Like most people, I always read the good and bad reviews on a book I’m curious about reading, or even books I already love (just because I like to see how other people perceived it), and I’m often taken aback by how hostile some readers are toward naive characters.
Don’t get me wrong. There is absolutely nothing more frustrating than a character who just doesn’t learn; a character who, after plenty of opportunities, just doesn’t get it. But why is the general state of innocence so repellent to some?
That’s a conundrum with naive characters because they don’t yet have the capability to make insightful decisions⎯⎯otherwise and they wouldn’t be called ‘naive.’ Their perspective is often fallacious because of their lack of understanding and lack of empathy for the world around them. So how do you, as a writer, redeem these types of characters?
I read an article on K.M. Weiland’s page (if you’re a writer and aren’t already following her blog, do yourself a favor and DO!) that said the number one way to write an unlikeable character is to continually make them oblivious to their own personality, or their circumstances, or other characters, or their environment; they persist in making the same gullible decisions with the same immature thought processes. You can construct a totally rude, jerky, selfish character, but as long as they are aware of who and what they are, the reader is more likely to be sympathetic to them than a character who is good but ignorant.
The way to save your naive character from being reviled is to showcase their ability to change. I personally LOVE when a character starts off ingenuous and over the course of the story, we see their thought processes and reactions to certain events evolve. They may face a considerably traumatic event that alters their perspective, or they may experience a close call that awakens them to all the what-ifs and could-have-beens, catapulting them into a state of self-examination.
Both innocence and experience possess their own kinds of beauty, though. I personally love naive characters, but only if I see them develop and learn over the course of their stories; I value that, I relate to that, I love that. I also love characters that begin damaged and scarred, because we get to watch them discover their own strength and that past mistakes or past shames don’t have to define them; I value that, I relate to that, I love that.
We all come from different points of view as readers, and none of them are necessarily wrong. I just want to plead a case for naive characters. I think a lot of readers dismiss them out of frustration (which is understandable), but sometimes, it’s not about the character; it’s about the way they grow.
So writers, beware: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a naive protagonist. But if you keep your character and their innocence on a pedestal, preventing them from developing over the course of your book, you are inviting readers to remember them for the wrong reason⎯⎯because of how much they hate them.
Who is your favorite naive character?
Who is your least favorite?