Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Unlikable Characters

I’ve received a number of questions from readers upset because of rumors they are hearing about editors automatically rejecting books because they feel the protagonist is unlikable, and frankly, I’m not sure why that’s such a surprise to people. Have you read any Amazon reviews lately? Readers do the same thing; if they find a protagonist too unlikable, they will stop reading. What I find most interesting about these questions is the instant link writers make between unlikable and flawed, and the assumption that because your character is flawed she is instantly unlikable and the only way to make her likable is to make her perfect. Far from it. Flawed characters are wonderful, wonderful things and flaws are what helps make a character real to the readers.

Take a look at the characters of some of your favorite books. In all likelihood they are flawed in some way. How many detectives out there are also alcoholics? Cold-hearted urban fantasy heroines? Or heroes who are rakes? These are all flawed characters. The challenge the writer has is to allow the reader to catch glimpses of the reasons we are going to find the protagonist likable and the reasons we want to stick beside him.

I think it’s very possible to create an incredibly flawed character who might not be likable to all in the beginning, but has a character arc throughout the book in which we see him grow and change and we like him more and more. Don’t sell yourselves short as writers and assume it’s the editors who are the fools. If you are creating a series it’s especially important that your readers like the characters enough to want to come back and read more about them, and while we might not love them in the beginning we do need to find them likable. This is what it means to create well-rounded, multidimensional characters.