On Writing a Good, Kind, Nice, Empathetic Main Character

What’s the hardest part of writing has to be one of the most frequently asked questions. For me the answer to that question depends on what I’m writing. I don’t just mean whether I’m writing a blog post or a novel. It changes with each particular piece of writing.

My latest novel, My Sister Rosa, is about a 17 year old teen who realises his 10 year old sister is a psychopath. Wow, did I struggle to find the voice of the narrator, Che Taylor. I struggled A LOT.

I didn’t struggle because Che’s a boy. I’ve written from male povs before. It’s no big deal. I struggled because Che’s genuinely nice.

Readers are often suspicious of nice characters. They use phrases like “sickly sweet” to describe them. We, in the English speaking world, on the whole, are more interested in anti-heroes and sometimes in flat-out villains. Somehow we’ve decided in the world of stories that nice people are boring and never charismatic.1

In the first draft of the novel Che was a girl. That didn’t last long. I couldn’t get the older sister protag to work so I made her a he. I suspect part of the problem was me imagining the reader response to such a loving, kind older sister. I’ve seen readers complain about the noxious niceness2 of many female characters. I have hated such characters myself. I wanted to see if we readers would be kinder to a really nice boy protag.

So far Che is my most loved and least hated main character.3 Though wow do too many readers love Rosa. Including my own father! This is me judging youse.

That could be because of my writing or it could be the baked in misogyny of this world. I suspect it’s more of the latter.

I’d like to think my writing had something to do with it because I worked hard to get Che’s voice right. Early readers complained that Che moaned too much, that he was annoying, too eager to please, and not very smart about his sister or anyone else. One reader used the word pathetic. Ouch.

How was I going to make this character with a psychopathic little sister no one believed him about, stuck in a collapsing family, likeable?

I did it by showing him in a number of different relationships, with his old friends back in Sydney, and his new friends in NYC. You get to see him through other people’s eyes. You see him charming new people but he doesn’t do it with the flashy, shallow charisma of his sister. He does it by genuinely listening, being interested, and making them laugh. If the snarky fun character, Leilani, likes him then, hopefully, most readers will too.4

As I wrote him into more friendships I got to know him better. A huge part of who we are is the people we chose in our lives. I needed to show just who Che was via his many friendships.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to do that in novels. In real life there are people with multiple close friendships, but in fiction that seems unrealistic or, at least, unwieldy. I had early readers suggest I cut the number of friends. I didn’t. But I did drastically cut the number of their interactions. You can find some of the outtakes here.

Another key to discovering Che’s voice was contrasting him with his psychopathic little sister Rosa. The conversations Che and Rosa have about right and wrong, about ethics, are the heart of the novel. Illustrating her twisty way of turning Che’s attempts to teach her to be an ethical human being into a game of promises shows the reader just what Che is up against.

Rosa weaponises Che’s lessons in ethics to manipulate Che in ways he doesn’t always see. But I had to show that without making Che seem dim. It was hard. They are unequal opponents because Che cares about Rosa. He cares about all the people around him. He cares about truth and justice. Rosa doesn’t. It was my hope that Che’s open, caring heart on display in these conversations would also make him likeable.

For some readers it didn’t. For some readers Rosa is the most appealing character in the book. *sigh*


I don’t blame those readers. There is something seductive about Rosa’s view of the world. As we see in the real world almost every day. Rosa fascinates me too and alarms me. She is why the book I’m writing now is from the point of view of a psychopath. Because I want to understand what it’s like to live in this world without empathy or remorse. I want to know how we can help people like that and how we can protect ourselves from them.5

In the meantime, I’m thankful for all the books about nice, good people changing the world in big and small ways. They make me hopeful. As do those people in the real world. There are so many of them. I’m grateful to them all. Even if they are very hard to write.

  1. Meanwhile in the real world some of the nicest people I’ve known are charismatic and not in the least bit boring. []
  2. How is that a thing? []
  3. I confess when I see a reviewer complaining about Che I want to hug them. Even though I love Che—I love all my characters. []
  4. Any reader who doesn’t like Leilani may not sit by me. []
  5. I’m aware these goals will not be achieved by a novel. []


  1. Lauren McLaughlin on #

    Thanks for sharing this one. I often find myself preferring not-so-nice characters in the books I read. Not because I’d want to be like them or have them as friends, but because it’s fun to imagine what it would be like to be so different. It’s one of the reasons I love crime fiction so much too. It’s fun to root for someone getting away with it. I confess, I found Rosa compelling and fascinating. Very glad she’s not my sister, but so much fun to read about.

    • Justine on #

      Heh. So you say, Lauren, so you say.

      I’ve had this response from quite a few people and I get it. I am a huge Patricia Highsmith fan after all. Psychopaths fascinate me. And, yeah, Rosa was a lot of fun to write. Too much fun, I fear.

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