Sometimes I hear gripes from critique partners or beta readers that one of my characters isn’t likable (I won’t say which characters because I don’t want to poison the well, in case any of you want to read my stuff). After making sure I haven’t created an unnecessary asshole, I ask myself this question – does the character have to be likable? Or just livable?
The author of this post suggests the main character has to be likable. I agree for the most part, but no character is going to be perfect (in fact, inadvertently writing perfect characters is common warning for new writers). Imperfections can be a delicious source of conflict in our narrative worlds. So what happens if the imperfections tip the scales away from “likable”?
Have you ever had an obnoxious coworker? Not one who made your life a living hell, but one who just grated at your nerves. Maybe they played bad music or laughed loudly at everything or reheated fish in the community microwave. You might have even casually discussed hanging out sometime, but of course you don’t try to make that happen.
[Related: Need help editing your book? We can help.]
That coworker would be categorized as “livable.” You’re certainly not going out of your way to spend time with him, but positive elements of the job – probably other, more likable coworkers – make putting up with his annoying habits possible.
Jurassic World came out a couple of years ago, and while I enjoyed the movie overall, there was one protagonist that irritated the hell out of me…
I found Claire to be ridiculous for the entire movie. For someone who ran a dinosaur island, she was super dumb (that’s like regular dumb only there’s a cape…) about dinosaurs and nature and would have died a few times if not for Owen.
I can’t say that would have broken my heart.
So why did I stick with the movie until the end? I didn’t see it until it was out on blu-ray, so I could have simply turned it off.
It came down to the rest of the movie – Chris Pratt was great, the dinosaurs were well-created, and I didn’t really want the kids to die (as they were far less ridiculous than their Aunt Claire). I tolerated Claire because the good stuff carried her through. I just had to live with her for a couple of hours.
So maybe our protags don’t always have to be likable, just livable – as long as the story and other characters can pick up the slack.
This guest post was contributed by Allison Maruska. Allison likes to post in line with her humor blog roots, but she also includes posts about teaching and writing specifically. Check out her website for more of her work.
Have to laugh: My last group said I made a character too bitchy with a particular character. Made me smile: I wanted her to be overbearing. Makes characters more fun, especially when readers discover they’re being bitchy for a good reason.
I think for a side character it’s OK if you need to produce feelings of loathing, but with the narrator it takes skill. If there’s nothing redeemable at all, the reader might get plain annoyed, so you might need at least an atom of likability. The skill comes in when you have a narrator like, say, Humbert in Lolita. There needs to be an element of morbid fascination if you go the route of the truly loathsome.
Reblogged this on Kim's Musings.
I agree with Hetty. Our novels are not blockbuster movies. Books take a whole lot longer to read, and generally speaking are not likely to have the same flashy draws. It would take a lot for me to stick with a novel whose primary viewpoint character I disliked or who annoyed me. I’ve put books down for a lot less. Generally, I think writers should strive to give their books the best chance they can. You can’t please everyone, but you should please your target audience.
I’ve had beta-readers say the same thing occasionally. But for a character to grow, have an arc, learn from mistakes, they might not be too likeable at the beginning. For me, I have to care about the main characters to make me stick around. Or I have to be really curious about “what happens next.” They can have a lot of flaws as long as there is some redeeming factor, or I’m curious about what they do next. But if they are truly annoying—well, there’s too many other books to read to spend time with someone who annoys you.