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.


37 comments: said...

That being said, I do think in the revisions, the author worked on making her characters more likeable.

How???? :-) said...

I don’t think there are any easy fixes to make a character likeable.

Well, poop.

Anonymous said...

Olive Kitteredge is a recent example of a somewhat unlikeable character who engages the reader, and by the end of the book I would guess she's won over most of her readers.

Laura K. Curtis said...

It's also worth noting that not all your characters have to be likable. Just enough of them to keep your readers from throwing the book away out of boredom or disgust. Some of the characters may be totally unlikable, in fact!

There's a great post on exactly the subject of likable and complex characters at .

Beth said...

What about Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin? I didn't like her at all, but loved the book. I do think that's a rarity, and maybe outside the genres you're talking about, but it's an example of a main character being completely unlikeable and yet the book is still gripping.

It's not like I liked any of the other characters either. I didn't like Franklin, Celia or (obviously) Kevin either - although by the very end I was softening towards Kevin. A little.

Rick Daley said...

I can't help but be cliche, but there is a value to "the man you love to hate."

Of course, you can substitute woman or child as appropriate.

This is where a good sized critique group is beneficial, so you can weigh the varied opinions of many readers and see what common threads lead to love/hate for your characters.

My wife loved the TWILIGHT series. I've never seen her read so many books so fast. I read the first one, and I don't like the character of Bella, and found it tough to finish because I just didn't care what happened, and I have no urge to read the rest of the series. Not knocking the books...many people love them, and I don't fault them their opinions. It's just not for me. Such is the subjective nature of entertainment.

Anonymous said...

Another example of a horrific but likable character: Dexter, of book and Showtime (?) fame.

Kristan said...

"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."

LOL! Great post, but that line especially cracked me up.

Kristen said...

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.

This is not only true, but the foundation of every truly great love story I've read!

Fantastic post!

Mira said...

I like this post, and I think you hit the nail on the head, Jessica. Seeing their softer side makes them more accessible. We see their pain or their dilmena and empathize with them. That makes them likeable and interesting.

The tricky part is that it's not self-involvement that's likeable; it's vulnerability. That's true even if the vulnerabilty is masked, or the character themselves is not aware of it. So, a character who constantly whines, or feels sorry for themselves, etc. won't be likeable, for example, unless you can show the underlying vulnerability.

Really interesting post, thanks.

Ellen Brickley said...

Great post, Jessica, and great comments so far - Ghostfolk, you made me laugh out loud.

B, the main reason why We Need To Talk About Kevin worked for me was because I really liked Eva. However, I can easily see why someone wouldn't like her, and it's interesting to know that you were able to love the book nevertheless.

I think it depends on your definition of 'liking' a character - I wouldn't go for a coffee with Hannibal Lecter, or Amber St. Clare from Forever Amber, or Scarlett O'Hara, but I found all of them compelling to read about. And apart from Hannibal, I'd be happy to be stuck in a lift with any of them.

Anonymous said...

I think a mistake a lot of writers make is thinking they have to make a character they would like to be around in real life. Characters don't have to be likable so much as interesting.

Gregory House is not someone I'd want to ever work with. He's an asshole. A real House would not have the benefit of a team of writers making sure his every word is witty before it leaves his mouth.

But House is funny. He says the things we want to say (at least on occasion). He's smart. We also see his vulnerabilities, his fears, and how he tries so hard to hide them behind a mask of sarcasm.

This being Friday, I leave you with two quotes from other unlikable yet interesting characters:

Bender B. Rodriguez ("Game's over, losers! I have all the money. Compare your lives to mine and then kill yourselves.")

Monty Burns ("Little do you know you're drawing ever closer to the poisoned donut.")

Jenna Wallace said...

When Jane Austen wrote Emma, she said that she knew most people wouldn't like Emma (after all, she was spoiled, self-centered, vain, and a terrible snob) but that SHE loved her, maybe even more than all her other characters. I think Jane Austen committed to her character and developed her so beautifully that we all cheered when Emma redeemed herself.

I think it is essential to know what makes a character appealing, if not likeable. That allows us to communicate it effectively, good or bad, to our readers.

Haste yee back ;-) said...

You can always have your character save a cat stuck high in a tree or trapped in a burning house... (early in the story, of course) - OR

You can do this... When in college, early one spring morning my girlfriend, now wife, were rumbling along in my old rust-bucket car on a back country road headed to class when I spotted a box turtle slowly making his way across a two lane highway. I pulled over, got out of the car, picked the old guy up and escorted him to safety on the other side of the road.

I returned to the car and girlfriend - future wife, JoAnn was smiling, but silent.

Years later, she admitted, it was that day she decided I was marriage material!

Haste yee back ;-)

Marilynn Byerly said...

If you give the main character a worthy goal for the novel, and that goal should be presented ASAP, then you give yourself time to make a seemingly unlikable character grow on the reader.

