Blog

How To Avoid the Trap of Creating Unlikable Characters

Friday, May 27, 2011

One of the hardest lessons for me to learn as a writer has been HOW to make my heroes and heroines more likable. In hindsight, I can see that most of my rewrite issues have revolved around getting my main characters more likable.

As a result, lately, whenever I watch a movie or read a book, I’m extremely aware of the likability factor of main characters. I’ve grown incredibly sensitive to the issue, which is often the case when we’re learning to do something better.

I realize there's a wide spectrum of subjectivity when it comes to making characters likable. What one reader might think is unheroic and entirely disagreeable might not phase another reader. But no matter the subjectivity involved, I’m realizing our books will resonate best with readers if we give them main characters they can LOVE and RELATE to.

Yes, yes, “love” and “relate” are subjective. But my evolving opinion is that no matter what we write, we can cross the line and go too far, essentially alienating our readers from our characters.

How can we know if we’re crossing the line and making our main characters too unlikable? And what can we do to make sure we’re keeping our main characters likable enough?

I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments today, because the likability issue is still one I’m working on (as my critique partner and editors can attest to!). But here’s what I’ve learned so far:

How can we know if we’re crossing the line and making our main characters too unlikable?

We hear this writing mantra over and over: Add tension to every page, increase the conflict, and get our main characters (MCs) into trouble. In humble obedience to the rules of fiction, we try to heap mountains of problems upon our MCs. We do this externally in the form of villains, trauma, or drama. And we do it internally in the form of emotional struggles, character weaknesses, or relationship problems.

A story wouldn’t be a page-turner without the conflict to move it forward. However, at the beginning when we’re trying to establish the problems and the need for character growth, we may tip the scales too far.

Yes, our MCs need flaws, things they have to work through as the story progresses (aka character arc). But in the process of making our MCs imperfect, we can’t turn them into bitter, whiny, selfish, angry, mean, cold-hearted jerks.

I’ve learned that in making my MCs have real, everyday, human problems, I have to be careful not to shape them into the kind of people no one wants to hang around for 300 plus pages.

What then can we do to make sure we’re keeping our main characters likable enough?

Like most things in fiction, we’ll have to learn to find a balance. We don’t want perfect Pollyannas. Neither do we want boorish baboons.

When I think about the kinds of characters that really resonate, the ones I remember long after I close a book, the people I fall in love with—they usually have something noble about them. No matter their flaws, there’s a quality that makes me want to be like them. I look up to them and admire them.

Here are several traps we should avoid if we want to make our MCs likable enough:

1. Too many negative traits. Perhaps we’ve given a likable quality to our MC. But the mounds of negative traits overshadow that one tiny likable quality, drowning it out so that the reader can’t see it (I’ve been guilty of this!).

2. An unforgivable trait or action. We might have made our character likable, but then she does something (or several things) that the reader finds unforgivable, completely unlikable, and unredeemable. The event or action leaves a bad taste in the reader’s mouth and often they’re unable to resume their fullest love of our character after that. (I’ve been guilty of this too!)

3. Bringing out likable traits too late. Sometimes we wait until too late in the story to bring out the likability factor. We can’t have our MCs acting like spoiled brats until the end when they finally change. We need to have something heroic within our MCs that readers can love right from the start.

My Summary: It’s often very difficult for us to see how we’re portraying our characters. We have an image in our minds. But what comes out on paper, what readers see, isn’t the whole picture we envisioned.

When we’re getting objective feedback from our critique partners or editors, one of the things we should ask them is, “Do you like my main characters? Why or why not?” We should pay careful attention to their likability feedback.

Ultimately, we should ask ourselves, “What can I do to ensure that my hero is truly a hero.”

Your turn! I’d love to hear your thoughts on the likability factor. Have you had trouble making your MCs likable enough? Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where you absolutely loved the MC. Why? What did the writer do to help you fall in love? Or on the flip side, have you read a book where you couldn't fall in love with the MC? Why?

