Friday, December 04, 2009

Likeable Characters

I have a question about likeability in a character, because it is something many readers and agents mention. What does it take for a character to be likeable? I was reading a writing-for-romance book, and it said your heroine needs to have a best friend to show the reader that she is likeable. Is that true? Does the reader have to be able to relate to a character for them to be liked? Is it possible to write about someone who is completely unlikeable and still have an interesting story? Isn't likeability subjective?

Thanks for the great question. I think this is one of the many things all authors have to struggle with because it is subjective. Certainly I have submitted and sold novels in which some of the rejections we received from other houses were that the characters weren’t likeable enough. That being said, I do think in the revisions, the author worked on making her characters more likeable.

I do believe that characters have to be likeable for a book to work. That doesn’t mean, however, that characters can’t have flaws or unlikeable characteristics. I tend to use Hannibal Lecter a lot as an example, but I think he’s such a fabulous example and tends to be a character most people are familiar with. Who could imagine creating a horrific serial killer who is actually likeable? On paper that doesn’t make any sense. On the book page you see how it works. Okay, maybe he’s not entirely “likeable,” but he’s certainly fascinating enough that you need to keep reading about him. Sure, he eats people, but he’s also brilliant and oddly, in his own way, kind to Clarice Starling.

I don’t think there are any easy fixes to make a character likeable. There are plenty of people in this world I don’t like, and as far as I know they all have best friends. That doesn’t make me like them or even want to like them, frankly. I think that what makes a character likeable isn’t a list of specific qualities or outside influences; what makes a character likeable is allowing the reader to see a softer side. Scarlett O’Hara is a fabulous example. She’s selfish, vain, and conniving. And yet she’s likeable. We want to keep reading about her and we want her to succeed. We see that while she’s always selfish her vanity also hides her insecurities and her fears. It makes her a well-rounded, true, and likeable character.

I don’t believe it’s possible to create a character who works and who is completely unlikeable. Have you ever met someone like that? I know I have and certainly it’s not someone I want to invite into my home or spend time with. I have, however, met a lot of people in my life with completely unlikeable characteristics, people that as I got to know I realized were interesting and fun and much more complex than they appeared. I think it’s that complexity that makes really good characters. They aren’t perfect and not everyone loves them, but we can’t help but be drawn to them.