By worthy, I mean something the reader will want that character to succeed at-- rescuing children, helping a nice person find happiness, etc. Even if the character starts out doing it for a base reason like money, the reader will still want him to succeed.

In some genre fiction like thrillers, the immediate likability quotient doesn't have to be high at the beginning, particularly if the character is strong and effective in what he needs to do, but in a romance, the hero or heroine should be likable from the very beginning. The other main character should become likable as the book progresses.

Simple things can help make a character start to grow on the reader. Pets are always a good option. Either he has one, or he can't resist the heroine's kitten, or something like that. A child is also a good likability quickie.

I read a short story last night where the heroine breaks into an apartment of a possible villain-- a hard-ass security agent. A teddy bear is sitting on his couch, and he later admits it belongs to his nephew. With that simple stroke, the author made a seemingly unlikable bad guy a much nicer person.

Giving a character a vulnerability that the reader can relate to is also a good likability quickie. It can be as simple as a chick lit heroine having a bad hair day and the boss from heck, or the bad ass hero getting into a plane with a snake and freaking out.

Kimber Li said...

I often feel the push for character likablity is taken too far. Heroines are homogenized and cloned too often, I think, for the widest possible appeal and usually to resemble whatever heroine is in the latest bestseller. Gets frustrating and then boring for a reader.

Then, there are the Young Adult heroines who are in the books because it's believed that's what teen girls *ought* to like. Of course, they don't because they can't relate and then heads shake over the Twilight Phenomena.

It seems to me people want a quick formula they can just plug in and presto! Bestseller. But, I think it takes a lot more listening and learning from REAL readers to figure it out.

Jennifer Spiller said...

Haste yee back, (love the moniker, btw) your story sounds very similar to something I heard in a workshop once. I think it might have been Donald Maass' The Fire in Fiction workshop at RWA. Anyone who recognizes the example may be able to cite it for me.

What I remember is this:

1. Have your characters do and say the things you wish you could in real life. All those witty things you wish you'd said at a party? Your character has your benefit of hindsight and can say what he/she wants to in the moment. That's why people like House, I think.
2. So your character really doesn't want to stop and pick up the dude at the side of the road. He's on his way to something important for which he shouldn't be late. He thinks that guy is an idiot for getting himself into the situation. He drives right by, but, kicking himself, he turns back. Cursing his own bleeding heart ways, he helps the guy by the side of the road.

I think these two things illustrate courage and internal conflict which make people (for me) likable and interesting.

Madeline said...

The main character in Gillian Flynn's SHARP OBJECTS made me...uncomfortable. I didn't dislike her, but I didn't like her either. Yet I was drawn to her somehow, and I felt compelled to finish the book to see what happened.

I think it takes a great deal of talent and skill to pull that off. :)

Hart Johnson said...

My first reaction (or exception) is Humbert Humbert--Lolita is an amazing, compelling read, but a few comments (plus your notes on Hannibal Lecter) hint at how this is possible. Nabikov puts us so deeply in Humbert's head that we almost experience his delusion. He's a bad guy, but HE doesn't have a clue.

Do we want him to succeed? NO! Do we sympathize? No. But we GET him. We're so fascinated that we CAN'T not read on, even while we are repulsed--it's like watching an accident, impossible to step away.

I think though, it's a rare author who has Nabakov's skill--the ability to take a character that dispicable and to write so well that people love the book in spite of hating the character.

Kate Douglas said...

Interesting post, and one I deal with in my ongoing series. I have a character who can be an egotistical ass, and yet that appears to be what my readers love about him. What makes it work in Anton's case is the fact his vulnerabilities often show through. Sometimes, I think that a character's flaws are every bit as important as his/her strengths in making them likable.

And Rick--I'm with you on Bella. She's absolutely insufferable, and yet I love the Twilight series. Go figure!

Sierra Godfrey said...

I like this post so much. I definitely have struggled with this issue because my character is a certain way at the start of the novel, and changes for the better at the end. It's that changing for the better that I need to keep a careful watch on. I heard the unlikeable comment from my critique group more than once.

Dreamstate had a great comment about Emma...and your example of Scarlett O'Hara is perfect. Both ladies are hugely unlikable, but they also both have some real strengths in them that make them likeable. I couldn't stand Scarlett until she went back to the family farm and got determined. I still struggled with her after that, too. But her unflappable drive was vastly entertaining.

It's those traits that we admire in others--strength of character, determination, and taking responsibility--that are the fixes to an unlikable character.

Donna Gambale said...

Scarlett O'Hara is the perfect example for this -- excellent choice. She was so frustrating because she could be stubborn and oblivious, but I desperately wanted her to see the light! Thanks for a great post.

Anonymous said...

MONK is a good example of a likeable but off-beat character. In real life, he'd drive me crazy--and the show does go a bit overboard on the OCD--yet you can't help but watch since he's so endearing and vulnerable. Series finale tonight!

Dara said...

