1. Quixote's Biographer
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    Quixote's Biographer Member

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    How do you make the reader care about a depressing character?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Quixote's Biographer, Oct 23, 2015.

    So my new main character for my new novel idea is a bit of a depressing fella. He is lonely, makes bad decisions, is not funny, not chatty, he doesn't like himself (which is an understatement) and is out of shape. Oh, and he is addicted to porn which is a huge issue for him, a dark secret he can't get over and makes him prefer solitude.

    So, the challenge is, how in the world do I make people care about him? How do I make people root for him and hope that things will work out for him? If I go too deep into his issues, his bad thoughts about himself and his loneliness, there's the possibility that I'll just end up turning him into a sad human being that no one can care about, a man that makes people put the story down because it's too depressing. On the other hand, if I don't go deep enough into his emotions and issues, I could end up with a much too shallow character that people aren't able to connect with or care about.

    Just to make it easy on myself, the other character I'm planning is a young woman who's in an abusive relationship and can't get out... I see a large amount of rewrites in my future...

    Any help is appreciated. I haven't started working out the details of my characters yet (anything from hair color to childhood etc) and I don't really have a great way of doing so, so if you have a method that works, please let me know.
     
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  2. xanadu
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    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

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    Don't be afraid to go deep. Open his head up to the reader, because if you keep it closed, the reader can't care about him--there's nothing there to care about.

    As far as whether the reader can root for him, give the reader something to root for. The character has a story because he wants something, right? Well, what does he want, why does he want it, and how does he plan to get it? Why does he fail? What does he do to get back up and try again? It doesn't have to be clear-cut and obvious, it can (and likely should) be only partially understood by the character. But it needs to be there. If he has purpose and direction, even if it's a little murky at first, then he has a reason to exist. Once that's justified, the writing should take care of the rest.

    Not every character has to be lovable. But every character has to be well-developed.
     
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  3. Robert Musil
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    Robert Musil Contributing Member

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    I suppose the classic approach would be to gain the reader's sympathy by having a bunch of exogenous bad things happen to your character--his wife leaves him for no reason, he loses his job over a misunderstanding, etc. This type of stuff has classically been used to "explain" the depression of a sympathetic character, because most of the reading public doesn't understand how depression works and doesn't care to find out. This approach, in addition to being a bit condescending to people with actual depression, is dreadfully overused.

    Another way to do it is to play the depression for comedy value. I don't have quite as negative opinion about this way as about the first one I mentioned (Marvin the android in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, for instance, is a pretty great character). But if it's your MC who's so depressed, you probably can't reduce him to comic relief. Unless you make the whole work a comedy.

    Personally, I think as long as the depression isn't his only defining trait (even if it's a strong one), you should probably be fine. Just write him like you would any other character--the depression is only one aspect, let the story flesh him out a bit. I should say though, that I probably have more interest in and tolerance for such a character; my tastes have been known to run towards miserablism, and I have no problem reading about people in really dire straights. So take this advice with a grain of salt, I guess.
     
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  4. Kallisto
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    Kallisto Active Member

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    I too have a depressing character. (She was raped and dealing with the death of several family members.) I think she's likable. No one has ever told me otherwise. But creating this character was difficult. I couldn't have her laying in a fetal position. So here are a couple things I did:

    1. A strong external conflict that allows this character to showcase their good side. The main conflict in the story wasn't about her dealing with her personal issues. Yes, became apart of the story and her development as a character, but there was a strong enough external conflict that allowed this main character to do things other than just sit around feeling sorry for herself.

    2. She is typically a very nice person. People don't like people who are just rotten to other people. They are okay with flawed, good people. Having him be nice to other people, makes readers want things to turn out for him without having to dive deep into personal issues. Because you are right, spending too much time in the character's personal issues, just starts getting annoying.

    3. She has others she cares about, even if she doesn't care about herself.
     
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  5. Acanthophis
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    Acanthophis ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°) Contributor

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    Employ empathy. Don't state why they're depressed, show why they're depressed. Put the reader into their head; give us the ability to understand and process what is happening to them on a deep, personal, and introspective level. Read up on depression so you can better understand what it's like to live in that mindset.
     
