Thursday, January 06, 2011

Unlikeable Characters

I did a blog post a while back in which I made the mistake of using what I thought at the time was an innocuous example of rejecting a work because the characters were unlikeable. These two words, "unlikeable characters," set off a bit of a sh**storm, if you’ll excuse my language.

What many of you tend to forget is that this business is subjective, and the likeability of characters, the likeability of people, is subjective. In the comments section you listed a number of examples of characters you felt were unlikeable but clearly worked in literature, one of whom was Lisbeth Salander from the Stieg Larsson series. I didn’t find her unlikeable at all. I thought she was damaged, odd, interesting, and intriguing. Not unlikeable. My opinion, of course.

For me likeability tends to coincide with one-dimensional. A character being unlikeable usually means she has no redeeming qualities, and usually even unlikeable people have a redeeming quality or two, something that gives them more depth. Lisbeth Salander, for example, has a vulnerability that gives her an intriguing dimension. And I find that true of any successful but unlikeable characters, typically they have qualities that make them likeable, or at least intriguing. Maybe they have a brilliant mind or damaged past. Either way, we desperately want to know more about them, want to spend more time with them, despite the fact that they repel us.

The other thing to consider when writing an unlikeable character is what genre you’re writing. In romance, for example, it’s really hard to write an unlikeable hero. Sure he can be damaged and yes, he can definitely have flaws, but your readers, along with your heroine, need to fall in love with him, so we need to see the good side of him too. And that’s just one example.

Certainly if an agent or editor tells you she didn’t find your character likeable, you can ignore what she says, assuming it’s subjective, and find someone who does. Or you could take a close look at your character to see if possibly it’s that she needs that thing (or two) to give her more depth and vulnerability.

Jessica

38 comments:

Tracy said...

Great post, Jessica!

As a reader, I find characters unlikeable in terms of "boring". It's those characters who have nothing remarkable about them that tend to lose my interest quickly.

One of my all-time favorite characters is Anne Rice's anti-hero, Lestat. He's arrogant, flamboyant, headstrong, impulsive -- and utterly loveable, despite his flaws.

It's boring that's unlikeable, IMO.

Rick Daley said...

"If you try to please everyone, no one will like it."

- One of Murphy's Laws

A. Grey said...

I've been querying a dystopian YA for some time now. Mostly I've gotten a lot of great feedback and though it's gotten rejections, they've been the sort where agents explained that there were factors beyond my writing and the book. The book, they liked very much.

And then I got a rejection from an agent I love (I was SO excited when she requested the full) and she said simply: 'Your writing is great, you voice is unique and engaging, but the main character simply wasn't likeable. Not likeable enough to make the work marketable.'

My first response was: She's not supposed to be cuddly and lovable! My second was: Well Katniss had me HATING her by the end of things (totally unreasonable, I know)

Then I sat back and looked at things. I changed things. My story improved. Things got better. And you know what? Comparing the two characters, before and after the 'make her more likable' edits, my MC WAS unlikable enough to threaten the story. But now, she's not. It hurts to hear that your beloved creation isn't very likable, but sometimes you need to hear it. And you need to believe it, and then change it.

rachelmariepratt said...

You hit the nail on the head with one dimensional.

Bri Clark said...

I appreciate this post. An unlikeable character for me is like being served a single piece of bread when you asked for a hero sandwhich.

If I may offer a simple technique that I use as an author to insure that doesn't happen. Doing a simple characterization exercise is really all it takes. For example where they are from, physical specs, personality traits, key gestures or phrases you can reference through out the novel. This is especially useful in a series.

It doesn't have to be high and mighty I usually end up doing it long hand in my notebook. The point is if the character is already built up in your mind, no matter how small the character I might add,they can't help but come across that way in the story.

Laurel said...

When I read "unlikeable" I usually insert "unconflicted". The worst characters are likeable when they have a moment of doubt that might lead to redemption, the best ones are more relatable when they consider bad choices.

Your romance hero comparison really highlights that phenomenon. Guys who act like jerks become somebody to pull for when they do or say one kind thing that hints at some humanity beneath the unappealing exterior.

One dimensional people are boring.

Shakespeare said...

Even more than where they come from, or their personal tastes, I like to know what they have right, and what they have wrong. No person is all good or bad, and everyone has flaws (some more than others).

I love a family dynamic best, for one character's flaws might stem specifically from his or her experience with another character. Characters rarely live in a vacuum (except for the stray Robinson Crusoe), so they have learned to work and think a certain way because of where they've been and whom they've met.