51 comments:

  1. This is a really great analysis, Jody. Regarding #3, bringing out that likeable traits too late... it reminds me of Blake Snyder's "save the cat" advice. He says the "save the cat" moment (that moment of character redemption in the form of a likeable/sympathetic quality or action, even if very small) *needs* to happen somewhere in the opening, the introduction to the protagonist. Or you risk losing vital sympathy from the audience.

    I completely agree. Often, when that is missing, you get the nagging "I'm not connecting with the character" feeling that puts a bad taste in your mouth for the story as a whole. When you don't care what happens to the characters, when you don't have that sympathy, it ruins everything.

    In writerly discussions in the past, I've actually used The Preacher's Bride as an example of how to gain reader sympathy right from the start. Elizabeth is a head-strong woman who can come across dislikeable when she is stubborn, but in that opening chapter, the *reason* for her stubbornness is extremely NOBLE. And it's something that *any* person can connect with. I mean... who wouldn't want to help an innocent baby? You get the reader rooting for her before they know anything about her. It's an opening chapter worth studying, in my opinion.

    Thanks so much for this post. :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I've just about lost sleep over this issue at times. It's the most important question I ask any of my crit partners.

    One of the things that really gets me behind a hero is them being an underdog. I love seeing generally decent characters rise above their limitations and overcoming a challenge. But on the other hand, when they succeed, I want it to be clearly as a result of their own actions and determination. Not because they simply got lucky or a supporting character saved the day.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm not sure characters have to be likeable for a book to interest readers, but the character needs to be engaging. By that, I mean the MC has to have qualities that readers can identify with: the MC feels like a real human being.

    I also think it depends, too, on the genre. I don't read horror stories, but I imagine the MC in those stories are pretty unlikeable.

    The main thing is that the reader is engaged in the character and wants to see what happens.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I find it very hard to engage with a main character if I don't like them. I'd much rather be rooting for them than just interesting in seeing what happens.

    ReplyDelete
  5. This is such a timely post for me, Jody. Characterization is definitely something I struggle with when writing first drafts. I tend to make my characters too strong and sometimes a little too snarky. And although there's always a reason, the reader often doesn't care about that reason early on b/c they don't know as much as I do. So I know I need to give them characteristics to make them sympathetic, relatable to the reader. It's hard, though.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Karen Witemeyer does a beautiful job at creating likable characters. I've only read one of her books so far, and I couldn't get over how dang likable both her hero and heroine were.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I do struggle sometimes so I've had to learn from other characters in published novel similar to mine to see how they do it. A character can still be likeable if they are mean if the internal thoughts reflect that the character is really hurting or hiding something. Whether they are nice or mean it them finding that connection with the reader.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thanks for this today, Jody. For the first time I'm really struggling with a character that is unlikeable, although it is an important secondary character and not the main character. As I am finishing up trying to get her right, I will take to heart the things you pointed out. I think they will help!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Your post was so timely. Currently, I'm worrying about this very issue in my WIP and your post helped clarify things.

    I think a good example of an author who did an effective job of creating an unlikable character, yet one we still root for, is Margret Mitchell in her novel "Gone With The Wind". Both the hero and heroine are about as flawed as you can get, yet as I was reading, I found them likable enough to stick with the book.

    I also agree with Lydia Sharp in saying that in "The Preacher's Bride," the characters were both flawed enough that they weren’t “Pollyanna” yet still very likable :)

    ReplyDelete
  10. This post really resonated with me. I struggled with my MC for a long time because she was originally envisioned as a shut-in, hiding from everything bad about her life and keeping everyone at arms length. I got about halfway through the first draft before I realized I couldn't stand her. And if I wasn't going to root for her, no one else would.

    All three of your points are spot on. I think it's important for readers to be able to see some part of themselves in an MC - whether it's a true part or just the way the reader wishes they could be. Readers need to be able to empathize, and the only way to do that is with well-rounded characters.

