Monday, February 10, 2014

Writing Likeable Characters

I've often heard the advice that writers should strive to create likeable characters. Unfortunately the term 'likeable' is often misunderstood to mean someone you'd want to get to know in real life. As a result, writers turn their creations into sugar sweet confectionery that's neither likeable nor realistic.

I just finished reading The Diviners by Libba Bray. It's a young adult book set in the 1920's. It's a wonderful read, but I'm not sure I'd want to make the main character my best friend. She's far too selfish. Oddly enough, she's likeable nonetheless. Why? Because she's interesting. She's bold and open-minded and just a little bit sassy.

I also recently read Bloody Waters by Jason Franks. It's about a girl named Clarice and her rock band, Bloody Waters, as they rise to stardom with the aid of a deal done with the devil. Another fantastic read. I definitely would not want to know Clarice in real life, yet she's a fabulous character to journey with through the novel. She speaks her mind, is as rough as sandpaper, and will take out anyone who gets in her way.


Another great example of unlikeable likeable characters is to read pretty much any of the books written by Joe Abercrombie. The Blade Itself is his first novel. It's full of horrible people capable of doing horrible things, yet I was drawn to them anyway. He turned the sanitised fantasies into something new and engaging.

So when you hear the call for 'likeable' characters, think instead 'interesting'--characters with depth, inner conflicts and flaws. Realistic characters with no rainbows and unicorns in sight. It's the quirks that make the characters likeable and encourages readers to read more.

What stories have you read with unlikeable likeable characters? What do you think made those characters work?


96 comments:

  1. This might go way back, but how about Long John Silver? Robert Louis Stevenson had a way of making a pirate seem almost a gentlemen. Granted I haven't read this since I was a boy, but it was the first thing I thought of.

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    1. A great example. Gotta love the gentlemanly pirates, yargh!

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  2. I'm partial to characters I'd like in real life. However, my friends in real life aren't "rainbows and unicorns." They have quirks, flaws, and sometimes make bad decisions. But their list of positive traits, morals and ethics, far outweigh the bad. I've stopped in the middle of a LOT of books where I just didn't care about the mc.

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    1. Absolutely. I'm not saying we shouldn't write characters we'd like to know in real life, but there's a way of creating them that's realistic. Flaws make a person interesting in a story, and it's far more realistic.

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  3. Severus Snape, some readers disliked him but I always thought well of him. Despite his potentially dark temperamental nature, I saw an amazing character. A rare gem. My interest is in story whether I like the MC or not. If the story is boring I don't really care how likeable your mc is.

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    1. One of my many mottos: Story comes first. Having interesting characters isn't enough to hold a story together. For me too, anyway.

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  4. Great examples. Another one would be Nyx in Cruel Beauty. She's really angry at the situation her family has put her through, but she's sympathetic because you can relate to those feeling given what she's required to do.

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    1. Yes, she has that realistic quality which makes her relatable.

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  5. Most of the characters in Game of Thrones aren't likeable, but they are interesting, mostly because they are real with good points and bad.
    I certainly wouldn't want to hang out with Byron! At least not in the first book.

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    1. Another two great examples. I remember in particular when CassaStar first came out and a number of people said they didn't initially like Byron but were drawn into the story anyway. He is an interesting character capable of deep thought and powerful loyalty, even though he started out as a solitary figure.

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  6. I like the way you put it. We do get it confused. Yet so many authors get it right, people you like on the page, but would never want to have as a friend, and yet you still respect them.

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    1. Well said. Perhaps I should've added in the post the elements of the characters that make them likeable/interesting/relatable, but I wanted to focus on the fact that likeable doesn't necessarily mean liked in real life.

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  7. I recently put down a book I'd been looking forward to because I couldn't stand the Main Character. He was interesting and the writing was strong but he just bothered me too much. But there definitely are some unlikeable characters I have liked and read about. Great post!

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    1. Yes, that's going too far in the other direction. They need to be interesting AND have qualities that make us care what happens to them. ie, make us want to keep reading about them. It's a fine line to balance on.

