Sometimes characters are in tough spots.
Okay, all the time. (At least, they should be.) Characters are always in tough spots, and if they’re at all sympathetic, they’ll probably complain a bit. If characters never complained, somebody would be clamoring for their unique minority to be represented. Not all characters do complain, but many can and will. They can’t just ignore their troubles. That would make them seem unrealistic.
But when characters complain too much… That’s a different problem. People who complain are automatically less fun to be around than people who don’t complain. (That’s why I dislike “Everything Wrong with [popular movie] in # Minutes or Less” videos. Some of the flaws they find are bad writing, but the rest isn’t worth mentioning, and I don’t care.) Pessimists aren’t lovable— they’re whiny. That’s exactly the same effect produced by a complaining character.
That’s not a good thing. Usually, if things are going wrong for a character, they have something that’s supposed to make them likable. The unlikable characters can have as much going for them as they want, but the likable characters are always in trouble. And if the likable characters need to be… well, likable, they can’t be unlikable. That is to say, they can’t be whiny.
Does that mean they can’t complain? Nope, because (to quote paragraph two of this post), that would make them seem unrealistic. Sometimes a character needs to complain and be likable at exactly the same time. That requires a lot more contortions from you, the author. That said, you have a couple options.
Brevity. Assuming you’ve introduced the character as a likable character, the reader already has some sympathy for them. That means they’ll put up with some complaining, but not much. In order to keep the reader from sitting back and yelling at the character to buck up, keep it short. A sentence of complaining, maybe a paragraph at most. This same idea is why we have characters go unconscious after being injured too drastically to continue. We don’t want to hear the character screaming in pain for the rest of the chapter— just a sentence or a paragraph, then fade to black, or ignore it and keep fighting (which is unrealistic but defeats the whine). Feel the emotion, then let it go. It pays to know it exists, but it doesn’t pay to dwell on it.
Clarity. When your character is injured, the reader knows there’s going to be pain, and thus can accept the scream that comes afterward. When the character is injured in a more emotional way, the same is true. The reader can accept a level of grouchiness after the character is forced to eat chicken fingers, as long as the reader knows the character hates chicken fingers above all else. Otherwise, it will seem whiny. To be clear about what the character likes or dislikes is to raise the acceptable level of whining afterward. If the reader knows nothing about the character, they’re going to assume the character is like them— which, unless you’re writing for an audience you know perfectly, isn’t going to work for you that well. (A word of caution: too much backstory is a problem in itself. Clarity does not mean “Acquaint the reader with every single detail of their past life.” It means acquaint them with the necessary details, which does not always mean all the details.)
Apology. Is your character’s emotional arc the conquering of a whiny attitude? If not, have them apologize after complaining. (Even if that is the arc, apologies might be in order.) This will raise the sympathy back up after dropping it for the whiny bit— the reader saw the whining, so the character notices it as well and apologizes. Everything can be hunky-dory again. And this brings up a small point: not everyone in the scene must be as whiny as everyone else. If one character is whining and the other is sitting there quietly, apologies are definitely in order. (And even if both are complaining, if one apologizes and the other does not, that’s an interesting contrast. Which brings us to the next point.)
Contrast. Who’s the character who needs to seem least whiny in this scene? Perhaps you’re setting up a giant plot twist that means a certain character must seem like the nicest person in the world (just before their death, or their betrayal, or something). To keep them from becoming unlikable, contrast their complaining with another character. Unfortunately, this is difficult to do on the spur of the moment, and inadvisable to plan on. You can’t add a pessimist to a scene just so the other character won’t seem whiny. Furthermore, it tends to make the pessimist seem even whinier than he or she may be. This contrast works both ways, and it isn’t always going to be in your favor, so be careful with it. (However, the apology can bring back the pessimist rather nicely.)
Proactivity. Whining is just complaining annoyingly. The moment the reader begins to think, “Yes, we know everyone’s horrible to you. What are you going to do about it?” is the moment when complaining turns into whining. Complaining is usually okay, as long as we know what the character is complaining about (clarity). But as it drags on without any solution being offered, it turns into whining, which pulls the reader away from the character. To fix that, have the character do something! This is probably the best solution to whining I’ve listed, and it works on the widest scale. Brevity, clarity, apologies, contrast— they’re fine within a scene. But for an entire novel, proactivity can save your bacon like nothing else. Have the character begin to solve the problem. If sympathy isn’t a big part of the character (such as in a rogue or a thief), the character isn’t going to apologize, or be brief, or have anyone acting worse than they act. Proactivity is the only thing that will save them. They can complain as long as they want as long as they’re doing something about the problem. And even with sympathetic characters, changing from complaints to action will give the brevity you’re looking for, and raise up the sympathy again. They’re solving the problem instead of whining about it.
Whining usually isn’t useful for a character. Occasionally, it’s just the ticket to get the right emotional impact, but sometimes— most of the time— you want good characters to be likable and realistic at the same time. That requires thought. Sometimes it’ll take a lot of time to find the right balance of all these things. It might even take a rewrite of a character’s emotional arc. But the effect you’ll produce is worth the time. This difference between a likable character and an unlikable character is the difference between the audience cheering at the character’s death or weeping at it. Mufasa vs. Scar. An unlikable character is promised a fitting end in some way or another, so unless you’re planning to kill off all the characters who ever complain, make sure your complaining characters don’t become whiny characters.
Did I miss something? A crucial step, or another tool to make characters seem less whiny? I’m editing a novel with a couple whiny characters at the moment and struggling with this at the moment, so any suggestions would be welcome. Thanks.