How to write compelling “happy” characters

 

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What on earth are “happy” characters?

 

We all know what an “unhappy” character is. They’re the street rat who’s turned to thievery for survival, the high-flying businessman with a tragic past, the orphaned boy living in a closet under the stairs. They’re the insecure ones, the ones with unhealthy habits, stuck in terrible situations, or miserable with their lot in life. Most main characters are unhappy in some significant way. That’s what makes it a good story, right?

 

“Happy” characters aren’t quite so easy to define, and they’re definitely less common. When they do pop up in stories they’re usually supporting characters rather than the MC, so we don’t get to spend as much time in their head or looking through their eyes. What does, and does not, constitute a “happy” character may also be a matter of opinion, but I have outlined my view on the situation below.

 

Happy characters ARE:

 

800px_COLOURBOX20323925 - CopyFriendly, empathetic and likeable, regardless of whether they are introverted or extroverted or somewhere in between

800px_COLOURBOX20323925 - CopyWell-adjusted, self-aware and capable of adapting to different situations without having an enormous meltdown

800px_COLOURBOX20323925 - CopyGood at what they do, or else are accepting of their faults and flaws and work to rectify those they can

800px_COLOURBOX20323925 - CopyHave a peaceful and happy past, or have come to terms with and worked through any issues resulting from past trauma

800px_COLOURBOX20323925 - CopyUltimately “happy on the inside”…which usually translates to also being “happy on the outside”

 

Happy characters ARE NOT:

 

800px_COLOURBOX20323925Happy ALL of the time (at least, not necessarily), because happy is an emotion and not a personality

800px_COLOURBOX20323925Lonely, neglected, or feel that something significant and/or important is missing from their lives

800px_COLOURBOX20323925Carrying massive grudges or vowing revenge after an actual or perceived slight (because “happy” characters have learned to let this stuff go)

800px_COLOURBOX20323925Angsty about anything to the point it starts to have an impact on their life, especially in a negative way

800px_COLOURBOX20323925Those that feign happiness but cry themselves to sleep at night (i.e. “happy on the outside” but not “happy on the inside”)

 

 

Why “happy” characters can be so hard to write

 

While editing my WIP fantasy novel Old Blood, I noticed something interesting—and perhaps not really that surprising—about a character I consider to be “happy”. One of my MCs, Asa, is laid-back, always true to himself, and doesn’t agonise over things he can’t change. He’s fascinating and unique to me because I KNOW him in and out, but on the page his character comes across as…flat.

 

“Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness a story.”
—Leo Tolstoy

The reality is, when it comes to stories, “happy” can be boring if it’s not handled carefully. Readers engage more with flawed characters facing a crisis than they do well-adjusted characters living perfect lives. And think about it: is a character who doesn’t question themselves, or make mistakes, or grapple with less-than-pleasant emotions while the world falls apart around them actually believable? Probably not.

 

But I don’t think that’s enough reason not to write “happy” characters. Why can’t your hero(ine) come from a loving family, have had a peaceful childhood, know who they are and what they want, and still provide an engaging vehicle through which to tell a story? The trick is finding a balance between that “happy” persona of your character and adding enough conflict that it makes things uncertain, and thus exciting!

 

 

How to make your “happy” characters more dynamic

 

For the last several weeks I’ve been brainstorming ways I can make Asa a more dynamic character, especially in the early part of the series before the stakes get ramped up. I don’t want to change who he is—he’s the counterbalance for the rest of my questionably-sane cast!—so I’ve had to think quite deeply about my options. The advantage of this is that I have come up with a few different ways to spice up “happy” characters, which are now listed below.

 

💎 Give them an obvious flaw

Remember, “happy” characters are comfortable in themselves, but this doesn’t mean they can’t be flawed. Maybe they’re shy, or have a funny laugh that draws all the wrong attention, or a disability which they won’t let get in their way! They can still be “happy” while being challenged every day.

 

😢 Know what makes them “sad”

Even the happiest of people have bad days, and no one is happy all the time. Determine what sorts of things will upset your character, what will get them down, what will make them curl up and cry. Then make sure it happens to them enough that readers remain invested in their story!

 

❌ Make a mistake

Everyone makes mistakes. No one is perfect. Let your “happy” character make a mistake, or even several mistakes. Let them question themselves and everything they know, have them puzzle it out and learn a valuable lesson. They’ll only be stronger and wiser for it!

 

💔 Break their heart

Readers hate it when someone hurts the lovable, “happy” character—and that is an EXCELLENT thing. It will make them feel passionately about the story, so don’t be afraid to have a love interest break up with your character or a close friend betray them. The bigger the hurt, the better.

 

💣 Set them up to lose everything

Okay things are escalating a bit now, but the higher the stakes grow in your story, the greater the chance your “happy” character will lose out. It’s up to you whether their life actually will or won’t fall apart, but that doesn’t matter so long as the reader thinks it might!