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  8. I think interesting is far better than likeable. Look at modern TV shows, you barely have to stomach the characters as long as they are interesting enough.

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    1. interesting with good dialogue. So many tv shows have terrible dialogue!! It's painful! lol.

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  9. Often in books and movies it's the villain who is the most interesting, even though they are far from likeable.

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    1. Yes, villians often react in ways that surprise us, or a well written villian has more depth.

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  10. I don't have to love the main character, but I do have to be interested in them enough to keep reading, to see how the story plays out. The characters in GONE GIRL are not likable but I had to keep reading to see what was going to happen….

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    1. Yes, it's about engaging with the characters... and that doesn't necessarily mean inviting them over for a party.

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  11. Fascinating characters, even evil ones, are always attention grabbing, I think. Someone like Hannibal Lecter isn't going to be on your Xmas card list, but always fun to read about.

    mood
    Moody Writing

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    1. Yes, it's not that we like Hannibal as a person, but we like him as a character. There's a huge difference. We like the chills he creates in us.

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  12. What I despise most is when irresponsible wannabewriters try to make ebil and bad characters likeable! That's unacceptable! That way you promote ebil too

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    1. I agree with you. The only example I can think of is Dexter. I never watched the show because the premise seemed so deeply wrong to me.

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    2. and BREAKING BAD too and Batman movies and Vikings....

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    3. I've not seen any Breaking Bad. Another one I've consciously steered away from. Batman movies? But what about the 60's Batman!! ;) And Vikings! I can look past their bloodthirstiness if their muscles ripple enough (giggle)... okay, maybe not. But I can still like their muscles.

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  13. Oh, I so loved The Diviners! I understand about not wanting the MC as my bestie, but she's certainly a fun character to follow in the book. I'm actually attempting to write a seriously unlikeable character at the moment, and I'm actually finding it really difficult. I guess it's because, while living in this character's head, I can't help but look for the good? Or try to find some way to like her myself? It's been a bit of an interesting struggle :)

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    1. I think you can follow the same rules as making a likeable character with making an unlikeable character. Just as no character should be 100% good and perfect, likewise, no person is 100% bad and flawed. if they are, then they will come across as paper thin and forced.

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  14. I would like to be friends with Joe Abercrombie. Guy cracks me up on Twitter. Interesting writer who creates interesting characters. :)

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    1. I met him at a writer's convention. He's a great guy, easy to talk to (I just wish I'd read his books before I'd met him, lol)

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  15. There have been some fun ones indeed, Game of thrones came to mind

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    1. Yep, all fascinating characters that keep you reading.

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  16. I think characters - even the really horribly acting ones - must be multi-faceted. Give the reader something, even a small piece, they can relate to that character.

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    1. Absolutely. I should've emphasised that in my post, but as I said in a reply to a previous comment, I wanted to focus on 'likeable doesn't necessarily mean likeable in real life'.

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  17. Great point. Likable actually means interesting. I just finished watching the first three seasons of Game of Thrones and now I want to read the books. Many of those characters aren't all that "likable" in the traditional sense, but they are FASCINATING. So, yeah...

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    1. You'll enjoy the books. Not what I would call light reading, but certainly engaging.

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  18. I agree with you that it's more important for the characters to be interesting than likeable (although if a character is thoroughly unlikeable, it puts me off.) One of my favorite characters that I really would not want to know in real life is the Irene Adler in Carol Nelson Douglas's humorous mystery series based in Victorian London and Belle Epoque France. Adler is the only woman who ever outwitted Sherlock Holmes, and the series makes for some very fun reading.

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    1. I think you nailed it when you said, 'thoroughly unlikeable'. That's going too far the other way on the scale. Characters need depth and layers to be interesting.

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  19. Very interesting! But true. Seems to be a trend, those sassy and perhaps selfish characters, especially in paranormal, evil-fighting type books. As you know, my own snarky character got whitewashed for the sake of appeal and caution. But they have their place.

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    1. Even though you do sassy really well, I think it was the right choice to tone it down for that particular story. Like you said, it has its place.