    Great job!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thanks for this! I've been revising my novel, and while my MC isn't unlikeable, necessarily, my last reader commented that she got frustrated with the MC for not growing up and dealing with things maturely more than halfway through the novel. Revising now, I can see how unlike that character, who is very mature otherwise, that is.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I have this same problem. It's hard for me to make my characters sympathetic and I'm working on ways to correct that.

    What makes a main character likable for me is if I can relate to them. I know that's subjective, too (what about writing isn't?), but if the character seems like a real human being, I will like him/her more.

    I dislike characters who seem arrogant or who are too perfect - like nothing bad ever happens to them.

    As you said, the more bad things happen to a character, the more I'll probably sympathize with him or her. I like books where a character is so "beaten up" that reading about one more hardship or problem in his/her life makes me cringe in sympathy.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Excellent post! I have struggled with making my heroines likable because they start off too strong. I'm dealing with this by giving them noble reasons for why they are the way they are and by revealing their vulnerability in their internal dialogue. They are tough for a good reason and the hero sees this very early on. That's where I am in the likable MC game. The other thing that is so very hard is to have the characters drive the plot by their reactions to what is happening rather than the plot being the main driver. That's what I'm struggling with, too. And I'm also trying to fine tune the deeper emotional elements within my characters. Visceral reactions that are unique, new and relatable.

    Not easy!

    ReplyDelete
  14. What really amazes me is the balance. The books where the character is initially unlikeable and somehow we just end up loving them anyway, those are the truly wonderful ones. If you find that balance, that very thin line, you can make your book go from nice to brilliant.
    I give this example over and over again, but I just can't get over it: Cathy and Heathcliff. Don't you just hate them and somehow absolutely love them?
    I think it's all about that redeeming quality. It doesn't have to be so obvious. The real trick is to make it so subtle that your readers loves your MC but can't quite point why.
    Now, how do you do that? Absolutely no idea. If you figure it out, please let me know!

    ReplyDelete
  15. Oh, oh, I love little quirks in a character. Small things like a woman who can't cook worth squat or a shy woman who turns red all too easily.

    Relatability is key here. You nailed that.

    Blogger is not a likable character for me right now.
    ~ Wendy

    ReplyDelete
  16. One really good piece of advice I was given for unsympathetic characters was to show the disconnect between their actions and their emotions. If you have a character who is really unlikeable but who doesn't want to be that way, they're more likely to garner sympathy.

    I know I always cheer for that kind of character--even if they're completely obnoxious--because I want to see if they can change the things they hate about themselves.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I'm sure loving all the comments today!! They're full of great pointers and wisdom! Thank you for sharing! I'm learning a lot! :-)

    ReplyDelete
  18. As a beginning writer, this is a struggle for me. My MC is hurting, so comes across as a brat. Through the story, we see that she is lashing out. I hope that we can see through the outer shell into her heart as the story progresses.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Yep! Guilty! I wrote book(s) with unlikable characters. If I got one character right, the other was wrong! I was confused.

    Right or wrong, I think along these lines now: any growth the character does to overcome major flaws must be resolved before the story begins--find a way for the character to use the growth off screen to become a better person on screen.

    Example: If she grew up with overly doting parents and because of this has trouble maintaining friendships, than she must have overcome her self-centeredness before the story begins.

    In one of my early books, her growth might have been learning to be a good friend. But now?

    She would have learned the skills of becoming a good friend a year ago. Her internal growth in the story would probably be learning to value herself regardless of what others think.

    It's easier to make a character likable when we give them goals downplaying their faults and shining on their strengths.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Great tips as usual, Jody.

    I can attest to the work you've done on characterization. The characters in your third book are awesome. I fell for your hero hook, line, sinker. Wait. He's a lumberman, so I should say saw, axe, and wedge. =) Neither he nor your spunky heroine are perfect, but they are likable--and lots of fun. I feel certain your readers will like them, too. But, alas. They have to wait until September 2012 to meet them.

