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 is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

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.

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