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.



Kimber Li said...

If anyone's hearing the 'unlikable character' complaint, I suggest-

SAVE THE CAT! by Blake Snyder

It's a book on screenwriting, but I've found it so helpful for novel-writing too. He explains how to present an 'unlikable' character in a way that won't turn people immediately off to the story.

Keri Ford said...

Ugh. I've got a character that gets comments from both ends of the spectrum. One person tells me she's unlikeable, then next says they love and completely get her.

Because of that, she's been drawered and only gets a minor tinkering her and there.

Jessica Nelson said...

Nice post. I've been told some of my characters are unlikeable. It's a challenge for me to round my characters and something I'm working on.
I guess it shouldn't be surprising to hear people complain.
I think they should remember, too, that we all like people differently.
For example, my sister despises House. Can't stand him
I, however, adore him. He's definitely flawed and yet he's got his redeeming qualities.
It's subjective, but you should still pay attention when someone says a character is unlikeable.

Jessica Nelson said...

I always persist in spelling unlikable wrong. Ergghh.

Bowman said...

There isn't a thin line between flawed and unlikeable. There are many ways to create a likeable, yet flawed, character. I think it is harder to create a perfect, yet likeable, character.

Nice post.

Bowman said...


My dictionary shows that both "unlikeable" and "unlikable" are acceptable. I sweated a little over it, but I think we're safe.

Anonymous said...

Jessica: Unlikeable/unlikable...both are correct

Sabina E. said...

lots of people hate Holden Caulfield

even though Catcher in the Rye is one of my fave books, even sometimes I wanna strangle him.

Anonymous said...

I love writing flawed characters. I love writing a character that I can relate to. And even though I write paranormals, I believe a flawed character is universal. We're all in some way flawed, writing a character that's perfect or reading about one, has never resonated with me.

As a matter of fact my latest ms deals with a character who's so flawed at some points you really can't stand her. She's a demon and so feels no compunction about taking a life, or embarrasing someone. On the other hand she'll fight like a savage to save the life of an innocent child. *shrug*

Flawed is my bread and butter. :D

Anonymous said...

Andrew Davidson got a million bucks for The Gargoyle, and the 1st person narrator was as unlikeable as they come. Apparently the book didn't do as well Doubleday expected - they recently gave a bunch of folks the heave ho - but what, exactly, were they expecting? I read it and didn't like the narrator. I wouldn't tell anyone to run out and get the book, either. I'd like a million bucks, though...

Heidi Willis said...

I recently stopped reading an author because increasingly her characters have become more and more unlikeable. I think she is trying too hard to make them complicated and flawed, but by the end of the books I can't tell which side is suppose to be the good and which i should be rooting for justice. I want them all to go to jail!

The trick, maybe, as an author, is to love your characters. If we write people we love, despite their flaws, we will find those things in them that others will like too.

Marcie Steele said...

Wow, Jessica, have you been reading my mind? I have an agent who is looking at my full at the moment, really likes the story and the writing (yay) but has only gelled with one of the two main characters. She hasn't read the rest of the book because of this reason (which is relating to your post and I can understand this as I can't do it myself) but I know that the character changes so I'm not going to amend anything as I feel the mix is fine. She really wanted one main character and because of this wanted one character to be more feisty than the other.

But before dismissing it, she has given my book to some of the younger agents to read to see if they feel the same. So your post was great to read and extremely timely because I don't need to change it for her. If she doesn't like it, then I need to find someone who does.

Great blog by the way :)

Anonymous said...

I hope the ediors aren't telling the writers WHY they are rejecting their books. Ditto with agents. The mushroom theory is a lot more fun. Keep 'em guessing. Keep 'em in the dark.

Anonymous said...

While I think the protagonist should most of the time be likeable, it's not always necessary. Look at the novel, "The Beach". The protagonist wasn't the greatest guy in the world, and when reading it the reader probably doesn't agree with 75% of his actions and sarcastic thoughts, but I think the genius is in the storytelling.

