Characters: Likability Is Overrated

Characters: Likability Is Overrated

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 sometimes likability is overrated.

Dreamlander NIEA Finalist

Are You Confusing Likability With Niceness?

When I was in the throes of writing my fantasy Dreamlander, I did my usual routine of worrying 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 then, ironically, 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 niceness is often the least important factor in convincing a reader your character is worth his time. 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. The characteristic that stands out most is not going to be niceness. Rather, we connect with the characters who are interesting.

Interesting Characters vs. Nice Characters

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.

Gone With the Wind Maltese Falcon Emma Jane Austen Great Expectations Charles Dickens

When I survey the hordes of characters who have 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.

Real Characters Are Interesting Characters

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.”

Take a good 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 up the conflict and squash clichés. Who knows, maybe you’ll be scribbling “make Chris grumpier” all over your manuscripts too!

Tell me your opinion: What are some of your characters most interesting traits?

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Characters: Likability Is Overrated

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I am reminded, of course, of Jane Austen’s Darcy, whom I LOATHED at the beginning and by the end *I* wanted to marry him and live at Pemberly! Of course he wasn’t the protagonist but such an unlikeable character at the beginning!

    I find myself drawn to incredibly flawed and imperfect and sometimes, yes, unlikeable protagonists, specifically if they make some kind of growth or change throughout the story. Perfect, happy, loved-by-everyone people are boring– unless they’re loved by everyone but hate themselves, which gives them a flaw and I LOVE IT! \0/

  2. Great thoughts! You made me think of all the movie characters that are horribly flawed, but I still love–Han Solo for instance. While the guy has his redeeming qualities, the rough around the edges parts are what makes me like him better than most of the rest of the characters in Star Wars.

  3. This is a great post! I used to think that I had to like the characters in the books I read and have even argued the point that it is important to like the characters.

    Not always true. Do we not love to hate the villians? Some of the best book reviews I have done with my book club have to do with questionable characters…

    Thanks again! 🙂

  4. Ooh, thanks for sharing your favorite characters! Darcy is a great example, and I have to admit Han Solo crossed my mind as I was writing this post.

    Villains deserve a whole post to themselves! Hatable villains drive fiction almost as much as lovable (but not likable 😉 )heros.

  5. I think you hit it with the “niceness.” That kind of likeability–not so much. But I think things like strength, pushing the limits, even digging in stubborn heels, can be things we like in a character that we might not/wouldn’t like in a person outside a book.

    I’m working on this right now–how to make my MC strong without making her TOO self-centered, how to get her to protest against the world she’s in without whining about it, how to get her to break through limits without being too not-caring about it. It’s such a balance.

    I agree about Pip, although I did myself find him a bit TOO whiny. I liked Estella better, I think. 🙂

  6. I love to read books that realistically reveal the darker side of humanity. We all have thoughts driven my jealousy, anger, insecurity, doubt and so on. In day to day life, we usually don’t share those feelings readily with others. We try to hide them instead.

    I find great relief through reading and discovering that I’m not alone as I deal with my unpleasant emotions. I feel more OK when I’m reminded that I’m not quite the monster I sometimes feel I am. Real characters in books allow us to feel a greater bond and a sense of belonging in this crazy old world.

    I hope my comment explains clearly what I’m wanting to say. This deep thinking is giving me a headache so I must go and hope you get what I meant. 🙂

  7. Great post! I couldn’t agree with you more. Now, I’m going to examine my characters and see where they stand.

  8. @BeckyLevine: Likability *is* important. It’s just not the most crucial factor. The traits you mentioned are vital. Although there are exceptions, characters with weak backbones don’t usually make it very far!

    @Shaddy: I get exactly what you’re saying, and I couldn’t agree more. Fiction, to resonant, has to be a mirror of life. And life is anything but perfect!

    @Lazy Writer: Better get cracking! 😀

  9. I guess I define likability differently. To me a character who is too nice — or too perfect in any/every way — is not “likable.” Nor believable. But ultimately, even anti-heros have to have a smidge more good than evil qualities.

  10. I just finished Riven, by Jerry Jenkins. One of the MCs was anything but likeable, but amazingly sympathetic.

    Great post, Katie!

  11. @Tara: Good point. Too much likableness=unlikableness!