Bland characters kill me. Give them some punch or don't bother. At the same time, what floats my boat doesn't always float everyone else's.

tericarter said...

I remember that s*** storm. Honestly, I couldn't understand what was so offensive. "Unlikable" to me means that I could care less what happens to this character. And nobody wants to read about someone they don't care about.

We writers can be a touchy crew. I'm not immune. I write mostly nonfiction, so when someone says the narrator is unlikable (which has happened!) it's devastating because that narrator is ME!

Peace, Lena and Happiness said...

I agree that 'likeable' is very subjective. Sometimes I dont like the protagonist but everyone else seems to love him--A Separate Peace is one example that comes to mind, The Kite Runner is another. That doesnt mean I think the book isn't good or even that I didnt like it.
On the other hand, I try not to make my own characters too "good"--a little damage makes them more interesting. I'd rather someone hate my character than think he/she is boring.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

I read a novel awhile back where I didn't "like" the protagonist but I did care about what happened to her.

But I've also read books where I didn't like the main characters and I didn't care what happened to them - in fact, I stopped reading the books.

I think it takes great skill to create an "unlikeable" character that people still want to follow along for the length of a novel.

Anonymous said...

two words:

bella. swan.

Beth Pontorno said...

To me, anti-heroes are the most interesting characters in fiction. A character who is too perfect is boring and intimidating. Give the characters flaws, and I'll keep reading.

Lyn said...

I remember that discussion about unlikeable characters as well, in large part because I'm struggling to "fix" a character who people liked so much in my first novel that they asked if I was planning to write a novel with her as the protagonist. I did and the first agent who read it rejected it because the protagonist was unlikeable--whiny, selfish, and unaware of others' feelings (even for a teenager). I changed her backstory to give her less reason to whine, and made her less edgy and more altruistic; found another agent; and got rejected by an editor because she didn't like the protagonist, who she found boring and not worth reading about past the first chapter.

At least when the protagonist was whiny and selfish, the manuscript got read all the way through. However, I've decided not to go back to my original version but rather to shred the entire beginning, making sure that the protagonist has clear desires and goals and isn't just reacting to changes all around her. It may well be her passivity is the cause of her unlikeability, and neither whining nor going along to get along is going to solve that.

M Clement Hall said...

Literature, plays, opera etc., are full of persons with character traits one might consider undesirable, they murder with "humane" killers, they teach children to steal pocket handkerchiefs, they're beastly to the children they don't feed adequately, and so on, but they are all interesting.
To my understanding, the only unacceptable character (for which substitute author) is the bland and the boring.

Robena Grant said...

I wrote a novel several years ago where my heroine opened the story and she was in a snit. The comments that came back were, she was unlikeable. I learned form that experience that you only get one chance to draw your reader in, and that's in the beginning. That first impression becomes set in the reader's mind. Still haven't reworked that story, but I will someday. I may just lop off the first two chapters, because she is much more likeable by chapter three. : 0

Melissa Alexander said...

This is such a timely post for me. I've been struggling with whether my protagonist is unlikeable in the beginning of the book.

He *is* a selfing bastard, and he has made a career out of his ability to turn the charm on and off without feeling any emotion. But underlying that, he is in emotional turmoil.

He changes quite a bit during the book, but my fear is that readers will displike him early on and not want to read the whole thing.

M Clement Hall said...

Reading the comments over again leads me to think, "unlikeable" is one of the many flaws in the English language.
I would guess the original blog that caused the uproar intended the meaning, "lacking in likeable qualities," i.e. boring.
Some of the respondents seem to use the other potential meaning, "having qualiities that are actively unpleasant."
The second definition covers many successful characters in fiction (and real life) e.g. Hannibal Lecter, but the first is a failure in fiction (and usually in real life).

M.J.B. said...

Great post. I started really pondering this concept when I was reading "Olive Kitteridge," because I saw how effective it was in engaging me with a completely abrasive character. Then came Lisbeth, then Katniss!

That said, I also love "Harry Potter," and part of what I've always found lovable about the books is that Harry (excluding his genuine heroic qualities) is somewhat average and relatable -- the characters around him, however, are almost all unforgetable: Hermione, Hagrid, Snape, Dumbledore, Luna Lovegood..I could go on and on. I do like books with "average" protagonists who meet snappy characters along their journeys--it can help keep the believability grounded for readers.

If you look at Mikhail Blomquist, he was the "average" character in "Millenium." Lisbeth was the one I'll never forget. I think it was good to have this balance.

Sangu said...