    In the meantime, your devoted fans get to meet Eli and Priscilla this coming September and journey with them as they deal with their differences and the difficulties of traveling across the U.S. in the 1830s. Strong characters with a page-turning plot. Yes!

    ReplyDelete
  21. I always think of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind when I think of unlikeable characters. Yet, I devoured her story like a starved reader. Why? I think because the author (gosh I can't remember her name!! *stunned deer in the headlights look*), took a negative personality but buried beneath it relatable characteristics. Fear, lack of self-worth, damaged pride, intimidation, need for control. THe reader could relate to Scarlett's internal struggle and therefore forgave her outer poison.

    I'm not sure if this answers any questions - it's just something I've been thinking on for character study ...

    ReplyDelete
  22. oh my, this is my exact problem. Conquered the writing craft part (mainly :) but now the #1 problem is keeping the MCs likeable. I dislike Pollyanna characters with one flaw--usually something rather superficial. I tend to write my characters to be on the other extreme though, all bad with one redeeming quality, and the main thing I am learning is you gotta give them a REALLY GOOD excuse. In real life, people may not have one, but in books, my crit partners are insistent that I have to have an excuse that will let them continue to like them.

    I have a character in a current WIP that has a flaw no one likes in this present day, but last night I figured out a better angle (I think) to present it that I can still get away with it, but not lose any likeability. Here's hoping.

    ReplyDelete
  23. One of my all-time favorite villainous and negative but still intriguingly pitiable and even likeable characters ever is Benjamin Linus from LOST. The writers and Michael Emerson did a fantastic job of making him so completely complex.


    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

    ReplyDelete
  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Let me try this again...

    All great tips here! Very timely post for me.

    I have a novel that I wrote where all the women who have read it, love the female MC, but do not like the hero...but the opposite is true for the men who have read it. They love the hero but don't like the MC. I'm talking strongly like and dislike. In a way, to get that kind of reaction is interesting, but truly said, I'm at a loss with it!?!?!

    ReplyDelete
  26. This is a really enjoyable and informative read, Jody, on a subject I always find interesting. I think characterization is a quest of observation and balance. We want to look for which traits to emphasize, but we need to make sure that we don't focus too much on the negative, else we run the risk -- as you've discovered -- of alienating our readers. My problem is that I can't make a character UNlikeable. I have a horrendous time making and maintaining a good villain (is that an oxymoron?). Empathizing with the antagonist lasts about two minutes, which probably isn't enough to carry me through an entire novel...

    ReplyDelete
  27. This is something I'm struggling with right now. My main character is a little bitchy, and she's got good reason to be. But I need to make sure that by the time readers find out why she acts that way, they don't already hate her! I like that "save the cat" idea that Lydia mentioned above--I probably need to have my character do something early on that assures the reader that deep down, she's really an OK person.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Oh boy, Jody, you hit on one of my trouble spots today. Camy Tang critiqued my work a while back and recommended the book Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias. There's an entire chapter devoted to character likeability and specific techniques a writer can use. It was a huge help! I still have lots of work to do on this area, but I'll get there. :)

    ReplyDelete
  29. Interesting post :)

    Characters do not have to be likable in order for the readers to connect and relate to them. Half the world is full of people who are not likable or they feel they are not. So, this half should be taken into consideration.

    Additionally, if a book is full of likable characters, then there is no point to read it. There is no balance to that > evil balancing the good, yin and yang, etc. Plus, it would be boring and surreal.
    Readers connect and relate to issues close to reality, regarding character traits and as I mention above, reality includes not likable people.

    Even in paranormal genre, where different species are involved, characters carry human traits and many of them can not be likable. However, readers identify themselves with those characters.

    So, even if a character is not likable, proper set up and traits will make the reader identify with that character.

    Take "Pride and Prejudice" for example. Darcy is not at all likable, as he is presented. However, I'm pretty sure most readers prefer him, from the beginning, over Bingley. :)

    Hate is a powerful emotion and there are many books where the MC is hated, but the readers can't put the book down.

