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June 21, 2011

What Makes a Character Unlikable?

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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?

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India Drummond

For me it has to do with characters doing stupid things…like if anyone goes down into a basement with a dodgy flashlight, KNOWING there’s a monster down there, well, I think they deserve to be eaten.

But I think it all boils down to if I can identify with a character. Few things will lose my sympathy faster than whining, bad judgement, stupidity, or all-around hatefulness.

I’m impressed you were annoyed in three lines. It usually takes me a full chapter or two to start really hating a character.

Sarah Pearson

Arrogance! It’s okay if they learn and grow, but if they come across as thinking they know everything, I get annoyed. (Exceptions are people like Holmes and Poirot who have other people around them to silently take them down a peg ; also they are – occasionally – prepared to admit they are wrong!.

Carradee

I think the personal preference aspect makes it impossible to make a character likable to everyone. You want to keep your character for your intended audience as a whole, but you shouldn’t try to make your character likeable for everyone. That’s impossible.

I have a short story where the couple in it are cousins, and one beta was majorly squicked by that. I know I have difficulty liking characters who push my hot buttons—but my hot buttons aren’t everyone’s.

Rachel Graves

Ohhh, the minute I read that title I knew I would have to comment. I recently judged a writing contest as well, and was stunned when an entry had a rapist for a hero. This being paranormal, he didn’t beat women and rape them, he used psychic powers to make them do sexual things they would never do. Ick. I guess the author thought that because the women climaxed or were prostitutes the reader would forgive him. The author was very wrong. I’ll never buy her books.

Compulsive Crystal

Spot on! My biggest pet peeve is when the character acts out of character. Grr. Seriously? Yeah, he thinks there’s a monster in the basement, but that doesn’t mean he won’t face it down–unless he has absolutely no reason to do so.

Susan Sipal

These kinds of reminders are always so important to me because I feel that I’m more plot-driven than character-driven. I have to really work at reader sympathy for my characters. I think Blake Snyder’s “save the cat” point is one I try to pay attention to. And like you hit on with all your points, I try to pay extra attention in the early stage to their GMC – goal, motivation, conflict.

Jill Kemerer

Fantastic post, Jami! I think many newish writers underutilize selflessness in their main characters. All too often the supporting characters are the ones acting selfless, going out of their way to help the MC.

We can keep our MC’s real by showing their good sides. If our heroine is sarcastic, counter-balance it by having her grocery shop for her grandma each week. That sort of thing. Actions speak volumes in novels!

Katie Ganshert

Oh my goodness, I’m bookmarking this! I’m getting content edits back very soon from my editor. We already talked on the phone and I already know one of the things I’m going to have to work on is my main character’s likability. So this is very timely for me! Thanks!

Lisa Gail Green

I was worried about this with my latest, but (hopefully *crosses fingers*) I fixed it. It can be tough sometimes to show that character arc without making them unlikable in the outset. But like real people, characters ought to have good and bad qualities. And YES I think understanding motivation is the key.

Marc

I think some of that also boils down to “realism,” but then, what makes a certain character more “real” to one person might make them less real to others.

You mentioned how a person handles a murder. Sure, if an average human Joe with an average life who’s never experienced anything scary beyond watching a tiger at a zoo eat a raw steak sees their family get murdered and they just go, “uh, why’d you do that?” Clearly, there’s an issue.

Then again, for one thing, there shouldn’t be boiler plate reactions that certain stimuli NEED to illicit. Not everyone deals with horror by screaming, shrieking, shivering, whatever. Hell…some people laugh when deathly afraid. It’s not wildly common, but there’s so many things a person can feel and so many ways to express them that the combinations, and what they mean, are pretty endless. Also, depending on the writer’s style, the characters involved, the premise introduced by synopsis or prologue, and the circumstances, a character seeing the death of someone unrelated to them, on let’s say a TV, and reacting fairly flippantly can be somewhat characteristic of them.

Like many other things, I feel like it boils down to presentation. A writer can portray someone getting killed and a witness character screaming, and it still doesn’t sound right.

Meanwhile, another writer could potray a murder and a witness character being calm about it…and do it perfectly, 😉

Amber

In addition to the things you mentioned, I have a hard time liking characters that seem to have it all. If you are beautiful and rich and have everything, I can’t relate, so I lose interest in you really quick.

Deri Ross
Deri Ross

As always, great post! I’ve thrown a book or two myself when the character did something so ridiculous I just couldn’t take it. It’s one thing to put in a plot twist or an action that is surprising, but going so way off base that you suddenly detest the character is going to lose a reader quick. Kristen Lamb did a great post last week about the Star Wars prequels, and how Lucas relied too much on special effects and let his characters fall by the wayside. Anakin was completely unlikable and whiney, but Padme was the biggest disappointment. She started off as a great, strong, kick-ass woman, and melted into this helpless, clingy woman that died in the last movie when she lost the will to live because her man turned out to be a bad guy. I had fully expected her to die protecting her children or something. But no, it was: give birth, blurt out random names, swoon, die, aaannnd – scene. If it had been a book, I would have thrown it out of a window!

