Making a Bad Boy Lovable

Hello. Just popping my head up from the world of revisions.  The water isn’t as cold as I thought it would be, but still, I am ready to be done.

To recap, I’m revising my novel at the recommendation of an agent I greatly admire. When she suggested I  rework one of the main characters, as much as I didn’t want to do it, I knew she was right.

William Roper by Hans Holbein

The character in question is the husband of my protagonist Margaret Roper.  History has not been kind to Will Roper–he is a bit of a cad, a social climber and a hot-head.  Now, to be fair to poor Will, it would be hard for anyone to look good standing next to the saintly Sir Thomas More and his brilliant daughter, Margaret.

And truth be told, I probably went a little overboard in making Will a first-class jerk.  He is an important part of the story and the reader needs to care about him in some way.   The reader also needs to understand why someone with Margaret’s grace and intelligence would marry a man like Will– so stark in contrast from her father.

So I went back to some of the bad boys of historical fiction, namely Heathcliff from WUTHERING HEIGHTS, Erlend from KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER and Dimitri from THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV.  All of these fellows have some serious character flaws, but yet the good girls fall for them–and fall hard.

Heathcliff:  Why have readers over the centuries been fascinated by the love story of Heathcliff and Cathy?  He is at turns spiteful, psychotic and often evil incarnate.  And yet, there is something that makes the reader care about him.  Is it the abusive childhood? The fact that he is dark, brooding and handsome? Is it the intense and passionate love he has for Cathy?

Erlend: Well, Erlend is a looker.  He is a medieval swashbuckler if ever there was one.  Sigrid Undset’s beautiful prose doesn’t hide the fact that the innocent Kristin is swept into mortal sin by physical desire.  But Erlend’s lust for life and his inability to appreciate consequences turns Kristin’s life into one of almost constant torment.

Dimitri: I still haven’t finished THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, but I’ve gotten a good taste of Dimitri.  At turns passionate and sensitive he is also fickle and capable of great cruelty.  And yet, you can’t help but root for Dimitri and hope the best for him.

Besides giving me an excuse to reread three of the greatest books of all time, I learned some things about character development from the masters.  There is no formula to make character more appealing, but allowing the reader to learn a bit of history (whether an abusive childhood, overindulgent parents, or sudden loss of status) goes a long way to creating a more sympathetic character.

So I’ve gone back and filled in some of the missing pieces of Will’s life before he met Margaret.  I hope it makes some of his bad boy behavior more understandable and less capricious.  I’m starting to like him more, which I suppose is a good thing.

I’m still not quite finished, but I think I can see the shore (or is that an iceberg?)

PS–If you are working on a novel, or just looking for a good book to read, I would heartily recommend reading any of the books mentioned, but especially KRISTEN LAVRANSDATTER.  A great review of it is here.

About elizabethcarden

A wife, mom and writer of historical fiction (but sadly, not of thank you notes).
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