When I first started writing The Reluctant Duke’s Dilemma, I had no idea it would take off like it did. I’ve always loved reading historical romances (particularly set in the Regency era). Thanks to my wonderful critique partners—and most especially you—it’s become a story I’m really proud of.
There were so many characters in that first book who demanded attention (and their own story). I knew most of them would be well-received by readers. I mean, who doesn’t love Camilla, Oliver, Bea, and Laurence? And Andrew and Alice, they’re just so nice. They are all good people who try their best to do the right thing, so they’re easy to root for.
But what does an author do with a character readers love to hate? Should I just throw them under the proverbial double-decker bus and say good riddance? As someone with a background in psychology, in good conscience, I couldn’t do that.
People make bad choices. We make mistakes. That’s what makes us human. Are there intrinsically evil people in the world? I hate to say it, but, yes, I think there are. But, I believe, the vast majority of people fall somewhere in that gray area between all good and all bad.
There is a principle in psychology called The Fundamental Attribution Error. In short, it basically says that we often discount environmental or “outside” forces that affect behavior, instead attributing it to the core personality of the person. That guy who cut you off in traffic? Well, he’s just a jerk, right? Hmm? But is he? Maybe he’s rushing to the hospital because he got a call that his infant son had to be airlifted for emergency surgery? (My daughter used to say “Maybe he really has to poop.” Which always made me laugh and wiped away any anger I had toward that person who cut me off.)
So what about characters in novels? They’re fictional, true, but if they’re a well-rounded, truly fleshed-out character, they’ve had things happen to them that may lead them to make bad decisions, or maybe shape the way they behave or who they listen to. In other words, they all have a backstory.
So how did I try to Save Miss Pratt and Redeem Lord Nash?
If you haven’t read the books and read on, we’ll I’m not the boss of you, and you’re an adult. But just be warned there are spoilers a’waiting.
Okay, you’re still reading? Then, let’s go.
In The Reluctant Duke’s Dilemma, Priscilla Pratt was the woman who almost cost Harry the love of his life by orchestrating a compromise with our beloved duke. Readers hated her. Goodness, even I disliked her. I even gave her a really unflattering name. As a discovery writer, I didn’t really want to “examine” her very much, but I began to see her as a very young, malleable girl, who was spoiled and self-centered, true, but was easily persuaded by her mother to do some pretty despicable things.
At the end of The Reluctant Duke’s Dilemma, we saw a little chink in her selfish, self-centered personality when Harry pleaded with her to call everything off and when, during the wedding, she told him to go rescue Margaret. At the end, when she admitted to the scheme (helped by our other questionable character, Lord Nash) she asked Margaret if it was as wonderful as it seemed to be loved so deeply by someone. Of course, Margaret tells her it is. It was when I wrote those words that I saw Priscilla in a new light. Rather than a scheming manipulator, I saw her as someone desperate to be loved.
Obviously, in her book, she is paying a heavy price for her horrible choices, and she has a long, long way to go to redeem herself. Her growth is slow, and I’ll admit (as my critique partners will attest) she still has some moments of self-centeredness and selfishness in the first part of her character journey. But I really liked her character arc as she learns what’s most important in life and what it’s like to put someone else’s wants and needs ahead of her own. It was a harder task to redeem her in one book than I’d imagined.
I’ll leave it up to you to see if I was successful at “Saving Miss Pratt.”
Which leads me to Nash Talbot. Unlike Priscilla, Nash’s character arc occurs throughout the series. So hopefully, by the time we get to his book, people will be a little more in his corner at the beginning. That’s not to excuse the horrible thing he did in The Reluctant Duke’s Dilemma. It’s something he will have to come to terms with in a personal way. I won’t say that it’s a lot easier for an author to write a character’s arc over the course of multiple books, but it gives the author more “time” to get the reader onboard.
With Nash, we saw a little flicker of his humanity at the end of A Doctor for Lady Denby when he helped Oliver escape a horrible fate. And of course his matchmaking efforts in Healing the Viscount’s Heart are not entirely altruistic. His animosity toward Laurence Townsend is a driving force behind his machinations. After all, it was Laurence who exposed him as one of the perpetrators in Priscilla’s orchestrated compromise of Harry. But we see a bit of acceptance (or maybe it’s tolerance) between Laurence and Nash going forward in the series.
Nash is truly one of those complex characters that every author loves to write. There will be a big revelation in his book that is vaguely hinted at in the previous books of the series. And it’s there the reader will finally understand the reason for the ongoing animosity between him and Harry. I’ve written a prologue (which may or may not be included in his book) that goes into depth about it. As I wrote it, everything truly clicked into place with amazing precision, and the duplicitous nature of one character (who is only “seen” briefly in the prequel and “kind of” in the beginning of the first book) shows the lasting effects of one person’s cruelty.
To sum things up. How does an author redeem unlikeable characters? By making them well-developed, fleshed-out characters with backstories, hopes, dreams, fears, and goals just like any other character, but in a way that the reader can relate to them even when they’re not being so likeable.