• Must Your Characters Be Likeable?

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 66 comments
    Apr
    3

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    Discussion questions: Should fiction writers create only characters that readers will like? If we write unlikeable characters, does it mean we’re writing unlikeable books or stories? As a reader, do you need to like a character in order to enjoy a book? Can you relate to or identify with an unlikeable character and therefore still enjoy the book? Do you even prefer unlikeable characters? Let’s talk about it in the comment.

     

    My writer friend doesn’t like the characters I write about. Fair. They’re crude and rude. They cruelly mock and brawl with each other. They’re grotesque at times, even when I don’t try to make them so. They’re definitely the kind of people he doesn’t like in real life, so why would he like them in stories?

    Likeability is a word that comes up often in fiction. Should we write only characters a reader will like? If we write unlikeable characters, does it mean we’re writing an unlikeable story or book?

    On the reading side, do you need to like a character in order to enjoy a book? Or can you like a book despite its unlikeable character(s)? Can you relate to or identify with an unlikeable protagonist and therefore still like the book?

    And what the hell is it that makes a character likeable or unlikeable to begin with?

     

    Recently on Yak Babies we discussed George Saunders’s story “Sea Oak,” which contains a couple of characters who are difficult to root for. I’d very much struggle to like them if I met them in real life. (Min and Jade, obviously.) But I like them on the page; they make me laugh. But I’m laughing at them, not with them, so the laughter feels kind of cruel. It’s complex.

    Last year I read a novel called Ironweed by William Kennedy. A book I liked very much. But it’s hard to like a protagonist who accidentally kills his infant son while drunk and then disappears, leaving behind his wife and (if memory serves) two more kids. Oh, and by the way, he’s killed two or three other people along the way.

    Not likeable traits.

    But damn, what a book.

    Or how about Under the Volcano? With its three highly flawed characters full of unlikeable traits. I’m not sure I can say I like them. But I like the book. I love the book. And I relate to/identify with Yvonne and Hugh and, especially, Geoffrey.

    And for me, that’s enough.

    As a reader, I don’t need to like the characters I read about. There are plenty of real-life people I like. I don’t read books to find fictional friends.

     

    I’m OK with the fact that my characters are unlikeable to my writer friend. But he also doesn’t relate to or identify with them, and that’s a problem.

    Maybe it’s just him. You can’t reach every reader.

    Anyway, I like my characters. In all their grotesque and flawed un-glory. Partly because of it, really.

    And for some writers that might be the key. To write a successful unlikeable character, you must like, or even love, that character yourself, despite his/her flaws.

     

    david blog

     

    WriteByNight writing coach and co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

     

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    Mary Jeffredo

    I feel that there has to be a protagonist – someone/thing to overcome or learn from. Otherwise, how boring to sail the waters without even one rogue wave. I’ve had several rogues in my life and learned from them all. Excitement lives in the waves!

    David Duhr

    I.e., a bad guy/gal? Famous/favorite antagonists in fiction would be an interesting post. Can you think of one or two?

    Mary Jeffredo

    Quasimodo, whose scary looks hid a heart saddened by a lack of love. Lesson? Look deeper than the skin. Also, Maleficent, whose “evil” self was merely covering scars from her past. Judge not, right?

    David Duhr

    Good! I like ’em both.

    Raymundo

    This idea of “likeable characters” in fiction can get complex. What’s “likeable” varies much among readers and it also depends on what the author is trying to do with the story. That’s the art part. Personally, I think the best fiction contains characters who are realistically flawed. That helps the reader suspend disbelief, identify with the characters, and enjoy the story. How flawed? Depends. For me, it comes down to a story’s worldview. That is, does a cast of asshole characters exist in a higher moral context that shows them to be assholes? If so, then I might see some… Read more »

    David Duhr

    I think this idea came from the 1984 episode where Nico says something like “I know this is a cliched thing to say, but I don’t really like any of these characters.” As a criticism of a book, I find that odd. Maybe he just meant someone to root for or care about. I just can’t imagine caring about whether or not I like a character, or having that be a reason I don’t enjoy a book. But you’re right, for sure, on it being variable. If Nico dislikes Winston and I like Winston, that doesn’t tell us anything about… Read more »

    Raymundo

    Aye. As is most of us. Winston recognizes the tyranny he lives under but complies with it out of a feeling of powerlessness, doing his job and surviving. He rebels, but in small ways, like when he finds a spot in his house where his TV can’t see him. He doesn’t go major in his rebellion until he is motivated by love. Winston doesn’t have the bravado of a superhero. He is very human with weaknesses on a level I can identify with. He is a sympathetic character. This is what I personally need to get into a story. In… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Imagine Winston with the bravado of a superhero! It would’ve been about a 15-page book.

