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Have you ever loved someone you didn't really like?
(Oh, I know what you're going to say – family!)
Maybe when I was a deputy I met too many criminals whose company I enjoyed. Maybe really nice people kind of annoy me. Whatever the reason, I can't seem to understand this idea that a main character needs to be likable. Interesting, yes. Irresistible, even. But likable? Maybe I'm defining the word to literally.
Can you care for a main character who shouldn't be likable? Do you have to like the MC to love the story? If you can become invested in the character's adventures does that, by definition, make them likable?
I ask because the comment I get most often from industry professionals about the books that don't wind up being traditionally published is: I'm not sure your main character is very likable.
There must be a bit of the misanthrope about me... or I'm just a realist. I think main characters need to be engaging, but not necessarily nice, or admirable. In fact, the best characters are often the worst, and though that's generally accepted when it comes to the villain or subsidiary characters, there's some disagreement about whether it holds true for a main character.
Tell me my MC is boring, flat, and I can fix it. But please don't tell me she's not likable. You don't have to like her – you just have to want to read about her.
I can't really like Amber (of Forever Amber) or Scarlett, but I love to read about their adventures. There are many favorite characters who, if they came to my door, would compel me to hide behind the sofa and pretend I wasn't home. I'd screen their calls. A lot of fascinating people aren't very likable. But I don't tend to judge my heroines by the same criteria I'd use to judge a friend.
So what do I do? Pretty up my characters? Leave them in the self-publishing world and see what readers think? Accept that maybe not likable is an industry euphemism for something else?
My main characters in my traditionally published novels (as Laura L. Sullivan) are likable, in the conventional sense: good, generous, gallant. My Sullivan Lee MCs... not so much. Criminals with bad taste in men. Slightly corrupt cops with, er, bad taste in men. (Well, maybe good taste but bad judgment.) But I like them.
Tell me about books you've loved with main characters you couldn't quite like. Or who you shouldn't like but do anyway. How do you define a likable character?
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