Believe it or not, I sometimes actually follow my own advice. *smile* Recently, I helped score a few contest entries, just like I recommend in my post about why all writers should volunteer to judge contests.
One of the entries was—I’m afraid there’s no nice way to say this—dreadful. The writing itself was competent, but I hated the main character by the third line. Yes, you read that right. The third line.
The character’s thoughts and actions veered into awful that quickly. More surprisingly, the synopsis attached to the entry proved I hadn’t misread anything. The premise was, quite simply, squicky. (*shh* I don’t care if “squicky” isn’t a real word.) And no, this wasn’t meant to be an anti-hero story.
In this particular case, I think the premise itself was the source of the problem. Or rather, that premise in that genre was the issue, as the most unacceptable premise or character could feel perfectly at home in some genres.
But if a character is supposed to be likable (i.e. not an evil villain according to the premise), and the premise and genre aren’t a bad match, what causes an unlikability problem? When we’re told that a character is unlikable (and I’ve been there!), where should we look to fix it?
- Character Goals
What do they want? What are they working toward? Does that goal have a good or bad connotation? Does it seem selfish? Would someone else “good” have to lose for this character to win?
- Character Behaviors
Does the character come off as whiny? Or maybe they complain too much, or are too sarcastic or snarky or bitchy. Maybe they seem too pessimistic or “woe is me.”
- Character Actions
Obviously, a character who kills kittens isn’t going to be liked, but sometimes this is more subtle. How do they treat others? What are they shown caring about, valuing, or respecting? Are they shown doing something considerate and thoughtful? Or are they late for work and they don’t care?
- Character Reactions
How does the character react to others? If someone does something nice to them, do they respond in kind, or do they blow it off? Are they too self-centered or preoccupied? I think this is the second-most important category, as it’s easy to overlook this issue. There’s a big difference between a character who reacts to a murder with curiosity (“Who could have done it?”) and one who reacts with horror (“How could anyone have killed sweet, old Mrs. Patterson?”). Just having a reaction isn’t enough. What’s the subtext behind that reaction?
- Character Motivations
This is the most important category. A character can do just about anything and get away with it if the reader understands and can relate to their reasons. Internalization is key. The reader must get a clear understanding of why the character is acting/reacting in a certain way, or why they want something.
So when reader feedback says a character is unlikable, look first at the internalization, where the character’s motivations are revealed. A character could do the right thing, like save the cat, and not get “points” for it from the reader if their motivations seem selfish.
Then check the rest of the categories. Maybe we think the character should be likable because their actions aren’t bad, but maybe their actions are unclear or not strong enough.
At one point in time, I had all those problems on one character. *sigh* She didn’t have clear goals, came off as whiny, didn’t show her good qualities, reacted inappropriately, and the internalization was a mess.
It was amazing anyone liked her at all. I think readers felt sorry for her more than anything. While that’s a method to generate sympathy, that’s not the most effective way to make a character likable.
What do you think makes a character unlikable? Did I forget any categories? What are some of your pet peeves that make you really dislike a character? Do you think every character can be “fixed” to be likable?Pin It