    Raymundo

    Exactly!

    Hans De Léo

    I like all my characters, even the villains. After all, they are all my creations. The challenge is to get my readers to relate to them. In some cases, it doesn’t matter. A villain could be just plain evil. A peripheral character could be flat. But all characters the contribute to the story should at least be relatable. What about an anti-hero? Whereas it’s not a plot line I favor, I’ve read a few. Here’s a case where the character has to be relatable, even likeable, bringing out things we ourselves might think or even fantasize about doing under certain… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Readers probably try to find/see something of themselves in every character. Or maybe not even *try* — maybe it just happens? And so if a character is an awful person, the reader might be uncomfortable relating or identifying in any way. So then it just becomes easy to say “That character is unlikeable, therefore I don’t like the book.” Because we don’t enjoy looking at our own flaws. Maybe?

    Hans De Léo

    An interesting hypothesis. I can’t speak for other people, but when I share a flaw with a character, or see them go through something I’ve gone through, I have an instant connection with them.

    David Duhr

    Any examples jump right out? Do you put your own characters through things you’ve gone through?

    Hans De Léo

    Examples… being bullied or hated for being “different” stand out. And yes, I do put my characters through things I’ve been through. But I don’t limit myself or them to my experiences. In those cases I imagine myself in that situation and go from there.

    David Duhr

    I’ll sometimes put my characters into situations from my past and have them respond the way I wish I’d responded. It’s rarely as satisfying as I hope.

    Kenneth

    I keep three things in mind when creating characters: Thing 1; There are more horses asses in the world than horses. Thing 2; “We carry each within us the seeds of our own destruction.” Thing 3; The human genome is wired for temptation. (See ‘Eve, Adam, et. al.) I find these hoary aphorisms to provide a full landfill of character traits to draw from. Our self image tends to be nicely airbrushed of character flaws. This makes the immersion in a fictional characters’ inner turmoil with temptation intriguing to readers. WE certainly wouldn’t steal from the collection plate, engage in… Read more »

    David Duhr

    “Our self image tends to be nicely airbrushed of character flaws.” I like this; so true. I feel like some are more aware of their flaws, more willing to face and to explore them. Maybe those are the people less likely to dismiss characters as unlikeable?

    If you swap Reese’s cups with Reese’s Pieces, I’ve done all three of those things.

    Kenneth

    ”..done all three of those things.” That cracked me up. So have I. But who looks back at me from the mirror? Yep, Captain America. Margaret Mitchell didn’t tell us, but I’d bet anything Ol’ Rhett had a wife tucked somewhere long before he ever pulled up to Tara. And she thought he was a regular prince. As for likable characters, it all depends on what side of the buggy you’re seeing them from.

    David Duhr

    So who are among your favorite *unlikeable* characters?

    Kenneth

    Holden Caulfield; a model of self-absorption even for a juvenile. Micheal Corleone; distilled evil in a well made suit and lacking even a thimbleful of empathy. (Credit Mario Puzo’s superb writing skills for swaying us to cheer lustily for some really monstrous characters). And Godzilla; ever give a thought to the folks in the crosswalk you just waded those gun-boat hooves of yours thru? Zero empathy.

    David Duhr

    I’ve never read the Godfather but for some reason it’s considered among the worst novels ever written, I guess from an artistic standpoint. Any validity to that or is it baffling?

    Kenneth

    The Godfather (book) is something of a conundrum; the critics held their nose and said “not bad if stranded on the tarmac” and paying customers kept it on The NY Times best seller list for 67 weeks. A LOT of new titles get published in 67 weeks. Most authors would be giddy to appear on that list for six days. Wikipedia says it’s one of the top 10 best selling works of fiction of all time with between 20 and 30 million copies sold worldwide. Maybe my plebeian tastes are showing but, like twenty million other paying plebes, I found… Read more »

    David Duhr

    I’d like to give it a go one of these days. Though it’ll be almost impossible to let my imagination conjure its own vision of the characters.