  6. No-Name Slob
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    No-Name Slob Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I write dark things often, so this is something I deal with a lot. Despite my depressing characters, I realize that I have to give them redeeming qualities. Their backstory has to paint them in the light of a fallen hero, they have to be persevering/tenacious despite their obstacles, I need to portray them as the "every man" so people feel they can relate, etc. But something has to be redeemable or people aren't going to get behind them.

    Take Dexter as a good example. How do you get people to stand behind a serial killer as a hero? That's a challenge. In fact, even in him killing people more vile than himself takes the audience only so far. There had to be this glint of hope that he could overcome his urges, or his "dark passenger", and there was a lot scattered through it which kept the audience rooting for him, in spite of his very serious flaws. Every now and then, we had to see some attempt at empathy from him. I think without that, it wouldn't have been such a huge success.
     
  7. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    What are you planning to do with your depressing character in your book? In other words, if he's your main character, how is he going to change during the course of the story? IS he going to change? What is going to change him? I think once you know for sure where this story is heading, the way to shape your character so your reader gets on board for the journey will start to work itself out.

    And of course, ask yourself the core story question. What does this guy want? Want most of all in his life?

    The easiest way to make him likeable is to make him understandable. That means getting inside his head and letting us know why he does things. Why is he addicted to porn? Because he wants to be loved and in a healthy sexual relationship, but doesn't think he is attractive enough to get one, or has tried and failed at getting one? That makes his addiction understandable, and you're on your way to making him likeable.
     
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  8. DueNorth
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    DueNorth Active Member

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    People are depressed for a reason. In general (psychologically speaking, brain chemistry is a different, but related topic) depression is the imbalance of emotional replenishment and emotional depletion. Those who are addicted to anything, porn, food, shopping, posting on forums, attempt to use this behavior to "numb" the awful unhappiness and emptiness they feel. When they stop engaging in the behavior they do not feel replenished, but rather more depleted. So, my suggestion would not be to attempt to appeal to sympathy or even the reader's empathy. We all have real-life depressing figures in our lives and most of us find them off-putting, and although we may care for them we don't want to hang out with them (and we don't want to read books about them).

    For a reader to want to invest in reading about your depressed MC, we would need to, as readers care about him. How would you get a reader to do that? He must have endearing qualities, he has the the cure for cancer, poses the solution for world peace, in spite of his own miseries he is just such a hell of a guy that we root for him as the underdog to come from behind to win the race. We can't get caught up in his troubles, we have to care about him in spite of all his troubles and the amount of depletion in his life--we have to want him to win. His depression is but a character quirk that he overcomes--like a hero with a handicap! Make it part of him--Ironsides in the wheelchair, Dr. House with his addiction (and whatever caused his limp--I don't know--never watched the show). Your MC perseveres in spite of his handicap of depression, and we like him for that.
     
    Last edited: Oct 23, 2015
  9. hilal
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    hilal Active Member

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    You should have that printed on your screen or type writer.
     
  10. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    It just occurred to me...did I grab the wrong end of the stick here? Did you mean your character is depressed? You referred to him as depressING, which I took to mean that his unpleasant behaviour depresses other people. If that's not what you meant, and your character is actually depressED himself, then that requires more careful handling than what I initially suggested.
     
  11. Inks
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    Inks Contributing Member

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    Innocence is cute. I remember innocence.

    Sorry... not to be a jerk, but you might want to rethink that "dark secret" unless you are doing a religious book.
     
  12. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm going to disagree with you here. No one wants to see a depressed character, who doesn't have an external reason for being depressed, because it just means the character is weak. Right or wrong, most people are judged for their internal attributes, whether they are smart, stupid, kind,selfish, weak, or strong. Someone who mopes around and hates life, without having clear, unambiguous misfortune in his life, like losing his leg in a car accident, is not someone most readers are going to appreciate. He's not protagonist material.
     
