? Death is usually viewed as pretty negative. And that was precisely what took so long for Markus Zusak to get into the book--he said his original version of Death was much too grim. Then he gave him some fears (humans) and a little humor, and he became much more vulnerable and likeable.

And on the topic of Death as a character, we should include Terry Pratchett's Death as well. He's got a grim job but a rather unique sense of humor as well.

Offline mollymom103

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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #19 on: November 21, 2006, 10:39 AM »
Wow, so many great ideas here and absolutely great suggestions.  Thanks for your thoughts!!!!!
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Offline DanetteFromOrlando

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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #20 on: August 18, 2007, 06:35 PM »
yes, this is it!
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Offline ecb

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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #21 on: August 19, 2007, 09:27 AM »
Editor Cheryl Klein talks about this in her blog entry "Principles of Line Editing" (June 14, 2007, item h... if the link doesn't work).

Essentially, she says: "Unless there is a very good reason for it, the protagonist should have positive energy." (my emphasis)  I think she makes a good point here, and says it a lot better than I can. :)
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Offline hazelnut

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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #22 on: August 19, 2007, 10:12 AM »
C. S. Lewis had a couple of boys like that--Edmund in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. They started out by being self-absorbed and self-serving and wound up feeling remorseful for their previous snotty selves and ready to change.

I think one way to make the person endearing is for that often-negative trait to be used in a positive way. For example, if the person has a problem with incessant whining griping, give them something significant to fuss about and have that make a positive difference. If the character's main weakness is a sore temper, have them blow up over some issue that forces other people to change in a positive way (the squeaky tire gets the grease). [Obviously, you don't want this person to ALWAYS get rewarded for being annoying though.] The flip side of this is to have the person get into so much trouble for what they do, is that they (like Edmund and Eustace) become remorseful and change their ways.

Offline Nan

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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #23 on: August 19, 2007, 10:28 AM »
Hmmm...
Can your MC be jealous of someone else who has better control?
Can you add something in her history that would make the reader more sympathetic?
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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #24 on: August 20, 2007, 09:17 AM »
Give your character something to be good at -- something that makes us want to be like him in some way.
Or some character trait that people admire but has a really negative side to it as well.
Think Snape in Harry Potter. As awful as he always was, he (to me) is one of the most likable characters in MG/YA lit. (oops! Olmue already mentioned him.)
Okay .. think of Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven. (A stretch here, I know) But what a great character who still ends up killing everybody in the end. But we're strangely on his side.

Good luck! Have fun!
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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #25 on: August 21, 2007, 03:33 PM »
The negative character I really enjoyed was Bradley Chalkers in Louis Sachar's 'There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom.'  He is the sort of boy every girl wants to hate, but he is so sympathetically drawn that you begin to like him almost despite yourself: you see what his insecurities are and why he is the way that he is.  I also admire the way J. K. Rowling turned Neville Longbottom from a generally klutzy nerd into a proper hero, giving him a vital role in the last battle. He wasn't a negative character, but he was a comparatively weak one who became stronger. And I was glad that she finally gave Dudley a few saving graces too, making him a much  more believable character than he was initially.

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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #26 on: September 07, 2007, 03:40 PM »
Hi folks: I'm looking for suggestions on how to soften a negative character and also your favorite negative, pessimistic characters in existing stories, so that I might take a look. I already know, Gilly Hopkins, Sammy Keyes and the novels SPEAK and MILLICENT MIN.   I appreciate any and all thoughts on this topic. 
Thanks, Molly.

Make them funny.
What is the love in his life? When an evil person is capable of love--it makes them lovable in return. It is especially helpful if the "loved" doesn't particulary care for the "Lover."
Or have them "keep it real" somehow--like have them be against some injustice (animal cruelty) that makes you say "Awwww."

I think a study of "Al Swearengen" on HBO's Deadwood may be helpful. He's a bad guy--but there's something about him--he's had some sadness in his life that;s made him crusty...and he's in love with Trixie--a hooker in his brothel--and for some reason it's kind of sweet and sad that she won't love him back--and it makes Al all the more pathetic and lovable.

Offline Cat

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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #27 on: April 15, 2011, 03:38 PM »
 :nothing

Loved all the ideas here. Even if this thread hasn't been posted in for at least 120 days, I still got good information out of it.
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Offline JulieM

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Re: Soften a negative character
« Reply #28 on: April 15, 2011, 05:31 PM »
I am currently reading the award winning MG novel called Thunderwith, by Aussie author Libby Hathorn. Her "evil stepmother" character could have so easily become cliched. However, superb writing made this character realistic by softening her in the following ways:
- subtly showing why she is acting so cruelly towards the stepdaughter (which gains her a tad of sympathy from the reader)
- showing her vulnerability (the MC spies her in a very private moment, during which the stepmother thinks she is alone. Her face has softened and she is dancing as she thinks of some wonderful private memory or thought).

I haven't finished the book yet, so that's all I have so far. Best of luck! :  )
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