It's such a fine line, isn't it? What I tend to do, and maybe this is showing that I'm still a young author, is put myself in the protagonist's shoes and implement bits 'n bobs of my own characteristics into him/her. I sort of go by the ideal that if you were to go out as your character into public one day, would you WANT to be liked? Would you WANT to blend in?

Usually my answer's yes, but again, I think it depends on the storyline and the purpose behind it all. I think there should be SOMETHING about that character that at least connects or resonates with the reader on some level. Otherwise you can't really achieve rapport with the audience you're targeting.

Just my two cents' worth, anyway. ;) I love this blog. Serious, there is always something helpful in it.

Julie Weathers said...

When I started Barbara Rogan's workshop the universal comment was no one really cared about my protag.

*gasp* No one cares?

Well, they were right. I had made her too subservient to give anyone a glimpse of the fire that gets her through the hard times.

Sometimes the truth is a bitter pill to swallow, but we have to do so if our writing is to grow.

I like multi-faceted characters who have unusual quirks and flaws that create more obstacles to their goals.

The Rejection Queen said...

There are too many good books to waste on books with unlikable charcters...it's true. I just stop reading and move on to another.

Anonymous said...

Is it possible to write a character so flawed he's not likeable at first, but whom the reader learns to love?

You bet it is. John Kennedy Toole did exactly that in A Confederacy of Dunces.

Brilliant example of exactly what you're saying, Jessica.

About Me said...

On an earlier draft of my first novel, I was told that my MC wasn't likeable, that she was just a cold-hearted, B..(shut your mouth!). And I realized that I hadn't shown her redeeming characteristics, and I had to go back and write those in. And now I have been told she's a character you have sympathy for and you cheer for...

Excellent Post, Jessica. There's definitely a big difference between unlikeable and flawed.

Jean Wogaman said...

I couldn't make myself finish reading LOLITA because I found Humbert Humbert so repugnant. But I've noticed that some people rave about the book, so obviously not everyone agrees with me.

I think the virtue of being interesting can sometimes outweigh the need for likeability. Like Jessica (the commenter @ 8:51) I love House. He's a heavily flawed character, even despicable at times. I don't think I'd put up with someone like that in my real life for long. But as a fictional character, he's extremely entertaining to watch. Brilliant in some areas, dark and dirty in others, his questionable character generates some gripping plotlines. I feel the same way about Inspector Morse (both in the books and on TV).

All of the characters I enjoy enough to read about over and over have weaknesses and flaws. When a character is too pure, s/he doesn't ring true.

MJ said...

I absolutely adore Joe Abercrombie's First Law series. He has written characters that are flawed to the point that they should be unlikeable. But they are not. When done well, flawed characters can make a book.

An unlikeable character is, in my opinion, one with little depth or personality. Perhaps even one whose character fails to grow, or who fails to bring conflict through their lack of growth.

suzanneelizabeths.com said...

I agree, there are books that I will toss aside quickly if the protagonist is someone I wouldn't want to spend time with, afterall, we are seeing the world (story) through their eyes and if we don't like them, is lessens the chance that we will like the story.

Diana said...

This is a wonderful post!

Flaws make characters interesting and can influence how they behave in a book. Jesse Stone, a Robert B. Parker character, is one of my favorites - a man who takes a job as police chief of a small town on the East Coast after he's fired for drinking on the job in L.A. The battle with alcohol and his inability to let go of his ex-wife are an important part of his story, and give him room to grow from book to book. The heroes in J.R. Ward's vampire series also have some pretty amazing flaws for the romance genre, and yet it's really hard not to like them.

