Writers want readers to love their characters. We want them to connect with the men and women who inhabit our stories. We want them to empathize so strongly that they are moved to laughter and to tears right along with these imaginary people we’ve created. So, naturally, we want our characters to be as likable as possible. Right?
Well, maybe not.
At first glance, it makes sense that the likability factor would be the single most important consideration a reader has in, well, liking a character. But I’m going to posit that likability is overrated.
Early last year, as I was in the throes of writing my fantasy Dreamers Come, I did my usual routine of worrying that readers wouldn’t like my hero. I wracked my brain, trying to come up with brilliant and dramatic ways of convincing them he was really worth their affection. But, ironically enough, when I decided to rewrite the story halfway through, I ended up scribbling “make Chris grumpier” on my notes for almost every scene. Why? Wouldn’t it have been a better move to instruct myself to “make Chris nicer”?
Turns out that likability, or niceness, is often the least important factor in convincing a reader your character is worth his time. Niceness is a dime a dozen. In fact, characters who ooze nothing by niceness are often saccharine, exasperating, and anything but charismatic. Think of a handful of the most memorable characters you’ve encountered in literature and film. I’m willing to bet a good-sized chunk of money that the characteristic that stands out most is not niceness. Rather, we connect with the characters who are interesting.
Such classic characters as Scarlett O’Hara, Sam Spade, Emma Woodhouse, and Philip “Pip” Pirrup have remained with us for decades, and longer, not because they were model citizens, but because they were fascinating in their realness and in their foibled humanity. To look at this from a personal vantage point, when I survey the hordes of characters who’ve tumbled out of my brain over the years, the ones who have garnered a chief place in my undying affection are the ones who are more than little rough around the edges.
Dichotomies drive fiction. When we write characters who are fighting both their circumstances and their own natures, we create characters that are instantly real. And, thus, instantly interesting. Forget niceness. Niceness doesn’t enchant readers and doesn’t sell books. This doesn’t mean, of course, that characters can’t be good or moral. It doesn’t mean the only hero worth reading about is the anti-hero. But nobody wants to read about perfection. What readers want is reality. And the reality is that imperfection is by far the more appealing option. A character’s charisma is what draws readers back, not his likability.
So take a good, long look at your latest story and grab a few minutes to analyze your characters. Relinquishing your grip on likability will not only produce stronger characters, it will also likely up the conflict ante and squash clichés. Who knows, maybe you’ll be scribbling “make Chris grumpier” all over your manuscripts too!
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