 

💀 Lead them down a dark path

There’s nothing more compelling than taking your “happy” character on a walk on the dark side. The key here is determining the WHY and the HOW. Perhaps they’ve been deceived? Perhaps it’s for the greater good? Perhaps, after one of the above, they’ve forgotten the light? So many options…

 

 

Examples of “happy” characters done well

 

I thought I’d conclude this discussion with a few examples of characters I would classify as “happy” and have been written very well. Of course, this is a matter of opinion, so if you disagree be sure to let me know in the comments below! There may be a few *spoilers* in this section, so READ AT OWN RISK. You have been warned!

 

August Frey – from A Thousand Perfect Notes

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August was one of the first that came to mind when making my list of “happy” characters. She’s such a ball of sunshine; unafraid to be her quirky self, unintimidated by MC Beck’s constant rebuffs, and a loyal, supportive friend. But this is well balanced by a touch of naivete regarding Beck’s situation, and the utter devastation and heartbreak she experiences towards the end of the book. It keeps things real!

 

Seth Morgan – from Wicked Lovely

91501342-612x612I unashamedly adore Seth, so I had to include him here 🙂 He is a key character in 3/5 books in the series and is selfless, calm, reasonable and wise. Sounds cringe-worthy, right? Wrong. Seth is put through the wringer throughout the series, and when his LI becomes an immortal faery queen he questions everything. But despite everything (torture, heartbreak, risk of death etc.), he doesn’t give up and manages to remain true to himself.

 

Stevie Rae Johnson – from House of Night

galaxy_moon_vector__f2u__by_dust_galaxy-dap0zcrPeppy, peaceful, eternally happy country bumpkin Stevie Rae is a vampyre fledgling and best friend to the series’ MC, Zoey. She began as a borderline annoying character to me because she was so happy but then…well…she DIED. And was brought back as an evil vampyre who killed innocent people. This was pretty extreme, but it was a fascinating arc and a great example of a “happy” character turning temporarily dark and then having to redeem themselves!

 

Frodo Baggins – from The Lord of the Rings

41MuYLTMMBLI’ll preface this by saying that I haven’t read the books, but the movies will suffice, I think! As you (hopefully) know, Frodo begins the series as a happy young hobbit living a perfectly peaceful and content life when he is suddenly burdened with an evil Ring that has a mind of its own. His journey is utterly compelling because of his apparent innocence…it’s no coincidence the baby-faced Elijah Wood was cast to play him in the films BTW.

 

 

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How would you define a “happy” character? Do you have any examples? What do you think is most important to remember when writing “happy” characters?

 

RA_logo _backdrop-01_miniRebecca Alasdair

  One thought on “How to write compelling “happy” characters

  1. 09/08/2018 at 8:52 PM

    Love this post so, so much. great tips , advice and examples 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • 09/08/2018 at 9:46 PM

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it! It’s such a fascinating concept to me, especially since so many books these days feature what I deem “unhappy” characters (which are, admittedly, fun to write).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. 10/08/2018 at 4:52 AM

    I’m so glad you gave examples of happy characters. Up until that point, I imagined them to be flat and boring. But your right, they can still be put through incredible trials and maintain their virtues. Good old, Frodo. 💕

    Liked by 1 person

    • 10/08/2018 at 8:38 AM

      Yes! This is why I had a hard time getting my head around what a “happy” character actually looks like. It’s not about FEELING happy all the time (because you’re right, that’s boring). It’s more about being content and confident in themselves despite the challenges they face!!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. 10/08/2018 at 8:28 AM

    This was a fun post! I was actually wincing every time you suggested making a happy character’s life rough. 😂 I feel like I’m a pretty happy person who’s had a real nice wonderful upbringing. I’m definitely a people pleaser, which to me isn’t a flaw, but I know some people think I’m a doormat lol. It’s tricky because happy people are real, but their stories aren’t always filled with conflict. Good luck with your happy character!

    Liked by 1 person

    • 10/08/2018 at 8:35 AM

      Thanks Madeline! You’re absolutely right that “happy” people exist (obviously), which got me wondering why there are few stories about them. A story has to have some kind of conflict to make it interesting, but conflict can mean many things! Knowing how to use different types of conflict to bring out the different facets of a “happy” character is key!!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. 10/08/2018 at 12:37 PM

    I love this! Happy character’s don’t have to be happy all of the time! LIterally, everything in this post is so true! If a person were always happy, they would get annoying and not seem realistic. No one’s perfect, and that’s why I think it’s important in books to show that characters can be more than a 2d character with no emotion. Loved this post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • 10/08/2018 at 12:51 PM

      Thank you Jared 😊 You’re right that one dimensional characters can be so boring and annoying, but I don’t think you have to give a character a traumatic backstory to make things interesting. Don’t get me wrong, angsty characters are fun to write and read about, but it’s definitely possible to create realistic and engaging characters that are ultimately satisfied with their lives. It just takes a bit more thought and work to get there!!

      Like

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