Weekend Workout: Love Uber Alles

Yesterday, while I was procrastinating working on my own blog post, I came across this lovely post by children’s author Kelly Barnhill. It’s basically about how everyone, at some point in their lives, but particularly when we are mean-spirited children, participates in “bad behaviour.” It was also about the child taking responsibility for that behaviour and the parent loving the child in spite the behaviour. What I took away from it was the joy of loving the mess that we are, the whole package. We are tragically flawed beings, and I have always found a certain beauty in that.

We are all mended cracks and creaky gears. We are broken smiles, broken hearts, broken minds and broken lives. We are hack-jobs and cast-offs and wobbly legs and gouged surfaces. We are soft edges, scuffed corners, ungleaming and unvarnished, but pleasant to hold and comforting to touch. (from Barnhill‘s post)

My own mother said that her philosophy as a parent was that the child was never bad, the behaviour was. We are perfect beings who make mistakes – – if you can wrap your head around that oxymoron.


by Rashin Kheirieh

All of this thought-tracked into something I once heard Alexandra Cunningham (one of the lead writers on Desperate Housewives) say on a panel: Write every character with compassion, no matter how different from yourself.

Let’s expand that to say, “Write every character with compassion, no matter how bad their behaviour.”

You can take this to mean write your villains with compassion, but it may be your protagonist who needs more love from you. This is the case for me right now with my aforementioned W.I.P.

IdoLL engages in a lot of bad behaviour. She needs to; that’s the whole point. She is mean-spirited and selfish. Feedback from my focus group has been that it is difficult to empathize with her because of this bad behaviour. However, the majority of this group also told me that they really like her transformation. She redeems herself at the end and they were happy about this. “It’s satisfying” one young reader said.

So, if the reader makes it more than ½ way through the book, they will start to see her transformation, but if the reader puts the book down for lack of connection, they’ll never get there.

My job now is to create more compassion for her at the beginning of the story, so that even though she engages in this bad behaviour, we love her anyway.

I thought perhaps I should do this by writing her with more compassion. The thing is, I DO have a lot of compassion for IdoLL, but I was relying on her sense of humour to carry her through. Cleverness and a sense of humour in your protagonists can often persuade readers into liking them. But this time, it wasn’t enough.

Your Workout

Set your timer for 5-7 minutes.

Start at the top of the page with the following startline:

1) The wound that festers in my character’s heart is made up of …

Write, don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t cross out.

When the timer stops, Set your timer for 7-10 more minutes.

Start with the following line: 

2) My character feels utterly betrayed when . . .

Write, don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t cross out.

When the timer stops, Set your timer for 10-12 more minutes.

Start with the following line: 

3) The pain of this betrayal looks like

Write, don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t cross out.

Read your exercises, make notes, highlight what makes sense.

Happy Weekend!


  1. 4amWriter
    Jan 20, 2013

    I have had negative comments made about my protagonists because they are dark and too flawed. They, too, make transformations, but not until the second half of the novel and it can be worrisome that readers won’t stick around that long. Thanks for this exercise. I’ll put it to use!

    • Danika Dinsmore
      Jan 20, 2013

      Our protagonist’s have to be flawed – there’s nothing as dull as “perfect” characters. We can have them do bad things and still be sympathetic, though. Give the protag a vulnerable moment, a kind action, early on to get the reader on his or her side. I’m going to explore this more in my next post, b/c it’s been on my mind.


  1. Weekend Workout: Sympathy for Bad Boys (and Girls) | writing to support my teaching habit - [...] week I posted a workout about creating compassion for characters. More specifically, getting your readers to sympathize [...]

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