Over the weekend, I came to the sudden realization that the manuscript I was considering wasn’t working for me for a specific reason: I found some of the characters to be completely unlikable. Of course, I admit that this is a pretty subjective reason to turn down a book. I don’t think that characters should be entirely free of unlikable qualities, necessarily, but I do think that characters need to be likable in order for the book as a whole to work.

I wouldn’t say this is an easy fix, though. There has to be something about that character that allows the reader to be connected emotionally to their story. There also has to be a certain complexity to a character’s personality, one that allows for gradually revealing different traits and characteristics over the course of the story. There has to be a certain vulnerability to the character. I think the perfect character is one who is far from perfect, but for whatever reason we as readers can’t help but be drawn to them.

So for a writer, if a person comes back to you, having read your manuscript, with the critique that your characters are unlikable, how do you fix something like this? Admittedly, you could just take your manuscript to someone else, who hopefully does like you characters, but if the goal is to improve the story, how do you tackle this? Writing strong characters can be tricky, and I’m curious to know what techniques, if any, do you as writers utilize to clear a hurdle like this.

8 Responses to Likeable?

  1. Stephanie! I LOVE your comments!

    To effectively create characters within any manuscript or screenplay, you have to be adept at human nature and understand the intricacies which play out at every level. From the depths of your spirit-filled soul all the way to the machine that people see on a daily basis which transports its ghost.

    Clearly defining a charcters role and how this entity will play out and interact with the remaining cast and crew is what a well-heeled story teller is most capable of doing. For me, with a lifetime of interpersonal details; for which I’ve been a dutiful student, my efforts moving toward commercial fiction from my current platform of inspirational/motivational/self-help; will be at the top of the scale because I know how to weave in the human element and engage this condition for the reader to not only visualize my words from the picture I paint, but also “feel” inside their emotional core those very components that lead them to “turn the page.”

    A great story teller — the type Jane is looking to see more of — gets this and conveys it within their semantical prose.

    Picture this… You wish to build a house. What are the steps? How are you going to bring those “characters” together to create that grand mansion you wish the world to see? That place you call your home? That place you wish to invite the world in to share in your passion so they truly know who you are from how you write. Figure this out and you won’t be considered about facing a rejection because your manuscripts characters are not well defined and how their roles connect effectively and efficiently as the story unfolds. Take your reader by the hand and say, “Walk with me. Let me show you something completely breath-taking that will change your life forever.”

    As my friend David Morrell wrote to me on a bookplate he’d sent for inspiration and motivation as I sharpen my craft — “Follow your Light.” David’s wisdom is great. You wish to find the answers as to creating those characters that you need to shine through in your work? It all starts deep within your heart first — 100%! That place where the Light lives!

    Stephanie, thanks again for this post. Tell your literary agents at DGLM to keep ’em coming. Iron sharpens Iron!! Blessings…..Kevin

  2. Deren Hansen says:

    Darth Vader + Kitten = problem solved, right?

    Or, as David Horton playing King Herod in the Christmas Pageant on the old BBC sitcom, The Vicar of Dibley, said, after ordering his soldiers to massacre the infants in Bethlehem, “But kill them gently!”

    More to the point, likeability has more dimensions than good or bad. It’s one thing to give the otherwise-evil villain some justification because of something in their past that turned them to evil. But what do you do, for example, about contemporary characters who are unlikeable because they’re annoying, or tiresome?

    A simplistic answer is to change the character so they’re no longer annoying or tiresome. That answer, though, masks a deeper question that you, the author, need to ask explicitly about every character (because your readers will ask the question implicitly): why would I want to spend time with this character?

    Just like the fact that people come to your blog or web site asking, “What’s in it for me?” readers expect to get something in return for the time they put into a book. When readers say a character is unlikeable, they’re really saying they’re finding it increasingly difficult to predict what their return on investing time in the character might be.