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  20. Excellent points. With the most interesting characters, good or bad, there is usually something about them that I like. Maybe it's their passion, ingenuity, dedication to their cause, intelligence, how good they are at being bad. I'm not saying I want to have drinks with Cersei from GoT or dinner with the Governor from The Walking Dead, but I do like their characters.

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    1. Exactly! A character can get away with being rude and selfish, if they are also brave and loyal, for example.

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  21. LOL! I've got one of those in my book--a girl who's utterly freaky because the only think she really thinks about is death and revenge, but everyone loves her. Not that they'd want to occupy the same room as her... I love characters that you can adore, even if you can't stand behind them.

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    1. That's because there's more to that character than death and revenge. :)

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  22. I'd cross the road or not give Larsson's Lisbeth eye contact if I ever came across her but she's an amazing compelling character! Take care
    x

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    1. hehe, yep, I'd definitely not want to meet a lot of my favourite characters ;)

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  23. Likable characters all seem to have strong personalities, as your examples illustrate.

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    1. I think we are all drawn to strong personalities

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  24. Great post. One of my favorite likable unlikable characters is Chess from Stacia Kane's Downside Ghosts series. I'd never be friends with Chess, but she's fascinating!

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    1. I'll have to check out the Downside Ghosts now

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  25. If a main character is engaging and I have to know what happens next, s/he doesn't have to be likable to my real life tastes.

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    1. There are many ways a character can engage the reader too.

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  26. "Good" characters who are mean in petty ways turn me off. Flawed characters or redeemable characters are one thing - their faults often stem from fears or doubts - and I usually find these really intriguing, but some characters seem to be mean in a way that merely comes off as shallow.

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    1. It's about finding that right balance so the reader still wants to travel with the character through the story.

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  27. So true, Lynda. The really bad guys have a redeemable quality that may not seem apparent at first. Look at James Spader's character in the Blacklist.

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    1. And the redeemable quality doesn't have to be huge either.

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  28. I don't think I'm an average reader. There is one former bestselling novelist I stopped reading because I never liked any of her main characters. The protagonists were always bitter, selfish, and not too smart. But I think the key for me is the character's voice. If it's engaging, then I'll usually stick with it. Great post!

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    1. Yep, I'm not a fan of bitter characters either. It's a careful balancing act when creating characters.

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  29. I like characters that are likeable, but also just plain interesting. often, its the characeter I love to hate that makes a book. I hang around because I want to see what terrible demise they incur at the end.

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    1. Yes!! It's always great to see those type of characters get their dues.

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  30. Ooo, such a good point. I can't think of anything I read that fits the criteria though I know I have read some.

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  31. Each character has to have some redeeming quality. I just read a book with a pretty tough MG, but you knew she was hurting and she was sweet to her grandmother. This helped when she lashed at other people.

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    1. Understanding the reasons behind their behaviour helps us to fall in love with or want to follow those characters.

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  32. Excellent. You make the point perfectly. Some of the best scoundrels are the most fun to read, but I'd never want to bring one home. Great Post! :-)

    Anna from Shout with Emaginette

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    1. I'd go insane if I had to hang around in real life with some of my favourite characters ;)

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  33. The most likeable characters are the ones who are realistic and somehow flawed. If the character is a perfect picture from the start, how are they supposed to be developed? They become boring an uninteresting. Thanks for sharing this with us, Lynda.

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    1. That's another good point. The character arc. Starting with perfect makes for an impossible character arc (unless you want to arc the opposite way and see the character's fall)

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    2. Going the other way and seeing them become flawed would be interesting, but even so, I think it would be hard to do without at least something small already wrong. Even if the flaw is that they're TOO perfect and it's obvious it will never last. Hmm, now I must ponder my characters and the universe...

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    3. Absolutely. It's usually that very flaw that starts the character on the downward turn too.

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  34. 'Realistic characters with no rainbows and unicorns in sight.'

    That gets my goat. I have a temperament prone to fury and am seeing red right now so have lost my ability to articulate. But I can eke out this one thing: why can't a realistic character be filled with light?

