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. Agreed. Perfect characters are boring characters.

  2. 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.

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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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* 🙂

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

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

  10. James Hall says:

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

  11. 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!

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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!

  15. 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!

  16. 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.

Trackbacks

  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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