    @Linda: I’m fascinated by the characters I *shouldn’t* like and yet overwhelmingly do. That’s good writing!

  12. I immediately thought of Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice as well when I read this post. It seems the more reasons I have for disliking a character in the beginning, the more I end up liking them by the end when all their redeeming characteristics come out. When they change into that hero we all love. I recently worked on revising a story I wrote a few years back and I told my husband I wanted to change one of the main characters some. “What’s wrong with him?” he wondered. “He’s not a big enough jerk,” I told him. I needed to make this character less likable in order to bring about a more moving change in him. Cool post!

  13. Some of my “make Chris grumpier” notes took the form of “make Chris a bigger jerk.” Excellent point (one I wish I’d made in the post, actually) about how we often love the most the characters we start out disliking. The key is getting readers to hang around long enough to start liking the character!

  14. THANK YOU for this post!! =) I’ve been criticized before (by people who’d only read the first three chapters) in that my MC is a brat in the beginning. That she’s difficult to like. This is what I intended to begin with, but I’ve been made to feel that I was doing something wrong. I didn’t change it – it wouldn’t work any other way. My hope is that as my characters grow, my readers will become increasingly fond of them. =) Anyway, thanks again!

  15. So glad you found it helpful, Chelsea! The tricky part of all this is making sure we don’t alienate readers, esp. in the beginning. We have to make sure that our characters are interesting enough to make up for their brattiness.

  16. Good post! In my attempt to make the MC of High on a Mountain likeable, I made him appear weak, a victim, someone to be pitied, not liked. But when I allowed more of his “unloveliness” to show(thank you, Donald Maass), I think he became, if not likeable, at least, more interesting.

  17. Yes, a lot of times the traits we fear may come across as unlikable are actually the strongest traits in a character’s personality.

  18. This is a really great distinction! When I wrote my last book, I was afraid readers wouldn’t like my main character because she was loud and opinionated and very un-pc.

    I think I was more afraid people would think that the character was a reflection on who I am. Maybe that is secretly why we want people to think the characters are nice: because we think they won’t differentiate between author and created character.

  19. The strange (or not-so-strange) thing is most readers love outrageous characters! The more outrageous, the better!

  20. Interesting post, Katie. I’m doing this some now, with one of my characters in the fantasy I’m writing. The trick is to make them a jerk in a likable way! 🙂 Easier said than done.

  21. Yes, *way* easier said than done! I think the key is to either make him a jerk in an utterly charismatic and entertaining way or to make sure the reader is aware of the motivations that make the character a jerk.

  22. This is something that I’ve been struggling with a lot recently after some of my critters have come back with comments that my MC is not “likeable” enough. I keep debating if I should water her down a bit, make her nicer, but in the end I have to stay true to who my character truly is.

  23. Ultimately, I would always vote for staying true to who the character is. Some of the most long-lasting characters in literature have been utterly unlikable (Humbert Humbert and Captain Ahab come to mind). But there’s definitely a knack in balancing the character’s true nature with a little bit of sugar to keep the readers from throwing the book across the room. It all comes to charisma.

  24. Really good post! I like my character to be real and that means not everyone is nice if they are truthful and real.

  25. Agreed. Perfect characters are boring characters.

  26. So true! I have just found your blog, but I will be coming back again. Perfectly nice characters either make me want to throw up or the make me feel guilty. Either way I don’t end up liking them. I like a bit of grit and raw truth! Life is a bit messy, people tend to be a bit the same.

  27. I’m glad you did find me! Yep, gritty, raw, and messy – good fiction is usually all three.

  28. Fionnuala says:

    I think that likability is important. But the problem is that you seem to be writing from the premise that likable = nice. It doesn’t. Not by a long shot. Likable simply means that we are able to like them. And that’s really extremely relative. I think the key is to try and make characters genuinely human.

  29. Ultimately, I agree with you. I can think of dozens of un-nice characters who I deeply like. But I can also think of dozens of deeply unlikable characters who were still fascinating enough to carry their stories.

