One of the things you’ll be told when writing is to give your characters “undeserved misfortune”. This usually comes in the form of something tragic that happened in their past (before the story started) or something that is currently happening to them at the beginning of the story. The purpose for this is to create sympathy in your reader to make them like your character more.
If you really think about that, that sounds absolutely horrible. Are you saying the only way we can get people to like our characters is by making their lives miserable? That sounds cheap and, in my case, is more likely to push me away from the story/that character than it is to endear me to them. Oh, something bad happened to you? That’s a shame, but why should I care?
The key to making a likable character is not giving them a sad backstory. The key to making a likable character is to… well, make a character who’s interesting. The problem is when you say things like this (give them this misfortune to make them sympathetic and thus likable) is that it’s essentially saying that their backstory and their pain should be their only defining trait. It shouldn’t be.
“Are you against characters having pain in their lives?” you might be asking. No, absolutely not. There is a purpose for the “undeserved misfortune”, but it seems like young writers don’t properly understand what it means and what its true purpose is. This has become a trope that is rather unbearable to me. The main character of the story has a horrible, terrible life and back story and it just seems absolutely ridiculous how awful it all is. Unrealistically so, in a lot of cases.
Perhaps one of the most famous examples of this is in Harry Potter. Now don’t get me wrong, I like the Harry Potter series a lot, but the whole time I was reading them (mostly the earlier books), I kept internally screaming about how the Dursley’s should have been arrested for child abuse or something. Harry was abandoned on their doorstep and even though they did raise him, they never liked him. They essentially treated him like a house elf. They locked him under the stairs when he slept, he barely got enough to eat while his cousin grew fat and became spoiled, on occasion they actually starved him. I absolutely couldn’t stand it. It made my skin crawl to read it.
However, this didn’t make Harry unlikable, though it also didn’t make him more likable either. It did make me hate the Dursley’s, though. I suppose undeserved misfortune could be used to create hate toward other characters as opposed to create sympathy for one character. But I don’t believe you should set out to purposefully make characters unlikable by making them do horrible things for no other reason than to make them unlikeable.
Undeserved misfortune is important, but it must be taken in the right amount of doses. If you’re doing it to make your characters more sympathetic, you should focus on making them likeable characters before giving them pain. In my experience, it’s better to fall in love with a character before finding out about their horrible backstory. Getting to know them and like them and then finding out about their painful past makes you like them and feel for them far more than being introduced to them by saying “This is a boy who was abused by his family all his life”. That’s how it works in real life, too. You don’t generally get acquainted with someone just by hearing about their horrible life and then immediately click with them (well you might, that is possible, but you’re more likely to become friends before finding out about their personal life).
On the flip side, using undeserved misfortune to make someone more hated (as they are the ones dealing out the misfortune), you need to give them a good reason to be doing this. Motivations are key. Don’t just do it because they’re horrible people (well they might be, there are generally horrible people in the world), but do try to give them a reason for doing it. Don’t just write them as “the horrible people no one likes”. Make them people before you make them horrible people.
When giving your characters undeserved misfortune, as I said earlier, make it realistic. Don’t go all over the top (unless that’s the point of the story like in A Series of Unfortunate Events). Also, don’t let the misfortune define your character. When a character can dwell on nothing but the pain of their past, it can be very irritating to the reader. They get angsty and may end up not doing anything at all but whining about these things. Your character’s pain shouldn’t define them, but instead it should drive them. If you can drive through pain, it will make you stronger. The same should be true of your characters. That being said, they shouldn’t be completely unaffected and over their traumatic, painful pasts.
Don’t be too mean to your characters when writing their backstory. But don’t make things perfect either. Don’t make them angsty about pain they go through, but don’t make them brush it off as nothing. Above all, strive to make them interesting, relateable people before you strive to make them sympathetic.