How to Make Your Surly Character Likeable

“Well, the thing about great fictional characters from literature, and the reason that they’re constantly turned into characters in movies, is that they completely speak to what makes people human.” —Keira Knightley

Image courtesy of Rosemary Ratcliff /
Image courtesy of Rosemary Ratcliff /

I have a surly character in my inspirational contemporary romance. Allie is ill-mannered because people and events have hurt her in the past and she’s had enough. She has much room for growth. How am I going to make readers care enough about her to read her story? 


  • Do you have a character who’s surly and might be disliked by your readers?
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So what am I to do?

  • Be true to my character’s position at the opening of my story. Allie is flawed. She’s quick to misjudge people.
  • Recognize, especially at the beginning, the times Allie is too harsh with little good to balance her disposition.
  • Give indications of the true person who lies beneath Allie’s current tack toward insolence.
  • Show Allie’s fears, hopes, and struggles.
  • Show a moment when Allie is vulnerable. Especially near the beginning.
  • Feed in bits of backstory as necessary to show why she acts as she does. When Allie is brusque, give a memory that makes her fear letting a person see her soft side.
  • Continue to give glimpses of Allie’s internal goodness as the story unfolds.
  • Make her able to do things by the end of the story that she isn’t able to do at the beginning. Allie will be able ask Jesus to come into her life. She’ll strive not to misjudge others. She’ll ask for forgiveness from others and forgive those who’ve hurt her.


  • How do I show my surly character’s internal goodness?
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    by cjhulin85
    by cjhulin85
  • Have Allie do something at the beginning of the story that shows she has redeeming qualities.
  • Give Allie thoughts and physical reactions to her wounds, dreams, hopes, and fears. Other characters may not recognize Allie’s deep emotions but her feelings will come across to the reader.
  • Show Allie what she sounds like to herself when she speaks harshly. At times, show her wanting to be better than a person who speaks like that.
  • Show moments in which Allie is honest about past events, her struggles and fears, and her hopes and dreams.

But what if she’s over-the-top surly for much of the story? I hope I can make Allie more likeable without resorting to these.recite-26912-292788037-188q2fb

  • Give your character a unique flaw that you play up so readers enjoy “hating” the character.
  • Give your character an enemy who is more unlikeable than your main character.


  • What traits are turn-offs that I should avoid giving my main characters?
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  • Bullying
  • Patronizing
  • Picking on weaker people
  • Using violence to get her way
  • Gaining pleasure from ruining others’ lives
  • Moaning about hardships
  • Holding lots of pity parties
  • Making wrong inferences and not allowing others to explain themselves
  • Gossiping to hurt others
  • Lying all the time

What do you use or have seen others use to make surly characters likeable?

2 Tips to Pump Up Flat Characters in Your Story

“Men are not moved by things, but the views they take of them.” —Epitectus

We storytellers want our characters to be interesting, plausible, and memorable. But often our characters come across as one-dimensional.

But with a little work, we can do two things that will inflate our flat characters.

sunset.jpgTo make your plot work, let’s say, three-quarters of the way into your story, your hero needs to remove an engine from an RV and restore a 1970 Chevelle. So right before this event you write: He’d spent many of his teen years working on cars and dreaming of restoring a 1970 Chevelle, so he set to work removing the engine from the old RV’s chassis.

Tips to round out your character. 

1. Layer his dreams and expertizes throughout your story so they don’t seem contrived when the plot suddenly needs them. However, don’t overdo this and slow the story down with many prior events. Your hero might admire a shiny Chevelle early in the story and recall when he worked on cars in high school. Later, a Chevelle in a junkyard might catch his eye. This layering will make your character’s dreams and expertizes more plausible.

2. Understand his passions and the value he sees in things that mean nothing to you. It’s difficult to write an interesting, memorable character if you can’t put your opinions aside and understand what he considers valuable and why. Try interviewing him.

The example below shows what you might need to know to understand your hero’s dreams, expertizes, and values. You wouldn’t employ all the details in your story. You’d simply understand him.


In 2007, John and I bought a 1983 Winnebago RV, dubbed it Winnie, and parked it on our land before we built our house. Our youngest son popped the hood, and his eyes lit up. He said the 454 engine was the biggest and one of the rarer engines. His dream 1970 Chevelle was the first model year to have such an engine as an option.

I hadn’t thought about the engine, other than it worked. I cared more about the bed, sinks, and shower. Over the next four years, our son occasionally asked how Winnie’s engine was doing. “Still running,” we’d say.