    Thus, the trick is not to make the characters likable or unlikable, but to make them so that readers will identify themselves with the characters, connect and relate to them.

    Thank you for the thought-provoking post.

    ReplyDelete
  30. Good post as usual. In my novel, I had the hero do something unthinkable that could have wrecked his chances to be a hero. And I had an antagonist that I had to make likable. That was a tricky tightrope to walk.
    It helped to get feedback from others in my crit group, as well as from agent during the revision stage. Rewrites saves the day again!

    ReplyDelete
  31. I just love your posts, Jody. I am working on this very thing right now with my MC. I am looking for little ways to make him more likable in the beginning before his redemption comes. That's tough because of the angst involved in the first Act of my book but I know it's possible. Thanks for another great article!

    ReplyDelete
  32. I have trouble making my heroines likeable. However, I usually do better with my heroes. Wonder if that's a guy thing.

    ReplyDelete
  33. This is such a crucial part of our writing and one that I've always had a personal issue with. It's why I couldn't watch the Sopranos - I didn't like the characters. Why would I want to spend time with them week in and week out if I didn't like them? And the same holds for a novel. We can be the best writers ever, but if our characters are not likeable, who's going to want to hang in there for 400 pages? This is also where critique readers can be worth their weight in gold because they'll see the book differently than we do. It can be a fine line to walk, but good writers usually manage to pull it off beautifully.

    ReplyDelete
  34. I know I'm chiming in late on this post, but oh, do I agree. Making characters likable seems to be the antithesis of creating tension and making your characters larger than life. How to find the balance? I don't know.

    I revised the opening chapter to the manuscript I just finished about 14 times before I had the heroine likable yet strong and the dramatic tension right. It was a lot of work. And I thought about throwing my computer against the wall (an unlikable action) several times throughout the process. BUT the hard work did pay off. I finaled in four competitions and garnered some agent and editor interest. I don't have some magic formula for getting the balance right. I just rewrite until the chapter works the way I want it to, and I rely heavily on my crit partners for that type of feedback.

    IMHO, the opening chapter is where you have to get the readers rooting for your characters. Even if your characters make unwise choices later on, I think your readers will be understanding if they're already rooting for your characters.

    ReplyDelete
  35. Thanks for all of the discussion, everyone! I've sure appreciated hearing everyone's thoughts on this topic!

    ReplyDelete
  36. When I received editorial feedback on my first novel I was dismayed to hear the MC wasn't likable because she came across as too much of a victim. A lot of things happened to her, but instead of it making her sympathetic, it made her weak and wimpy -- not a character readers would relate to. She had to have a stronger personality and react with more courage. That was a big learning experience for me and I hope I've been doing a better job in subsequent stories.

    ReplyDelete
  37. I tend to make my heroine a bit too snippy in the beginning. Instead of coming across as feisty, she starts to sound shrewish. I have to sand her a little around the edges. Another thing I need to keep reminding myself about is that characters must act and be purposeful, not react and be passive. Another great post, Jody.

    ReplyDelete
  38. Thank you for this post. This is something I have been struggling with in my novel. I wanted my main character tough but with a sensitive side. But he is just coming across sounding like a wimp. I don`t even like him. I am currently rebuilding this character.Thanks

    ReplyDelete
  39. Very solid perspective. I've read characters that ranged from dull to unrealistic flaws that just irritated me. Sure I remember the characters but there was no balance and sadly I wouldn't read a story with these characters again.
    The best method of creating balance I've found is just treating them like real people. Start with their psychology, create a real persona. Once you've created a legitimate psychological persona then you'll understand their motivations, hopes and actions. As a real person they are naturally balanced. Their psychology will determine how they slide on the protagonist-antogonist scale.