I absolutely love Scarlett O'Hara! She's probably my favorite character in all classic fiction :)Yes, she's selfish and vain, but she's got just enough of a vulnerable side to make many readers really care about her.

I think I like her character so much because she's so flawed and I can see an aspect of myself in her. And I think that's the key part--you have to make them just likeable enough that readers can see aspects of themselves in them, as well as giving them a certain level of vulnerability.

Great post!

The Daring Novelist said...

To me the only thing you can really do about "likeability" is to stop and think what makes YOU want to spend so much time with this character.

And then stop and think about what might make you want to run screaming from the room about the character. (And get critique from others about this issue too.)

That can help you emphasize what's good and cut back on what's bad.

The most common reason for me to dislike a character is because they whine. I tend to like a character, on the other hand, if they have reason to whine, and don't.

Nicole said...

A great example of a character that just sucks but the book still works? Thomas Covenant of Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant Chronicles.

To put it simply, that man was awful.

Still, he had his decent moments so you didn't hate him all the time. Prime example of an antihero I think...

Unknown said...

I always think of the character of Dexter Morgan. He is a serial killer, he really doesn't care much for humanity, something is broken inside him, but I find him likeable in so many ways. He's funny, and quirky, and loves his sister fiercely, and he has his own moral code.

Caroline said...

This reminds me of a quote: "It's impossible not to love someone once you know their story." And that's what we're doing when we write. So if you tell their story well enough, your character will be likeable.

Haste yee back ;-) said...

Jennifer, glad you like the "Haste yee back ;-)"

LOL, I think it's on every agent's blacklist, delete or no response computer thingy!

Haste yee back ;-)

dolorah said...

I like the Hanibal Lecter analogy because his is, to me, the ultimate bad guy/good guy controversy. Murdering and eating your enemies: very antisocial behavior. Having compassion and empathy for victims: very redeemable characteristics. Thomas Harris did an excellent job of depicting what is honorable and desireable in all humans, and twisting it into something wholly dispicable.

I am trying to do the same thing with one of my own main characters to make him a likeable character. He is an addict, gunrunner and drug seller for a criminal organization, womanizer.

Like Hanibal, my character is loyal to a fault to his family and friends he considers family; he has a strict code of ethics/morals he'll never compromise; he is compassionate and intelligent and deeply romantic. All desireable traits in a hero.

Or so I'm hoping. Not exactly the "prostitute with a heart of gold", but maybe "a good cop on the wrong side of the law" concept. It is these traits - not his friendships, who are more often than not of a criminal bent - than make my character "likeable" to the reader.

But if a villian is true to his character - his moral code, however sadistic or irredeemable - he can also be a "likeable" character, because he is totally believeable. The reader will admire him/her for their consistency, and the bit of all of us we see in him/her, but will be pleased that the evil in the character is eventually caught and and punished.

Everybody loves a bad-boy, but the love to see justice done even more.


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

Orson Scott Card's "Characters & Viewpoint" contains a chapter (25 pages) on how to make a character more likeable and how to make up for unlikeable traits. I found this very helpful. One of the traits on his "unlikeable" list in particular -- intellect -- was an eyeopener to me. Gee, if I have a really knowledgeable main character, that's a bad thing and I must work harder to make her likeable?

"Characters & Viewpoint" is one of the seven most useful writing guides, in my opinion. I only came across it after I had finished to the second draft of my novel and it helped me to "fine-tune" my characters, esp. make the main character more likeable.

Matthew said...

I have a strange interest in unlikable characters--like the characters in Capote's "In Cold Blood." They're not likable, but they do have a few redeemable qualities (or pitiable qualities).

I think it comes down to how well developed the characters are. A well-developed, but unlikable character is more interesting than a highly-likable, underdeveloped one.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the question is "likeability." It's a question of whether the character is multi-faceted and interested. A "likeable" character can be a snooze if he doesn't have flaws. An "unlikeable" character can be fasctinating if we see other sides of him.

Jemi Fraser said...

If I don't like the main character, I won't finish the book. For me, the best part of reading is the connection I feel with the characters and their problems.

Anonymous said...

The key to making a character who may actually be, well, a detriment to himself, society, etc a likeable character--make him human. That's what makes, as the example says, Hannibal Lecter such a winner. He's not just an evil caricature; he has obvious facets to his personality other than "I eat people."

Or, another example without serial killers, Sarah Monette's lead character Felix Harrowgate in the "Doctrine of Labyrinths" makes you want to strangle him to death on a regular basis. He's cruel to everyone, including the one person who deserves his care most, and damages his own life and the lives of people around him with ridiculous accuracy. What redeems him: he does actually care, and he makes efforts to stop being, well, such an asshole. And you love him for it.

Anonymous said...

I think likeable might be the wrong word. Characters have to be compelling or interesting, there has to be a draw for the reader to care what happens to them. The reader doesn't necessarily have to like them.