I agree with everything you've pointed out, Jessica. Characters are so subjective, but there are also certain things that will turn a reader off for good. Boring characters, for a start, and the one-dimensional you mentioned. I also find stupid characters maddening. Not 'stupid' as in 'silly' or 'intellectually challenged', but just characters who a) insist on doing stupid things without questioning motives or reasons, and b) keep doing annoying, weak, stupid things without showing any sign of learning from these ridiculous mistakes.

Sigh. Yes. That is my huge character pet peeve.

Gabriela Lessa said...

Totally agree. The complex unlikeable characters are usually the most likeable ones, because they stick with you. Like the Phantom of the Opera. Who doesn't like him way better than the vicomte?

Sean said...

Writing an unlikeable character that people will want to stick around long enough to see what happens to them is a huge challenge. But also comes with a bigger payoff if you are successful.

When I had my own show on the radio I turned myself into a character. Used a fake name and description and everything. My character was a straight shooter who, at times, would - purposely - get surly with listeners on the phones or celebrities in the studio. At other times, I would show extreme compassion and vulnerability.

Whenever I began a new radio gig in a new town, the listeners would always hate me at first. Complaints would roll in like accident reports for that Spiderman show on Broadway. But, after a short amount of time, I always killed in my daypart's ratings. People ended up wanting me to come to whatever bar that night so they could buy me a drink. Always said they felt like they knew me.

If I had played my normal boring self, day after day, I would have been doomed. Emotion is a great tool if you can properly harness it.

Sommer Leigh said...

Characters I find repellant and unlikeable are always the ones that never grow out of it. These are books I end up hating because I've already read the whole thing before I understand the character never changes or becomes more satisfying or intriguing.

Cacy said...

I feel Lyn's pain! My friend hated my MC and called her whiny (and it really hurt my feelings...sniffle, sniffle). I accused him of hating teenage girls and that it was HIS problem (which is a perfectly reasonable response to critique, right?), but then I gave him Uglies and Hunger Games to read and he loved them both. So darn it all, looked like it was my problem after all.

The way I addressed that problem was to make her more active. I learned that what's worse than having a character doing nothing pro-active in the first - egads! - hundred pages, was to have them bemoaning their fate ad complaining while doing nothing. Heh. I'm a little embarrassed to admit I didn't see this flaw for myself, but it was a first(ish) draft!

In the end I wound up cutting the entire first part where she was inactive and starting at a place where she's actively making a move, upping the stakes so that she's at a point where she has to make the desperate act, and I worked at better articulating and manifesting her inner turmoil.

Rebecca Stroud said...

One of my all-time favorite characters: Lisbeth Salander. I adored her.

However, my novel's antagonist has few redeeming qualities. Although there are reasons for this and she does show some vulnerability along the way, she is shallow and selfish to the bitter end.

Bottom line: I truly believe how we feel about a book's characters is totally subjective.

Fawn Neun said...

Nobody wants to read a book with unlikeable characters. What's the debate?

I guess I missed the storm.

Kristin Laughtin said...

When listing out characters who are "unlikeable but work in fiction", it's important to distinguish between people we might dislike in real life and people we would dislike in real life but work on the page. Lisbeth works for you because of her vulnerability. Someone meeting her if she existed in reality probably wouldn't see that unless they knew her well, and would dislike her. In the text, we get more insight into why she is how she is, and we're able to feel sympathy and intrigue toward her, making her likable.

As you say, it does come down to complexity. Characters could be perfectly pleasant, the type of people we'd like to know in real life, but if there's no depth to them, the reader will probably find them boring and like them less on the page. Or a character could be a total jackass, but if we see multiple facets of him, we might like him very much on the page even if we'd despise him if we ever met in reality.

Sean Giorgianni said...

My $0.02: discussions about likeable focus on the wrong end of the equation. *Provocative causes* lead to *likeable effects*.

The natural selection of reading remarkable characters (fictional or real) will favor those who incite, stimulate, irritate, and/or vex in ways that make plain the complicated assumptions and beliefs we hide from ourselves in order to *get along* with the world.

The cost of this type of revelation is isolation, but the benefit is freedom and the ability to do great things.

Lyn said...

Thanks, Cacy! I think one of the reasons it's particularly hurtful when someone says your character's unlikeable--particularly if it's a main character--is that these characters may be autobiographical on some level. So when someone says the character is unlikeable, there's the feeling that you, the writer, are also unlikeable--boring, whiny, selfish, etc. If it's a friend telling you this, you wonder if the friend sees something negative in you that you haven't noticed. It's more of a stretch to take these comments personally when an industry professional tells you this, unless you and the industry professional know each other (and perhaps you two have had a less than positive encounter in the past).

Dale said...

