First, some quotes from storytelling gurus who are not writing specifically about children’s stories but about stories in general. Here we have Lena Dunham, who has no doubt noticed that female characters, like female people, are held to a higher standard when it comes to niceness:
“I sort of object to the notion that characters have to be likable. I don’t like most of my friends, I love them. And that’s the same way I feel about most of the characters I write. So often, women are sort of relegated to sassy best friend or ingenue or evil job-stealing biatch, and it’s really nice to work somewhere in the middle.”
from Lena Dunham talking about Girls, quoted here.
Here’s John Yorke, from his book Into The Woods.
If it’s difficult to identify a protagonist then maybe the story is about more than one person (say East Enders of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts) but it will always be (at least when it’s working) the person the audience care about most.
But already we encounter difficulties. ‘Care’ is often translated as ‘like’, which is why so many writers are given the note (often by non-writing executives) ‘Can you make them nice?’ Frank Cottrell Boyce, a graduate of Brookside and one of Britain’s most successful screenwriters, puts it more forcibly than most: ‘Sympathy is like crack cocaine to industry execs. I’ve had at least one wonderful screenplay of mine maimed by a sympathy-skank. Yes, of course the audience has to relate to your characters, but they don’t need to approve of them. If characters are going to do something bad, Hollywood wants you to build in an excuse note.’
Next, Yorke talks about what another storywriting guru, John Truby, calls ‘psychological weakness’. This means: How is your character treating others badly? Apart from that, I don’t recall John Truby mentioning anywhere in Anatomy of Story the requirement that a main character be ‘nice’. That’s because it’s a non-requirement. John Yorke continues:
We don’t like Satan in Paradise Lost — we love him. And we love him because he’s the perfect gleeful embodiment of evil. Niceness tends to kill characters — if there is nothing wrong with them, nothing to offend us, then there’s almost certainly nothing to attract our attention either. Much more interesting are the rough edges, the darkness — and we love these things because though we may not consciously want to admit it, they touch something deep inside us. If you play video games like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (and millions do), then you occupy literal avatars that do little but kill, maim, destroy, or sleep with the obstacles in your path. We are capable of entering any kind of head. David Edgar justified his play about the Nazi architect Albert Speer by saying: ‘The awful truth — and it is awful, in both senses of the word — is that the response most great drama asks of us is neither “yes please” nor “no thanks” but “you too”? Or, in the cold light of dawn, “there but for the grace of God go I”.
The key to empathy, then, does not lie in manners or good behaviour. Nor does it lie, as is often claimed, in the understanding of motive. It’s certainly true that if we know why characters do what they do, we will love them more. However, that’s a symptom of empathy, not its root cause. It lies in its ability to access and bond with our unconscious.
Robert McKee makes a distinction between empathy and sympathy, though I don’t personally find this distinction useful when it comes to creating a fictional character. However, he reassuringly agrees with John Yorke’s idea that the audience must bond with the audience on a deeper level:
The protagonist must be empathetic; he may or may not be sympathetic.
Sympathetic means likeable. … We’d want them as friends, family members, or lovers. They have an innate likeability and evoke sympathy. Empathy, however, is a more profound response.
Empathetic means “like me”. Deep within the protagonist the audience recognizes a certain shared humanity. Character and audience are not alike in every fashion, of course; they may share only a single quality. But there’s something about the character that strikes a chord. In that moment of recognition, the audience suddenly and instinctively wants the protagonist to achieve whatever it is that he desires.
The unconscious logic of the audience runs like this: This character is like me. Therefore, I want him to have whatever it is he wants, because if I were he in those circumstances, I’d want the same thing for myself.” Hollywood has many synonymic expressions for this connection: “somebody to get behind,” “someone to root for,” All describe the empathetic connection that the audience strikes between itself and the protagonist. And audience may, if so moved, empathize with every character in your film, but it must empathize with your protagonist. If not, the audience/story bond is broken.
And this from an expert in the kidlit world. On likeability in children’s literature, Maria Nikolajeva writes:
Some contemporary characters in children’s fiction efficiently alienate the reader by being unpleasant and thus offering no clear-cut subject position. While Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, repeatedly described by the author as “disagreeable” in the beginning, quickly gains the reader’s sympathy, being an orphan and exposed to the adults’ indifference; a character staying unpleasant throughout the story may leave the reader concerned and even frustrated.
Nikolajeva also writes, “…children’s writers most often wish, probably for didactic purposes, to offer their readers a psychologically acceptable identification object.”
Children’s literature is different from adult literature in one main way: It has many gate keepers who are not the target audience. While publishers of children’s literature most often very open to characters with strong psychological flaws (understanding the way story works), books then have to make it past parents, librarians and teachers, who may hold the view that young readers blindly follow in the footsteps of naughty fictional children. Unfortunately, these (often conservative) gatekeepers have a very real effect on what actually sells, which no doubt influences what is published to some extent.
Another difference between stories for children and stories for adults: There are perhaps more Great Gatsby books in the kidlit arena. By that I mean, they ‘star’ a main character who is actually the least interesting person in the story. They walk around as avatars for the reader, and because readers are all different, this avatar is as featureless as possible.
The brother and sister who star in A Series Of Unfortunate Events are almost completely featureless. Daniel Handler even avoided telling us anything much about how these children looked. They are instead surrounded by very quirky characters.
Bella Swan is the every girl — white girl kind of pretty, who likes nothing out of the ordinary, and mooches along causing no real trouble for anyone. Instead, Bella Swan is surrounded by a supernatural, unfamiliar world full of evil and suppressed desires.
Greg Heffley is arguably one of the least interesting characters in Diary of a Wimpy Kid. His diary is a commentary on what everyone else is like rather than a psychoanalysis of himself. Greg is the every boy. (The every American mid-Western heterosexual able-bodied white boy.)