    Sandra Fox Murphy

    Interesting topic and discussion. I go back to my first novel, which you copy edited, David. These were real people who lived in New England in the 1600’s. One character, Peter, was NOT likable at all, and the facts bore that out. But flawed characters are reality, and I could not let go of that. In a chapter near the end of the book, I wrote a scene where he visited his first wife who was ill … asked for forgiveness. The facts I had did not not support this kindness; he seemed vengeful to the end in life …… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Even if Peter is vengeful from beginning to end, he, just like any character or real person, can have a moment of strength (would he call it weakness?), which I think you played well. Maybe the real-life Peter had the same? Just a brief moment or two here and there where he was actually a decent person?

    david lemke

    Maybe you can’t just have them rescue the cat. However, in ALF, he wanted to eat the cat.

    David Duhr

    Man, instant flashback to the ’80s, watching ALF with my dad, and him just shaking his head in bemusement.

    Gary

    When my sister read the first draft of my book she told me that my main protagonist character made her mad. She felt anger and dis-like whenever he turned up. I thanked her for the compliment

    David Duhr

    Yeah, for sure. If that was the intent, then you nailed it. I mean, the goal is to make a reader feel *something*, right?

    david lemke

    Maybe that character needs some self-awareness. In some small way the character needs to be aware of a flaw, though he/she may justify it or even deny it as a flaw.

    Gary

    It’s the personality and actions of the character as he interacts with other characters. He’s spoiled, self centered and not nice, which makes him fun to write.

    David Duhr

    I find an overreliance on sarcasm to be a fun minor flaw in a character; writing his/her dialogue can be a joy. It allows me to let out my inner sarcastic without turning it (as much) on real people.

    T.W. Day

    “Like” is a descriptor that does much for me, but I do have to care about at least one character in a story for me to become involved. Someone has to have some sort of value that I would like to see survive the story. That is just me, though. For instances, on the contrary, I watched a couple of the “Sopranos” shows and never went back. Nobody there I cared about. That didn’t stop millions of people from making “The Sopranos” a hit show. It even made some actors I can barely stand into working actors if not stars.… Read more »

    Jerry Schwartz

    See, for me Tony Soprano was the kind of person I wouldn’t want to do business with, or be friends with, but I’d probably like talking to at a cookout.

    Last edited 3 months ago by Jerry Schwartz
    David Duhr

    Even if you knew what he does for a living? I’d be tongue-tied out of fear of saying the wrong thing. Like, what if I made a harmless joke about the Jets that hit a nerve?

    david lemke

    This reminds me of a biker friend of my Ex. He wasn’t impressive looking, quiet but not shy. He never acted intimidating. But you could never be comfortable in his presence, yeah, be careful what you say. There was potential violence there. I knew from hearsay that he had gone up against the most feared Wisconsin people in the biker world. In a confrontation with one, he dropped to his knees and grabbed the gun of the guys boot. Apparently they reached some agreement, since neither of them died that day. He died in a bike accident years ago. Now… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Yeah, finding something of value in a character seems to me more important than *like* or *not like*. Maybe that’s why fiction readers are known to be more empathetic? We try to find the value even in the most awful characters.

    Sid Kemp

    You know me by now, David. I’m going to dissect this. Nothing personal, but I’m beginning to detest yes/no questions. So I’m making this into a multiple choice with a small universe of answers. Pondering your profound post, I am suspecting that, for a story to work, each character must be one of these: A. Likeable B. Relatable C. Grokkable The need for parallel grammatical structure required me to use “relatable,” a word I’ve been shunning for years, so I am adding a neologism based on a neologism I like. “Grok” is a verb, a neologism from Stranger in a… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Interesting what you say about an unlikeable character needing an author’s unconditional love. It kind of reminds me of that “I love you but I don’t like you” feeling. People with difficult family members and/or friends will know exactly what I’m talking about. I can think of a few unlikeable *and* unloved (by me) characters I’ve written, and they drag their stories, or at least their scenes, down. But if you love your unlikeable characters, they’ll add value. Though as always, not for everyone! You can’t reach every reader.

    Sid Kemp

    I agree, David. I feel this goes back towards a theme we’e discussed before. For me, the question is not how to please, or even reach, every reader. Rather, how do I grow as a writer so that my own limitations and prejudices don’t bring the story down.

    Perhaps the more I grok a character in some way, growing towards unconditional love, the more likely that character will appear real and engaging to the reader in some way, even if not in the way I see the character.