Dean K Miller

One of my first surprises when I ventured into fiction writing was how believable it all has to be, otherwise it doesn’t seem real…even though we are writing false stories. Not complaining at all, just find the irony that good fiction is related to being believable. I’ve always enjoyed the premise that if you pay money for a book, or movie, then you agree to release most connections to reality, and buy into the non-reality of whatever has our attention.

Having said that, this is a great resource for me as I am working on improving my self editing, and the above listed character – “istics” will serve as a great platform with which to query my own story characters.

Murphy

*waves* Jami! Great post!
And, ah, you gotta know the topic calls to me. 🙂 Why? Because I write alpha males and I kinda believe that the more arrogant I make my hero in the beginning of the story – the harder he’s going to fall in the end. Some readers though, don’t agree with my plotting. Hence, my guys have been called: Schmucks and a**holes.
…And I cry.
Naw, personally? I think we’ve sort of castrated the alpha male in present day romance. Yup, we’ve either trimmed his nuts and berries until he’s more Beta or we’ve shipped him off to Mills & Boone to become a desert sheik where he can literally get away with murder.
…And I cry. 😉

Signed,
M. (who, at the moment, is trying to stick a skirt on one of her alpha’s
as she figures a guy like that – getting in touch with his feminine side – will make any girl swoon)
…And I puke.

Suzi McGowen

I’m voting with India. Too Stupid To Live characters will make me give up on a book. Maybe the writer thought it was conflict or a “ticking clock” and that the book needed it? Maybe, but not through stupidity.

Spoiled, selfish characters that don’t grow are another pet peeve. I gave up on a show I have loved in the past, because one of the characters is spoiled and selfish. My husband assures me that character is leaving soon, so I may go back to watching the show again.

Roxanne Skelly
Roxanne Skelly

I think one can sell readers on all sorts of character behaviors if you include details on why they are like that.

In my WIP, my main character is a bit snarky and has some whiny moments, at least at the start. She’ll grow out of the whiny, but will probably retain the snark.

The snark is a coping mechanism she’s developed to emotionally separate herself from the world. A response to some hard times. I’m trying to balance it by exposing her inner self at appropriate moments.

She’s also experience the five stages of grief. Losing your normal, safe world to a dangerous supernatural world would lead you through these stages, IMHO. So, when her snark breaks down, she may whine, expressing denial, anger, bargaining, depression. Ultimately, she’ll learn some acceptance.

I sure as hell would experience those stages were demons and vampires started breathing down my neck.

I guess it’s all about exposing the emotional depth of your character. You can get away with all sorts of things if you give the readers a good reason why. One they can sympathize with.

Nina

Yes! Such a great post. Each category is so important. I find reactions seem to be the thing that make me say REALLY? when I’m reading sometimes. It’s hard to get behind a character who always overreacts or even under-reacts.

Darcy Peal
Darcy Peal

I have a character who reacts to bad situations with a vehement reponse and yet if it is he who caused the problem he is meek and mild and eating humble pie.

So is he just bi-polar or an interesting character.
Would you still like him after a few pages of his “mood swings” or should I just kill him off – and soon.

Gene Lempp

While characters are supposed to be “larger than life”, the further beyond the line of reality we take them the more explanation is required to justify why. If the “good” character is a vile mess why is he like that and is there a glimmer of hope that he can be redeemed? Or is he just vile because the writer thought it would be edgy? The first can become likable while the second just sullies the mind.

Great Post Jami 🙂

Darcy Peal
Darcy Peal

Good points!

Thank you all!

Charissa Weaks

Wow. Great discussion. For me, a character becomes unlikeable the moment their actions have no point. For example, if the writer fails to tell me WHY the heroine is being a whench to everyone she speaks to, I have no emotional investment in her. Instead, I get annoyed and stop reading. Internalization helps alleviate the negative reaction in readers because it gives explanation to the actions in question. Readers don’t have to ‘like’ the character’s actions, but they should see the motivation behind them. This is what makes characters intriguing.

Shari Lopatin

Jami,

GREAT insight. I found this post via Elizabeth Craig on Twitter. In fact, your advice is such a profound guide to character development (especially when developing a villain), I printed this post and will add it to my stash of “professional growth” documents in my office. Thank you for sharing this wonderful, thought-provoking knowledge.

–Shari

Anne E. Johnson

I don’t care if a character is perfect, or even that smart. As long as he/she is in some small way noble, no matter how it shows or what it’s mixed with, I can stick with him/her.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

I think the category you offered was right on. I can’t think of a single thing to add to it.
In my opinion, I think character motivation is sooo important. We, as readers, want to be able to sympathize with the main character…if we don’t know why, or can’t relate to why a character is doing something, then that character loses root-a-bility (I’m following your lead and making up my own words too) I lose the desire to root for the character, hope he/she wins, defeats the villain, saves the farm, rescues the kitten. So, motivation is incredibly important, and thank you for explaining it so clearly!
Loved the post Jami!
Have a great evening,
Tamara
PS, by the way, are you attending this years RWA nationals?

BROOKLYN Ann

Argh, I’ve ran into this problem a few times. Everything between a wimpy hero to the heroine alternating between TSTL and conniving behavior.

This is a great post. We all need to be reminded of this insidious issue.

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