After we built our house in 2011, our son advised us not to give Winnie away. He said the engine and transmission were valuable. So we put Winnie up for sale on a nearby RV lot.

After a year, it hadn’t sold. We mentioned to our son, we’d be glad if the owner of the RV lot junked Winnie to rid her from our responsibility.

Later, we received a call from our son. He said if we planned to junk Winnie, he’d like to have the engine and transmission. With our happy consent, he:

  • old-chevelle.jpgcalled around until he found a nearby scrape metal place that would take Winnie,
  • purchased a 1970 Chevy Chevelle to put the engine in,
  • ordered original 1970 parts for the Chevelle on eBay,
  • traveled four hours to our house with his family,
  • drove Winnie from the RV lot to the salvage yard, and
  • made the four-hour trip again in his truck the next weekend to get the engine and transmission.

the-engine.jpgWhile I write this, he’s at the salvage yard in 26-degree weather, removing his treasure from Winnie.

My son saw value in something we were ready to trash. He pictured more than an old engine and transmission. He envisioned a rusty Chevelle restored to its original beauty. He grasped the opportunity to make his dream come true. And he enjoyed honoring Winnie’s retirement. I received a deeper understanding of my son’s passion with cars.

What have you done or could do to understand your story character better?


How to Transform Your Dream into a Vision and Then into a Reality: Part 1

“All our dreams can come true—if we have the courage to pursue them.” —Walt Disney

Image courtesy of iconmac at

Today, we’ll focus on the dream and the vision. Next Thursday in Part 2, I’ll give steps to convert a vision into a reality.

My dreams that have come to fruition are those I’ve worked hard to make happen. Because they were labors of love, I was energized to do the work.

When is it time to transform a dream into a vision?

For me, I know it’s time to pursue a vision for my dream:

  1. When my dream will help others;
  2. When I’m confronted constantly with things and people that spark possibilities and ideas for my dream;
  3. When God nudges me through scriptures and prayer that it’s His will.

Prepare Yourself First

  1. Visualize the experience your dream will create for others.
  2. Picture people using and enjoying your dream’s benefits.

    Image courtesy of Ambro at
    Image courtesy of Ambro at
  3. Envision people changing for the better and helping others because of it.
  4. Believe in your dream so much that its fruit outweighs the costs.
  5. Adopt a just-do-it attitude. Many good works don’t happen because we want others to approve and shoulder our dream.
  6. Embrace that you will sacrifice time, money, and energy for your dream.
  7. Garner courage and determination to complete the good work.
  8. Refuse to entertain subtle or blatant discouragements.

Steps to convert a dream into a vision.

Image courtesy of Kenneth Cratty at
  1. Enlist a supporter who truly believes in you. Ask them to be willing to listen to your ideas, challenges, and progress reports.
  2. Mind-map everything about your dream that enters your mind in a brainstorming session—how the experience should look, the benefits, the tasks, the resources, materials, and permissions needed.
  3. Prioritize the elements of your dream as laid out in your mind map. Some items may be extraneous or too expensive.
  4. Brainstorm with your supporter alternatives for some of the expensive dream items. Pare down others.
  5. Write a paragraph describing the vision of your dream.

Creating a Christian Library – Dream to Vision 

A Christian Community library hosted my workshop. The library captivated me. Having taken a library cataloging course and having worked in a branch library, my mind started churning. Wouldn’t such a library benefit our community?

Our church library lived in a tiny room and offered mostly ancient books. Often, the hand bells were stored there, hogging browsing space. How sad.

Among other dream igniters, every time I drove by a small house for sale near our church, I envisioned a Christian library inside it.

Finally, my prayers led me to turn my dream into a vision.

Image courtesy of -Marcus- at

I brainstormed a mind map and trimmed my dream from a community library to a new church library. I decided forming a committee would only hinder forward movement. I had some money I could use. I’d secure permissions and just do it.

My husband and the church Education Director believed in me.

My vision: Refurbish the large, abandoned youth room, using its closet for an office. Keep two sturdy existing bookcases and add several new ones. Add comfortable armchairs. Find a table for the children’s area. Purchase a cataloging program and link the catalog to the church website. Use the Dewey Decimal System and catalog and label books. Develop rules for what goes on the shelves. Acquire modern books from donations and used bookstores. Once the library proves worthy, ask for donations of new books or money. Train assistants.

What dream would you like to turn into a vision?

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