Certainly there are characters everyone can, more or less, agree are likeable: Harry Potter, Atticus Finch, Jane Eyre, Sherlock Holmes. It’s not that they are flawless, but they are nice people who generally go around doing nice things and being decent to others.
There are characters everyone can, more or less, agree are unlikeable, but are somehow still extremely compelling: The Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne, Dorian Gray, Tom Ripley, Humbert Humbert, Patrick Bateman (from American Psycho).
Then, there are characters who were meant to be likeable and relatable by the author, but somehow became polarizing and readers either go along with the original intent or just plain HATE them. Case in point: Bella Swan and Edward Cullen of Twilight and Holden Caulfield.
Writing is such a funny business. It’s part daydream, part method acting. When you put a character on a page, be it a suburban mom, a lethal assassin, or a lemur, you’re going to drip a bit of yourself into this character. And then, unexpectedly, readers weigh in on your character’s CHARACTER, when all you wanted was for them to follow along meekly with the plot.
The above examples show that it’s not necessary at all to have a likeable main character in order to grab readers’ interest. But the unlikeability needs to be intentional, as with Humbert Humbert or Patrick Bateman. They’re both monstrous jerks, extravagantly so. The problem arises when a character an author thought was perfectly sweet and realistic, suddenly starts getting hate. She’s too whiny. He’s too domineering. She’s too entitled, or dumb, or clueless. He’s a wet noodle. Or obnoxious. Or too pretty.
I am currently on a mission to find out a set of common denominators that make characters generally beloved.
Here’s my list:
- Decent: The character must be the kind of person who would help others, even if it’s not convenient
- Not gloomy: The character must have a neutral or positive baseline. Without the tribulations that befall them, they’re an upbeat persona.
- Special in some unique way: Recently this is called having a “Super Power”, though it could be as simple as having access to a restricted environment, being good at math, or being a survivor under difficult circumstances.
- Having a goal that is greater than personal: Personal goals are important, but the characters readers seem to genuinely root for are the ones who also want to make the world a better place for others, even if only a few others.
- Be worthy of love: Someone must love this character, whether it’s their grandparent, a romantic interest, or their pet.
How about you? As a reader, do you prefer likeable or unlikeable characters? As a writer, do you prefer writing likeable or unlikeable? And have you ever been surprised by your readers’ reactions to your characters?
In Implied Consent, I loved my news reporter character but the readers like my paralegal/office mom. So adios Mickey Wong, Yolanda’s getting more page time in book 2.
I think it’s because Yolanda nurtures and herds my main character.
Isn’t that interesting how that works? People like a decent person. If a character cares about others, it makes them more appealing.
Depending on my mood, sometimes I’d rather read about someone interesting. Rather than someone nice. I like your word compelling.
I loved Walter White in Breaking Bad, but I couldn’t watch Tony in the Sopranos.
Hmmm. Great post.
Good examples, Lane. I was thinking about Tony Soprano when I wrote this, but decided to stick to literary figures. He was worse than Walter White because he was always the same. He never really changed and started out bad. Walter White started out very decent and relateable, and then changed when for the first time in his life, he felt he had some “Super Power”.
As a writer I usually try to make my suspects well-rounded enough that their murderess side isn’t readily apparent. The Golden Hour was the first time I wrote a truly evil person, a psychopath, and I was surprised by how much fun I had tapping into his personality.
Readers liked him, too, for an antagonist. And yet I had him call his gardener at one point to remind him to prune his roses. That was the one thing he took “normal” pleasure in.
I agree with your positive traits; would possibly add to being lovable that they have the capacity for love, stunted or learned along the course of the book.
Yes, having the capacity to love is very important. Agreed!
An agent once told me that a protagonist should be competent at something. One of those random bits of information that sticks with you. I like characters who are entertaining.
I guess that’s up there with ‘super power’. Even if they’re really good at crossword puzzles. Something. As a reader I respond to that too. I wonder why?
I like characters that are a little bad, maybe because they’re going through something, and become nicer or less bad as the book or the series progresses. So I would add to your list, dealing with conflict, either internal or external, that stresses them.
Good point… I like that too. I tend to go way dark unfortunately.
I like characters who reflect real life people—wherever they fall on the good-bad spectrum. I don’t like characters who are idealized in any way.
Yes, agree, they need to be realistic. I actually can’t think of a popular character who was too glossy. Flaws are good
I think gloomy/broody can go a long way in making a character intriguing. It adds mystery which is what I am aiming for. It’s why legions if women still swoon over Mr. Darcy, myself included.
Are you sure it’s not because of Colin Firth in a wet shirt? 😉
Interesting take on characters and why they stick with readers. I have to admit I fell madly in love with Jolden Caulfield as a teenager, and I still have a soft spot for him, even though I know in real life he’d be intolerable.
I think the favorites of my own characters are extraordinary. They may do very bad things, but for the right reasons. My more recent ones don’t do very bad things at all. They’re evolved, but still quite human. I love them all. I truly love them. 🙂
An interesting and thoughtful post, Emilya. Am I the only woman who wasn’t moved by Darcy’s/Colin Fiirth’s wet shirt scene? I fell for him in the scene when he proposes to Elizabeth for the first time. That mix of pride and vulnerability, I think. We love characters who have room to grow, lea rn, change. I wr ote a blog on that once: Fears, Failings, Faults, and Flaws.
As for my characters, I think that if the author loves them, the readers will too, as a rule.