  13. Quixote's Biographer
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    Quixote's Biographer Member

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    External conflict to showcase his good sides, or to show that deep down he is a good person, is great advice. Also, caring about others, unselfishly. As mentioned I'm thinking about adding a storyline for a Female MC who the male MC gets together with at some point. Your post made me think that maybe Male MC is the one who helps her out of her abusive relationship but then again, that might be too cliché. It certainly isn't very original :) But adding an external conflict is something I will definitely do.

    What kind of external conflicts are you thinking of though? Are they in the "save the world" category or more mundane category, like "pursue a career", "get married to be happy" category?

    Show, don't tell is absolutely the way to go but a shameful addiction is very much in a person's head. Therefore I think it's important to show what kind of thought processes the character goes through in certain situations. Should still be possible to do in 3rd person right?

    I've actually written two papers on "Dexter" where I showed how the character of Dexter is wildly inconsistent and unrealistic :D But I understand what you're saying. The thing about Dexter though is that the show used a traumatizing event in his childhood to place the blame on something other than Dexter, so that we wouldn't blame Dexter for his flaws. I can't really do that with my character I don't think.

    What kind of redeeming qualities do you give your characters? Do you have any 'rules' or guidelines to what redeeming qualities go with certain flaws? The bigger the flaw, the bigger the redeeming quality needs to be? :)

    Great advice, Jannert. I definitely need to define some goals, some motivation (unless I'm aiming for an avant garde type narrative :) ). My issue personally when making characters is that I always think that a characters goal needs to be something huge, like change the world or something, but for most people in real life that's not the case. So a goal could just be to be happy, be married, have a nice job that he enjoys. The thing I'm afraid of though is that mundane goals will become boring. Why would people read about a person who's only dream is to have a girlfriend or a enjoyable job?

    :seriously considers having my lowlife, lonely and depressed Male MC come up with the cure for cancer: :D

    I'm not sure what genre this novel will be (I don't like to put books into genres... it's so limiting!) but the depression and issues related to an addiction and how that can destroy a person's life is sort of the main focus. I don't want a 200 page novel that only talks about depressing feelings–I want it to be entertaining with entertaining everyday events and for my characters to end up in a much better place at the end–but the issues this character has will receive much more attention than 'MC saves the world and oh by the way he has some minor issues'.

    Yes, my MC is depressed although I don't claim to know enough about depression to write him as depressed. He is lonely, rarely talks to anyone except his colleagues at work, lives alone and withdraws from the world because of his addiction which he thinks makes him a very 'ugly person', someone that people don't want to be around. Sorry about the unclarity on my part.
     
  14. Quixote's Biographer
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    Quixote's Biographer Member

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    What do you mean?
     
  15. Robert Musil
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    Robert Musil Contributing Member

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    I don't see how we're disagreeing? My point was that most people -do- want some sort of explanation for depression. And your point about unexplained depression being considered "weak" is also true. I just personally dislike that depression is always characterized that way, because a) not every character trait needs a back story, and b) it just reaffirms the harmful stigma we all put on mental illnesses.

     
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  16. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    OOps, you're right.
     
  17. Inks
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    Inks Contributing Member

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    @Quixote's Biographer - Honestly, I do not want to explain. Ask others because my opinions are very unusual but I find that being the "dark secret" causing self-imposed isolation to be very suspect. That, and the fact that depression and stress kills the libido.
     
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  18. Aire
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    Aire Banned Sock-Puppet

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    As Inks said, stress and depression do "wonders" for the libido so what is he; depressed or having a "good time". In real life, he'd be hard pressed to be both and you may end up with a lack of interest. He's horribly depressed but he's still having a "good time"... yep.

    And why is he horribly depressed - because he's overweight and has a porn problem. Congrats you've made yourself a stereotypical geek. All he needs is to be playing World of Warcraft or something else 20 hrs. out of 24 a day, and there you go. I mean I was reading this and all that popped into my mind was fat computer geek who can't get woman - cliché. You'll loss interest because of that - particularly when he doesn't seem to be a likeable character.