    Sid Kemp

    Kris and I just discussed this. I saw that, in writing likeable characers, when we as authors grok them and grow in our live for them, we can make them more round, more complete.We can show sides of them that might seem ill or flawed to ourselves or others. We can reveal or even expose their humanity and their weaknesses, making them more real and relatable in more ways to more readers.

    david lemke

    Well you don’t want a Mary Sue. I think I may have thought of something that might be an answer, but I I’ll get to that in a minute. Maybe we need to consider the character arc. There is a recent sci-fi comedy series, Resident Alien; the “hero” is an judgmental alien whose mission is to destroy the human race, but his ship crashes, and he loses his device that will kill everybody. One of the first things he does is murder the town doctor and take his form. (Remember Starman) Clearly a bad guy we wouldn’t want to have… Read more »

    Last edited 3 months ago by david lemke
    David Duhr

    Which is more impactful: A likeable character who performs a kind act or an unlikeable character who performs a kind act? That’s what I try to keep in mind, and it sounds like you do, too. Likeable characters doing likeable things is fine and all, but it’s almost never as interesting.

    david lemke

    I have one nasty character who, in the end, does something heroic. Whether his efforts save the day is still up in the air, but the fact that he put his life on the line…

    Jerry Schwartz

    As a writer, I’ve only written one or two characters that were unpalatable, and all we ever saw was their nasty behavior. Since I write short fiction, I don’t usually flesh out anyone but the major players. Building characters is not something I do consciously; they just grow out of the story, so their depth is related directly to how much space they take up. As a reader, or TV watcher for that matter, I need to have characters that I like. There has to be at least one or two that I’d enjoy having a conversation with. That means… Read more »

    David Duhr

    So do you ever set out to write characters you’d like to have a beer with? Or does it just happen naturally because it’s *you* who’s doing the writing?

    Re your comment above about Tony Soprano and a cookout, that might be interesting post. You always hear that question about characters you’d want to have dinner with, but what about the less tame version: characters you’d like to do a pub crawl with?

    Jerry Schwartz

    I think my protagonists are often (but not always) myself in different guises. The odd thing is that when I write a female protagonist, people seem to think I’ve done a respectable job. Make of that what you will. My most recent protagonist was a cuttlefish.

    I think I’d feel a little trapped if I were on a pub crawl with Tony Soprano, especially if we were sharing a car.

    Last edited 3 months ago by Jerry Schwartz
    David Duhr

    “My Most Recent Protagonist Was a Cuttlefish” would make a great title for your memoir.

    As would “Pub-Crawling With Tony Soprano.” It would probably turn into a strip-club crawl before too long. I feel like any destination suggestion you might have would be overruled.

    John Liebling

    Flaws vs unlikeable. Flaws are just human…unless your fictional characters come from other worlds…but we humans are still reading the stories, so there needs to be elements of humanity, and therefore flaws alive those characters. The world is polarized by politics, religion, gender, speech, ideas and ideals…and in a fictional sense so can the Multiverse. What I mean is likeability is in the nose of the beholder, do they pass the smell test? Or is it in the Aye, eye, I of the beholder? Sight can vary based on the site. Or based on the vision of the writer. Hindsight,… Read more »

    David Duhr

    So in what ways does all of this inform your own work? You have some characters — not necessarily human, granted — who at least are close to being pure evil. How do you make such a character if not likeable than at least relatable?

    John Liebling

    Very true. There are some characters who are extreme in their violent action. They are so extreme, that they are not relatable, but their evil actions are. The reader feels the pain inflicted on the innocent, and now can better understand why, those formerly innocent non-humans would take their revenge in such an extreme model. Disgust for a character can go hand in hand with the empathy for a character, such disgusting behavior has been inflicted. Most characters should be complex…unless they are pure evil…My opinion, I am sure others would disagree, and that is okay…creating a character who is… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Often it can involve showing the trauma inflicted on those characters, the actions of others leading them down the evil path, the cycle…

    Barbara Mealer

    One of my favorite indie series had a hero who is a drunk and has a nasty side to him. Not real likable but relatable. I believe that is the key, You need to be able to relate to that MC and if you can’t, you won’t like the book. So I like The Fixer Series by Mike Gomes. Micheal Falau kills people and isn’t exactly your upstanding citizen of the week when he hunts down bad guys who were turned lose from the system. His job it to bring the bad guys in alive to receive justice from a… Read more »

    David Duhr

    That’s a pretty classic character type, the bad-guy good guy. It works, when done well. Especially when the character is in a vigilante situation, like Falau. Do you ever write such characters? Or any unlikeable-but-relatable ones?