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    1. Real people can be (and are) filled with light. I think it's a lot harder to write a fictional character who is perfect. Unfortunately, on the page, it comes across as boring. However, to write that character, one who is altruistic, thinks only good of people, won't ever complain, never does the wrong thing etc, then they need to also have something else to give them depth. An internal struggle perhaps, a deep desire to do what is right because it's a lesson learnt from a past experience. When I said, rainbows and unicorns, I meant fanciful and thin. Stories are about struggles--internal, external, physical, emotional, spiritual. So we need to create characters who can navigate those struggles in a way that's engaging to the reader.
      (And, in this post, I'm not saying we should only write unlikeable likeable characters. I should've stressed that)

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    2. I would actually love to see you develop your thoughts further on this in another post, Lynnie.

      Btw, I got your card, late at night returning from a dinner party and it made me so dang happy just holding it in my hands. Thank you so, so much.

      xxx

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    3. I've written 6 Reasons to Write Flawed Characters you might find interesting. It kind of touches on the subject. I'll consider writing a post that's more indepth about writing good characters.

      So glad you got the card!! (Hope the sound was still working by the time it got there, hehehehe). A big happy birthday to you!

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  35. A good character is like a good song, you put yourself in their shoes and as the story goes on it's just as much about you as the characters. Just my two cents. But there are lots of characters I have issues reading, because they're so disagreeable. I think to make an interesting, yet also disagreeable character, they have to know they're disagreeable and poke fun at it.

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    1. Yep, you definitely need to consider making characters that readers want to project themselves into. They don't have to be fully likeable to do this.

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  36. Though I have not found some characters likeable, nevertheless I have enjoyed reading the books because they were interesting and unique. Likeable characters need not be goody-goody, they can have shades of grey in them.

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  37. How about the main character of the TV series, The Blacklist. Nothing 'likeable' about James Spader in the role, but he makes irresistible viewing. A good example of the villain being the protagonist.

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    1. I'm not familiar with The Blacklist. I'll have to check it out.

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  38. I like that thought. My ms is being critiqued and I keep hearing --your reader has to like the main character. Don't we all like the villain in some way?

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  39. Love those villains and those off-kilter characters that make you sigh or laugh or make you just want to shake them.

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    1. Are they the best? They stir something in us.

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  40. Wonderful post, Lynda. I agree; characters need to be three-dimensional, complete with flaws and original quirks. And thanks for mentioning these authors. I'll need to check them out.

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    1. You won't be disappointed. All great reads.

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  41. Nah, I'd rather have a completely unlikeable main character and a completely likeable villain.

    Wait, isn't that a trope?

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  42. Dang Lyn, you posted this nine days ago...sorry I've been so delinquent in my visiting. Just so much going on right now.

    It's funny how you ended with "instead of likable, think interesting." I said that to myself during your first paragraph. Likable is akin to memorable, in this case. They may not be someone you'd choose as a friend in real life, but perfection is boring. Flawed characters are best—really flawed ones, memorable!

    M.L. Swift, Writer

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    1. Yes, yes, exactly!

      As for your deliquency. Fifty lashes!! But yeah, I get you with 'much going on right now'. Thus I haven't posted something new yet. Eep! Will post again on Monday. And visit everyone.

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  43. Great point! It might be somewhat subjective though...some readers can't stand certain types of characters, or have less tolerance for lying or snarkiness or violent tendencies. It IS refreshing not to have the same old "hero" type of character (or slightly flawed hero).

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    1. Yep, certainly. I'm not saying we should make them all horrible people. There is still that necessity of making them interesting. Of course, we can't please everyone.

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  44. Yes--interesting is a much more suitable word! I think far too many people learning the craft take the "rules" too literally.

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    1. I've been mulling on that very problem, so you'll likely see a post from me on that subject soon.

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  45. I think there needs to be key flaws in a character to remind us that they are real, living people. Perhaps "relateable" is more important than "likeable"

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I'd love to hear your opinion. Thanks for leaving a comment.