  30. As usual, my reading taste is extremely different from most people’s; I like boring, nice characters. 🙂 If they’re done well, anyway. For example, Mr. Darcy was mentioned. Though I admit Mr. Darcy has a more interesting character arc, I prefer boring, nice Mr. Bingley and can remember him much better. (He’s so truly amiable!) And, strangely enough, I prefer reading books that “tell” rather than ones that are like reading a movie because everything is shown. 🙂 Though, perhaps I wouldn’t enjoy the book as much if Jane and Bingley were the main characters, though I enjoy them as side characters more than Lizzy and Darcy.
    My writing, thankfully, does not follow my reading taste. As my characters tend to be based on my own spiritual walk, they are never lacking in flaws. Actually, my main characters in my last two NaNovels are not believers in the beginning, so they have far more faults than virtues. 🙂 I think I may tend towards extremes though, making them too virtuous in one area and too depraved in another. Hm. :/

    Anyway, thanks for the post (a year ago :). I really enjoy reading your blog, and appreciate that you usually post the transcripts to your vlogs. Though I am not writing right now, I am storing up all this information and tips for future use. *eyes latest rough draft with a shudder* 🙂

  31. Nothing wrong with nice characters. Literature is full of lots of genuinely lovable blokes. So long as the character or his situation offers conflict enough to keep the plot going that, really, is all that matters.

  32. James Hall says:

    Really good and quick example of this is the short story Scarlet Ibis. (http://www.calapitter.net/dead/39/scarlet_ibis.html)

    The narrator is selfish and has a mean streak. Doodle is innocent and kind and, yet, extremely dependent and physically weak. I love both of these characters. One of my favorite stories of all time.

  33. I haven’t read it. But now I’ll have to check it out. Thanks!

  34. James Hall says:

    It is a quick read, I hope you enjoy it. Let me know what you think.

  35. I know this is a little off-topic but…

    Yah! I got a WordPress account and loaded up my first three chapters!

    Previous posts by James Hall, will be under this (hopefully).

    Cheers and Happy writing!

  36. I’ve been truly amazed at how little it takes for the reader to become attached to a character. One identifiable problem and a good scene can bring a character to life instantly. At the same time, we, as writers, can struggle for hundreds of pages and never really feel like we’ve brought out the characters. It is another one of those hard things about being on the author side of writing. The things you don’t know about your character feel like inadequacies, but, to the reader, they are intrigue. Or maybe that grumpy ol’ inner editor just has to have something to complain about.

  37. Very true. We often given our characters (and ourselves) too little credit. Readers enter a story *wanting* to like our characters. We just need to worry about *not* doing something that will fly in the face of that desire.

  38. If you haven’t read Sscarlet Ibis, you should, it is probably my favorite short story of all time.

    I’ve been reading Dreamlander. I’m starting to get into it now, I’m about 50 pages in. Maybe because it is such a large book, the pacing feels a little slow. But, then again, I haven’t had a lot of time for reading lately.

    Also, if you click on my image, it will take you to the first three chapters of a book I’ve been working on. If you have time, I would appreciate any feed back. I’m trying to gauge how successful the beginning is.

    Happy 4th and have a good weekend!

  39. Haven’t had a chance to read “Scarlet Ibis” yet. I’m afraid my schedule doesn’t allow me to read others’ manuscripts. But I wish you the best with it!

  40. thomas h cullen says:

    Equal to how we write people, in our stories, in real life our bias is towards being seen as nice.

    But it’s substantially an illusion, the “standards” via which we judge ourselves, and others.. Not totally, yet predominantly what gets termed a “nice person” is just what’s accommodating to an overall system of life.

    And to our fiction, this is relevant! Were people forced to deal with one another – all of one another! – regularly, 24 hour after 24 hour, instead of continuing to exist as they currently do, suddenly then so much that gets treated with importance and “reaction” wouldn’t anymore.. Hence, affecting our fiction.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Spot on! Totally agree.

      • thomas h cullen says:

        Of course, there wouldn’t be an alternative to this… were humanity to “change” (a very, very, very “physically” awkward and difficult reality), it would then simply just be transcendence.

        Our reality is too long! The truth is that the status quo isn’t a choice; it’s a mere necessity in light of the collective desire of people to not wish to transcend.

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  1. […] character have to be likable? Author and blogger K.M. Weiland believes likability is overrated. In this blog post, she wrote, “Forget niceness. Niceness doesn’t enchant readers and doesn’t sell books. […]

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