    Barbara Mealer

    Working on one right now. She isn’t all that nice but is relatable when you learn a bit more about her. She is a bit nasty when being used and walks away to leave the planet to fend for itself, not caring if they survive or not. She’s no one’s puppet and lets them know in an unforgettable way.

    Elissa Malcohn

    I prefer characters who are complex. I want antagonists toward whom I can feel sympathy in spite of myself (and in spite of them) and protagonists whose redeeming qualities can also be their Achilles heels. No Mary Sues or Marty Stus. (Do we have names for their villainous counterparts [like a Snidely Whiplash], or do we just call them black hats?) To get the tone I wanted for a confrontation between two very flawed characters who go from mutual antagonism to deep care for one another, I studied the psychological jujitsu in Good Will Hunting‘s therapy sessions, to the point of recording and… Read more »

    David Duhr

    I just reread Bardo for the podcast, and my goodness, it knocked me flat again. That book makes me feel so heavy. Have you finished? Seems so, but I don’t want to say anything spoilerish if not.

    (Did you find any humanity in the SHARDS guy?)

    I love that Good Will Hunting example. Offense as defense.

    Elissa Malcohn

    Yep, finished reading Bardo. (Our current read-aloud book is The Freedom Artist by Ben Okri; otherwise I’m now on the second volume of Kafka’s diaries, 1914-23.) I’m very glad I read the books in the order that I did, because of how patterns in Bardo resonated with Saunders’s analyses in Pond. It’s like, “See what author A did with Character X? I’m doing that exact same thing with Character Y, but in a whole different context!” No humanity in the SHARDS guy per se, but the fact that he has been there the longest means he has spent that much more time counteracting… Read more »

    David Duhr

    I’ve *got* to read this Pond book. It seemed like too heavy a commitment when it first came but I might be ready! I’m almost done with what I’m reading now. (Boris Vian, Mood Indigo/Froth on the Daydream.)

    That “Time” “More time” sequence in Bardo kills me. And Lincoln’s narration on 244-245 (“I was in error”). And Bevins’s final passage before he goes. And “He went” “The lad went.” And and and…

    Elissa Malcohn

    Pond is a very accessible read. The analysis goes deep, but also with a light touch. Saunders also begins with stories that are shorter in length, includes a couple of longer tales in the middle, then goes shorter again, then tacks on some neat exercises in the appendices. Appendix B in particular bears some resemblance to what I’m currently doing: “Why does this exercise work? I’m not sure. The constraints have something to do with it (the 50-word limit and the exacting — 200, not 199, not 201 — word count). When a person is doing this exercise, her attention is on those constraints, which means… Read more »

    KevinW

    I’ve loved “The Sea Wolf” ever since the glory days of my criminally mis-spent youth. Even though Larsen was the very picture of a toxic narcissist, he made the book interesting. Humphrey was a whiny wimp by comparison. Sure, Hump grows a pair and grows as a man, making him the ostensible “hero” but the only reason he changes was in response to the Wolf. So who was the book really about?

    David Duhr

    I need to reread that. And Martin Eden, which I *loved* in my early 20s but have never come back to.

    The Sea-Wolf makes a much better title than The Sea-Hump.

    KevinW

    Well…after Humphrey and Maud go off together alone in the boat…if London had written a sequel…
    I remember I hated the movie with an evil Edward G. Robinson as Larsen. I kept thinking of The Frog from the Courageous Cat cartoons.
    I don’t know “Martin Eden”, must investigate…

    David Duhr

    I’d call Martin Eden my favorite London, though my experience is limited (Sea-Wolf, Call of the Wild, White Fang, some stories). Your poet side in particular may appreciate it.

    Susan

    There is a lot to say on this question. I guess for me likeability and flawed character are painted with a very broad stroke There are very few people I have ever known that have not been flawed and have not also had redeeming qualities. I admire people I don’t like and respect people I don’t understand, and love people I would not go to lunch with. The same is true of characters. A good story needs a good antagonist, and even if s/he is completely unlikable, I still like a good villain. My protagonist, I think, does have to… Read more »

    David Duhr

    “I appreciate, though, how someone hateful and powerful can produce heroes opposed to them.” Especially when that oppositional force is made up of people who would otherwise have little or nothing to do with each other. That’s part of what works so well about HP. Everyone gets involved. Unlike the situation you recently agonized over. Though it feels like we were headed that way…




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