    Regardless of how morally reprehensible they might be, we like characters that give us some insight or teach us something. I look at my unlikeable characters and ask whether they’re doing anything more than simply taking up space.

  3. Bethany Neal says:

    Adding an obstacle or flaw almost always works. If someone has it all it’s easy to hate them. Knocking them down a few notches doesn’t hurt either. One of my favorite past times is making life harder for my characters. *cue evil laugh*

    I think you’re right about slowly getting to know them as well. The gratification of getting to know a character throughout the course of the novel is a major part of building that likability factor.

    Nice post. :)

  4. JGStewart says:

    I’d quibble with ‘likeable’ (though, as you pointed out, it’s a very subjective criteria). Characters need to be interesting and empathetic. If the reader can connect with a character on a human level (and has some compelling reason to do so), then you’ll want to continue–regardless of the characters likeability.

    See: Dexter, half the characters from The Wire, ALL the characters James Ellroy has ever written, Mal from Firefly… None of them people you’d want as neighbors. All of them characters you want to get involved with.

    As far as *how*… I’m still figuring it out. Obviously, having characteristics/motivations/reactions that the reader can relate to is key. Most of us can’t directly relate to being imprisoned and tortured by the tufted were-badgers of Ghan’aa in their underground fortress. Most of us can relate to the pain of losing a pet. Using those shared experiences (a/k/a writing what you know(tm)) to develop an empathetic bond with the character means the reader will forgive them for doing all kinds of unlikeable stuff later on.

    It probably also helps if you develop the empathetic connection early, rather than later–if your character has already rounded up every kitten on earth to make the world’s fluffiest snuggie, their heartbreaking back story may not engender much sympathy…

    My $0.02,


  5. JJ says:

    There’s something in everyone to like, even in the meanest, the lowest, the most vile. Maybe it’s a character trait, an understanding of what made them that way, or some good turn they do for someone when they don’t have to do so. Or maybe they’re unprincipled in all facets of their life but one. I met with a client once, ex-law enforcement guy now doing personal security. He was big and mean and tough and let no one in. One of those guys who even in daylight people steered clear of him. I never knew where I stood with him or whether my writing advice was getting through. He sat like a stone, sucked in information and gave nothing. But one day finally he must’ve decided I was okay, or safe, or something. He began to talk about his daughter. I listened as sweet words poured out about this kid he loved more than life itself. He melted right in front of me. And since then, I don’t see the big, tough guy anymore. I see a sensitive man hidden behind a cloak that protects him from the world. Now he’s one of my dearest friends. I couldn’t have always said that. When writing likable characters, you have to go that deep.

  6. Catherine Whitney says:

    I would replace likeable with compelling. Characters are compelling when their humanity comes through, for good or ill (Lisbeth Salander). As a non-fiction writer, I am always looking for this quality in my subjects, and I agree with JJ that sometimes you have to dig deep. It’s the writer’s job, in fiction or non-fiction, to find it. If a character is not compelling, you have to ask what’s missing in the depiction.

  7. Ciara says:

    I agree with those who say likable is probably not accurate. I read Deborah Kay Davies “True things about me” recently and it was so brilliant but I can’t say the mc was “likeable” exactly, she wasn’t “bad” either. Vulnerable and sad and compelling but I certainly don’t want to be her friend.

  8. Joelle says:

    I just suffered through this with a supporting character. Every round of edits, I would try to make him more likable, per my editor’s notes, but it was never enough for her or my critique group. Toward the end of the editing process, I read somewhere…and I’m sorry, I don’t know where, an author say that to make a character likable, the AUTHOR has to like him/her. It totally changed things for me. Instead of trying to find out why my main character liked this guy, I figured out what I liked about him. I had to dig deep at first, but eventually, I started finding things to like and I added them to the manuscript. I guess we won’t know until the reviews come out and other people who aren’t so close to it read it if I succeeded or not, but I know I got a whole lot closer than I was before I read that advice. And my editor seemed satisfied. I will keep this in mind from now on, for sure.

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