Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Unreliable Main Characters

In response to a post of mine about main characters, a writer asked me, "How do you make an unreliable main character reliable enough for the reader to trust ... without losing what makes the character who she is?"

Yes, very tricky stuff.

I was in an argument with someone a couple nights ago. Well, less of an argument and more of a freeze out. When I expressed that I was "not pleased," and shared my reasons for why, this person said, "You're right. And I regret that." And even thought I'd spent the last few hours internally fuming over the situation, I was over it within ten minutes. All it took was them agreeing with me and expressing the same sentiment I felt.

Try it with your character. Have your MC recognize their unreliable tendencies and dislike them just as much as the other characters. Maybe show them trying to change. That can go a long way with a reader.

I used to meet with a group of women every Wednesday morning. And every Wednesday my friend Amy was late. And during our study time, her cell phone often rang because she forgot to turn it off. With a person I didn't like, these things would've driven me crazy. But I loved Amy, so they became funny little pieces of her character.

So something else you can do is make your character extra lovable. So lovable your reader doesn't want to be mad at them for being unreliable.

Hope this helps.

Have a writing question? E-mail me.


  1. Another great point. I think it's sometimes a matter if our characters have genuinely bad character traits or if they have foibles and flaws. Foibles and flaws can be endearing, funny, and forgivable when one is working to overcome them. Bad traits are often what makes us dislike someone no matter how positive a light is shone on them.

  2. There is such a fine balance, isn't there? If you make your character too goody-two-shoes, the reader won't relate. Who do YOU know who's perfect? But if you create a character that is too naughty, a reader won't like her enough to keep reading.

    Ah, such a fine balance. =)

    I love the book "Creating Characters Kids Will Love" by Elaine Alphin.

    Great blog, by the way! Looking forward to reading more.

  3. Roseanna, I like your point about"foibles and flaws." Good distinction.

    Glad to have you, Brittney! It is, indeed, a fine balance. I haven't heard of the book you mentioned. I love finding new craft books!