Jeanne: Selling the Unsympathetic Heroine

One of the toughest sells–possibly the toughest sell–in the romance world is the unsympathetic heroine. By “unsympathetic” I don’t mean a heroine who lacks sympathy for the other characters–although she may. I’m referring to the literary definition of sympathetic: A sympathetic character is a fictional character in a story whom the writer expects the reader to identify with and care about, if not admire. (Wikipedia)

When I began work on The Demon Wore Stilettos, my upcoming novel about an author who sells her soul to Satan to make the New York Times bestseller list, I wanted to give her a possible way out, so I devised a clause in her deal with the devil that says if she performs an act of total altruism between the time she signs the contract and the day her soul falls due, she’s off the hook. (You will be unsurprised to learn that Hell has a very narrow definition of what constitutes altruism.)

This setup means the external plot arc is about Megan’s efforts to do something Hell deems perfectly selfless. Logically, this means her internal character arc is along learning to be less self-centered.

And therein lies the rub: a selfish heroine is, by definition, not a character the average reader is really going to identify with or care about. To make things even more challenging for the author trying to sell that heroine to the reading public, readers are far less forgiving with unlikeable heroines than they are with unsympathetic heroes. (I’ve had reviews complaining that people had trouble warming up to Dara in my first book, and that woman was a saint. I’ve had far fewer complaints about Belial, and he’s a literal demon.)

I tried writing a first draft of Stilettos where my heroine’s internal arc isn’t along learning to be less self-centered, but about learning to be more open and trusting, but it doesn’t work. The story feels out of synch with itself, like I’m trying to twist two strands of wire around one another that are bent on going their separate ways. And when I got to the end of the book, I couldn’t make the all the story arcs (external, internal and romance) end at the same point. It was very jarring and messy.

So now I’m about to start my revisions and I’m facing the ugly reality that I’m going to somehow need to get my reading audience to sympathize with a character who is so ambitious that she’s willing to sell her soul to the devil in exchange for fame and fortune. Fortunately, there are several techniques you can use to offset the unsympathetic protagonist’s unlikability:

  1. Surround her with characters who are even more unlikable. The first scene in the book features Megan and my recurring villainess, Lilith, so that should help.
  2. Per Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, have her do something exceptionally sympathy-inducing (i.e. saving a cat). I’m thinking this will be part of a larger pattern of something called “rooting interests.”
  3. Use the brilliant Donna MacMeans’ work on “rooting interests.” to load up my otherwise unlikable heroine with traits that are calculated to make readers root for her. A few years back, Donna did a lot of research and analysis into what bestselling and award-winning romance authors do in their first scenes to make readers root for their main characters. She divided her list up into three broad areas, listing traits that induce empathy, that make us recognize the character’s humanity or that generate admiration.

The “Empathy” list includes things like undeserved mistreatment, bad luck and abandonment. The “Humanistic” list includes helping the less fortunate, patting a dog and the dog likes it, and showing themselves to be dependable or loyal. The “Admiration” list contains things like power and charisma, having a sense of humor and being physical and athletic. If you’d like a downloadable PDF of the complete list, go here. (And while you’re there, take a look at Donna’s books. They’re excellent!)

What kinds of things make you root for a character when you first meet them?

10 thoughts on “Jeanne: Selling the Unsympathetic Heroine

  1. Playing a sympathy card or two or a hand of them can achieve some empathy too. If the selfishness stems from something – which it often does – self-doubt, loss, a messed up sense of success. Or showing one of her other weaknesses this can build in some empathy. These cards would get played like “save the cat” or “rooting interests”.

  2. The “Humanistic” list includes the things that get me to root for a character. I love the premise of this book! I can’t wait to read it.

      • First scenes have to do so much. Offer the story promise, set up the world, introduce the character(s), and make us care about the heroine/invest in her problem, without overloading on backstory or making the us remember things we don’t need to know yet. And do it in a compelling, pacy fashion, with an ending that makes us want to read on. Argh. This stuff is hard!

        Personally I like a heroine with a strong goal. I don’t mind if her external goal seems selfish, as long as it’s tempered with some more relatable or persuasive motivation.

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