    Ask yourself, why are your readers going to want to read about what seems to be nothing more than a stereotypical geek whom may or may not still be stuck under his mother's basement stairs?
     
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  19. Quixote's Biographer
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    Quixote's Biographer Member

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    'depressed or having a "Good time"?' I don't mean to be disrespectful but I don't think you know too much about porn addiction.

    I'm sorry, there's no 1 option here and the only stereotype I see is the guy who doesn't realize that people with porn addiction are not overweight geeks who can't get laid. That's a horrible stereotype and I do my best to stay away from those.

    Again, I don't think you know too much about porn addiction–like who are addicts and the consequences it can have on a persons life–so I have a hard time taking your comment seriously. Get rid of the stereotype you're using (and yes, you're the only one using a stereotype here, not me) and then we can talk. This kind of view on porn addiction is kind of why I think it's an interesting subject to explore, partly because of these stereotypes that I think is important to get rid off. So thanks for pointing out the need.

    Anyway, this thread isn't about your stereotypes. It's about how to write a good character even though he's depressed, so if it's ok let's stick to the topic.
     
  20. No-Name Slob
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    No-Name Slob Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Well, first of all, your character has a story. Whether you'd qualify it as "traumatic" like Dexter's doesn't really matter; he still has a story. And typically with depression (granted not always), there is some unhappiness in that backstory. Whether it be a single isolated event like seeing someone murdered, or simply abandonment issues due to an absentee father or mother, there is a lot to draw on there.

    I don't have "rules" regarding the ratio of terrible quality to redeeming personality trait, I just try to make it believable and relatable.

    Take your story for instance, many people can relate to addiction. Addiction is often linked with depression and other mental disorders like ADD, etc. If I were writing it, which I'm not, I'd probably give him an absentee father who never modeled appropriate relationships, etc. As far as redeeming personality traits, maybe despite his relationship issues and his depression, he's a man of integrity -- always doing the right thing, always there for a friend in need, etc. You could sprinkle in several scenes where he shows this integrity, but it just never seems to pay off for him.

    People can relate to that. In fact, they might have great empathy for him.
     
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  21. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think the point is, all of the attributes you listed:

    "He is lonely, makes bad decisions, is not funny, not chatty, he doesn't like himself (which is an understatement) and is out of shape. Oh, and he is addicted to porn which is a huge issue for him, a dark secret he can't get over and makes him prefer solitude."

    Are, to most readers, unambiguously negative. That means, with these traits alone, your character is SUPER unlikable. It will take a lot of work to make a character with just these traits likable.
     
  22. Quixote's Biographer
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    Quixote's Biographer Member

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    Exactly. That's why I am asking in this thread; 'how do you make a reader care about a depressing character'. That is the name of the thread. And having negative traits doesn't mean he has ONLY negative traits. No one made that claim.
     
  23. Quixote's Biographer
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    Quixote's Biographer Member

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    My character has a story, absolutely agree with you on that one. I just don't think he necessarily has a traumatic story. But I agree with you on having a story :)

    I like the whole integrity thing. I can see how a person with low self-esteem or who thinks he's a nobody wants to make people see him by doing the right thing, doing good things for other people. That last sentence got my brain churning. Thanks! :)
     
  24. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think if you want to write your character as described, without any traumatic backstory, you might consider not focusing too much on his depression, and rather on him trying to integrate into society. Still, without some specific trauma, you're in danger of having a Holden Claufield type character, who many, myself included, consider to be a spoiled brat.
     
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  25. Inks
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    Ideas are not special, a good writer can take anything and make it entertaining - if porn addiction is really something you find intriguing as concept to explore, go for it. If that is your interest point, do not make additional flaws to round out a character, just make that the driving point which ends up being isolating for its own purposes.

    There is a type of person who collects and meticulously analyzes, sorts, categorizes and rarely is aroused by such materials - they are not the type of people you see socializing normally and it is not even about the content. It is like collecting beany babies or gnomes... actually, I am more disturbed by some of the fringe collector habits like those TSers who sometimes get killed because of it. Also... to be sexually aroused by trains is something I am glad that I cannot understand.
     

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