I like unlikable people, in my fiction. In real life I have to tolerate them, sometimes, and the plus side is I get to tell stories about them, or maybe write them into my books as villeins and foils.

dalerobertweese said...

I like unlikable people, in my fiction. In real life I have to tolerate them, sometimes, and the plus side is I get to tell stories about them, or maybe write them into my books as villeins and foils.

lora96 said...

As a reader, I adored The Hunger Games series but found Katniss a difficult character--largely unsympathetic for me, but ultimately I cared about what happened to her. Since I found her story compelling, I can't make an argument for actual unlikeability there.

The one example I can truly boast of a book I enjoyed but despised the heroine was Gone with the Wind, which I find entertaining and have read repeatedly while thinking Scarlett is an atrociously bad parent and total user. My husband commented he expected her to roll around in money like Scrooge McDuck.

Kathryn Paterson said...
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Kathryn Paterson said...
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Kathryn Paterson said...

It's funny; I'm reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo now and Lisbeth is the main reason I'm keeping reading. I like Blomkvist too, but initially, I felt his story was a little dull and that he didn't have enough at stake. I agree with you that I don't find Lisbeth unlikeable at all--in fact, I adore her.

That may sound strange, but I think it's that toughness combined with the vulnerability that does do it for me, and also the way the other characters see her. That's something that goes a long way with me as a reader--if I see other "likeable" characters giving this person a chance, I'll be more likely to engage with her as a POV character. And a narrator's view of a character can go a long way to color the reader's view. It takes a special skill to be able to portray a character positively when the main POV character sees that character negatively, but it can be done. Laurie Halse Andersen does it beautifully with her YA novels, and John Updike was, of course, a master.

Great post! I'm really liking this blog!

Cacy said...

Too true, Lyn. I do think I let her borrow quite a bit of my personality, especially since it's fist person POV. So yeah, it can feel like that, but ultimately no matter how much of a character comes from who I am, once I move on from draft one I have to step back and figure out what doesn't work for the character. (She should be cooler than me anyway, right?)

Also, developing thick skin helps with that whole receiving critique objectively thing.

Mary said...

Did not catch the sh*t storm that blew through your blog but reading your recent post made me want to comment.

I think any book, show, movie is appealing when you have a character you love to hate. It's like chili without red pepper - bland.

There needs to be a dash of spice or the story seems like something missing.

As for Lisbeth Salander - I think she's an intriguing character. I did not read the series but have watched the two available foreign films. So, I guess I have read the stories because of the subtitles.

She's tough, wounded, misunderstood, broody, but devoted. I cant help but cheer when she seeks retribution,

The last film - The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest is available at Redbox in a couple of weeks and my hub and I are anxiously awaiting to see what Lisbeth does next.

Unknown said...

It's hard to distinguish a character as likeable or unlikeable for me, but I have to say that a character that has a bad life and always complains despite the good stuff in it, or has no redeeming qualities (like passion for something that keeps them going despite everything being horrible) annoys me the most. They should have flaws, for if they don't it's not only boring but false. Everybody has flaws. If a character has flaws but chooses only to complain about them, it's even worse than not having any.

That said, one of my favorite characters is Elphaba from Wicked (the book, not the musical). She has her flaws, is seemingly divisive for no reason, but does she sit around and complain about it, and use it as an excuse to not do or be certain things? No! And plus, she may be 'misunderstood' and fails at almost all she tries, but still has motive and passion that keeps her from just giving up, even when there is more than sufficient reason to do so. And it's not as if she doesn't have bad feelings or actions, that everything is just bad all on its own without her influence. While reading the book, I found that that made me really appreciate her, despite any bad reviews about the book others had.

Unknown said...

It's hard to distinguish a character as likeable or unlikeable for me, but I have to say that a character that has a bad life and always complains despite the good stuff in it, or has no redeeming qualities (like passion for something that keeps them going despite everything being horrible) annoys me the most. They should have flaws, for if they don't it's not only boring but false. Everybody has flaws. If a character has flaws but chooses only to complain about them, it's even worse than not having any.

That said, one of my favorite characters is Elphaba from Wicked (the book, not the musical). She has her flaws, is seemingly divisive for no reason, but does she sit around and complain about it, and use it as an excuse to not do or be certain things? No! And plus, she may be 'misunderstood' and fails at almost all she tries, but still has motive and passion that keeps her from just giving up, even when there is more than sufficient reason to do so. And it's not as if she doesn't have bad feelings or actions, that everything is just bad all on its own without her influence. While reading the book, I found that that made me really appreciate her, despite any bad reviews about the book others had.