    ReplyDelete
  40. You've summed this up very well. I remember reading Wuthering Heights in college, and I really hated that story - because of the unlikable character, Heathcliff. I kept hoping, searching, wanting some (ANY) redeeming quality in him.

    ReplyDelete
  41. This is something I struggle with! I do think my MC starts to sound a little whiny, and I've had to tone that down. I'm still deep in revisions on that book, so thankfully only my critique partners have seen it!

    ReplyDelete
  42. Love Michelle T's comment about Wuthering Heights because I'm hard pressed to find any likable characters in that story, yet I loved it. The passion in the situations is what captivated me. The characters stayed true to their rotten selfish selves so I stayed on the ride.

    ReplyDelete
  43. Thanks for this. Its very insightful and helpful.
    It has been frustrating to have a novel rejected because the editor did not "deeply care" about the protagonist, then to have others call her "engaging and funny" and then have one reviewer describe characters as "vivid little gems" and another say about the same story that, by the end, she didn't care about them at all.

    I am fairly new to having my work out there and find I attract extremes. I write gothic fantasy and paranormals. Sometimes I am concentrating more on the plot or situation and even the mood than I am on the qualities of the characters. I give them the traits that will enmesh them in the weirdness of the story which always involves vulnerability at some level.Ambiguity is also a quality that I love.
    Europeans and Americans of an older generation seem to have a taste for this, but I'm afraid TV has tipped the scales towards the obvious and characters that are "just like us". Whatever that means.
    Ultimately I feel readers come to stories with preconceived notions and do not pay attention to genre specifications. Gothic mystery and fantasy, though very old genres, seem to be very misunderstood in the US.
    Anyway, It tough when as an author you love your characters and you get people who don't. How do you judge it?
    Cheers,
    Alyne de Winter

    ReplyDelete
  44. Hi Alyne!

    Yes, writing is definitely subjective. There will always be those who don't like what we write. But I think the key is finding qualified professionals (presumably a paid editor) who can offer objective macro-level feedback about our stories, characters, etc. We can also send our books out to beta readers with questionnaires soliciting their feedback (before publication). Hopefully, in so doing we can receive a better picture of how others are perceiving our writing. It's just too hard for us as writers to have a clear picture because we're too enmeshed in the story. Hope that helps!

    ReplyDelete
  45. Yep, I just finished Julie Klassen's The Dancing Master and pretty much disliked both main characters. Alec was too foppish and afraid of getting himself a little dirty, also he would have been ashamed to perform manual labor to put food on the table, which really intensified my dislike. And the heroine was brutally rude to her mother, something I consider a cardinal sin, always disobeying, always running off, always acting first and thinking later. Everything she did was from a selfish, me-first mindset. She changed, I suppose, at the very end of the book, but like you said, the change came too late. All of the secondary characters outshone the hero and heroine. Never a good idea. I'm not sure where the author went wrong, but I really hope she doesn't make the same mistake again because she really is a fine writer.

    Great post and some serious food for thought!

    ReplyDelete
  46. One of my all-time favorite villainous and negative but still intriguingly pitiable and even likeable characters ever is Benjamin Linus from LOST. The writers and Michael Emerson did a fantastic job of making him so completely complex. bubblegum casting

    ReplyDelete
  47. I am searching such kind of post many days but i can not find.i am happy naw,thanks for sharing this post idahonda.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
  48. All of the secondary characters outshone the hero and heroine. Never a good idea. I'm not sure where the author went wrong, but I really hope she doesn't make the same mistake again because she really is a fine writer. seo barcelona

    ReplyDelete
  49. I'm not sure where the author went wrong, but I really hope she doesn't make the same mistake again because she really is a fine writer. Espresso Machine Reviews

    ReplyDelete
  50. I'm still not enjoying it to its full potential. I'll have to sink some money into a good gaming rig, before I can enjoy the best of its graphics SEO Conference

    ReplyDelete

© All the articles in this blog are copyrighted and may not be used without prior written consent from the author. You may quote without permission if you give proper credit and links. Thank you!