For me, unlikeable characters are those with whom I cannot connect at all. It seems to me that the books I enjoy most are the ones where I can feel a little tug between me and most of the important characters, even if we have nothing in common. Compassion or empathy, it's that something that makes me accept and care about that person even if I don't always like their actions. I recently read a romance novel that had a great hero, but the heroine was so flat and wrapped up in herself that I didn't really care what happened to her, and actually felt bad that the hero won her over in the end. If you don't care about the main characters, why would you care how the story ends?

Unknown said...

I really hope authors aren't being led to believe that characters should never have unappealing qualities. The Stepford wives are creepy for a reason!

Anita said...

Yeah, I think protagonists should be likeable, even if they're flawed. Even if they're really, really flawed.

But check this out from a galleycat post today, especially third paragraph:
Seven literary women are reading Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing's classic novel, The Golden Notebook together. The website allows other readers to join the conversation in forums, and the comments are carefully indexed by page, author, and subject. The team includes journalist Nona Willis Aronowitz and novelist Helen Oyeyemi.

Hopefully more reading communities can follow this example. In the meantime, here are a few marginal thoughts from novelist Naomi Alderman, reflecting on Page 83:

"I don't especially like any of the characters in this novel so far. I do like that in the novel, though. I think people get far too hung up on having fictional characters be 'likeable.' Better they should be interesting; and these people are very interesting indeed."


Karen Duvall said...

I can "like" a character and not want to go out for coffee with them. If I find a character interesting, I like them for that reason.

Unlikable comes in many forms, including the saccharin sweet Polyannas that make me want to throw up. Are those characters likable? Not to me.

Yet a character who's a jerk for the sake of being a jerk is not going to win fans, either. That jerk might be likable if he had some redeeming qualities, like being a good dad while he's being a lousy boss. But I kind of doubt it.

If the things that might make characters unlikable are understandable, that changes things. Like the character Greg House, whose heart may be the size of a walnut, but it has the potential to grow to that of a lion. He's complicated. Not everyone gets that. It's what makes him such a dynamic and complex character.

And, IMO, any character with the capacity to love is likable.

T. M. Hunter said...

I wonder if people enjoy unlikable characters as long as they understand what makes a character that way (and if they change by the end).

Granted, it was a movie, but thinking about As Good As It Gets makes me wonder.

Anonymous said...

I don't mind a unlikeable flawed character. In fact, I love those. What I detest are the unlikeable annoying ones.
I blame them for the impending death (or so I hear) of chick lit.
I can't tell you how many of those books I read (and I love the good ones) featuring a heroine who is a complete idiot. Inept, shallow, and totally self-absorbed.
And, BTW, she has some low level job, but catches the attention of her boss (who is invariably smart, capable, and hunky, your basic tycoon) and he is so taken by her that they end up together.

Conny said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Conny said...

Two things:

1. Unlikeable is not the same as flawed. IMO, the most unlikeable characters are the perfect ones!

2. I don't mind if a character is unlikable, as long as the author provides me with some way of empathizing.

Anonymous said...

Humbert Humbert?

Anonymous said...

I wrote a short story to see whether I could instantly create a character you wouldn’t like and rehabilitate him as an exercise to build my writing chops. He’s friendly and hugs all the women with whom he has regular dealings. By page 2 you know it’s partly because he has so many scents his wife will never suspect. By the end of page 3 he’s going on a date looking for a long-term, extramarital relationship. At this point readers are just about ready to gargle to get the bad taste out of their mouths. But by the end, readers have connected with him according to the stats, comments and emails (it’s posted online).

Anonymous said...

anon -

Yes, Humbert Humbert is the actual name of the old pervert in Lolita. Which a quick trip to google would have told you.

Beth said...

I'm probably too late to start this debate, but how about Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin? I didn't like her at all and although she improved through the book, she still wasn't easy to like by the end. Loved the book though.

No idea how Lionel Shriver carried this off.

Anonymous said...

Writers of fiction novel books just want to show that the characters they have made are not perfect. They had also created the characters in order for the readers to see that they too can erase the habit of alcohol drinking, just like the characters in the books who have triumphed over alcoholism.