Thursday, July 7, 2011

Do you need to like a character to love their story?

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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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fayehatch said...

It's not so much that I have to LIKE the character but I have to believe they could exist and then relate to them in some way...they can't just be pure, unmitigated evil and hateful if there is not something to back it up...for example, the MC in Wideacre was so amazingly evil that I couldn't relate at all to her. I didn't get what motivated her and, in the end, I didn't care how the story ended. One of the best characters ever created, in my opinion, is Black Jack Randall in the Outlander series..he is bad, evil, abusive..but he has this perverted lust for Jamie and backstory I GET. Do I like him? Absolutely not. Could I not get enough of him? Absolutely. Same for Amber in Forever Amber...I get what motivates her. She has the same drives and motivations we all have. I believe in her and, in a weird way, root for her. Don't give me a boring MC..give me something I can relate to!! :D

Jeff R. said...

Not at all. I need to be able to enter their lives, live the story and feel the subtext. I loved "Crime and Punishment", loathed Raskolnikov and considered it a blueprint of how not to live. I adored "V", but only had a grudging admiration for Benny Profane, but the idea of a life never completed and always reaching has been the center piece for my own. Used "On The Road" for a life less traveled, but couldn't really stand Sal Paradise or his debauched cohorts. How many times have I stood on NY 6 just west of Bear Mountain and imagined myself as Kerouac? Many, many times.

Love your blog. Thanks for inviting me in.

Samantha VĂ©rant said...

I don't think you necessarily have to like the character--but you definitely have to like the narrator's voice. And they definitely have to be believable!

Laurel said...

I didn't particularly like Anna Karenina, but I was intrigued by her story. Of course, how many of us write as well as Tolstoy? I didn't really like Scarlett, but I did like Rhett and Mammy and Melanie and the sweeping story.

I didn't like any of the main characters in the Time Keeper's Daughter and was just so irritated with all of them by the time I finished the book, I got rid of it.

When I read a book, I enter the world of the book, and I don't want to spend time with a full cast of characters who are anywhere from unpleasant to foul.

If the MC isn't likeable, someone else in the book needs to be, and "likeable" doesn't mean that the MC isn't flawed - sometimes deeply. I prefer to be able to relate to the MC in some way, and I don't want to relate to someone who is vile and disgusting.

I think if you loosen up your definition of "likeable", you'll be okay.

Squeak said...

I was musing aloud on your question and my daughter immediately jumped in and said Twilight. I know my three teenaged daughters went back and forth on the whole Edward and Jacob thing to the point of scowling at each other when they wore their respective Edward and Jacob shirts, but I personally didn't like Bella. So whinny. Make up your mind already!

I also agree with fayhatch, I have to believe they could exist before I can relate to them in either the good or bad way. We enjoyed strange characters too, like Chet the vampire cat or Abby Normal in Bloodsucking Fiends series by Christopher Moore.

Meg @ A Bookish Affair said...

I definitely don't think that you have to love a character in order to enjoy a book. Sometimes it can be more fun to hate a character or dislike them at least. It can be fun to watch them get their comeuppance.

Small Town Shelly Brown said...

I like Artemis Fowl and he's not particularly likeable.

I think the Ocean movies are about bad guys.

I think the second Pirates OTC movie was just filled with villains and you just cheered on the least villainous villain.

Funny, Jeff, but I thought of 'V' and Jack Keroac as well.

Catcher in the Rye is a good example.

But I think there is something to likeable, though.
I think we have to REALLY want to MC to reach his/her goal. If we are apathetic to their well being then we lose some of the empathetic desire.

I think the danger is apathy to them and their lives.

What is your reaction to Holden Caulfield? I think he fits your description of unlikeable characters. And look where that book is....

Do you want to reach masses (how most publishing houses make their money) or do you want to reach those you reach (smaller houses play to this better)

Just food for thought.

Anonymous said...

I think I need to like something *about* a character. ...maybe an empathy with a character flaw.... something I don't like about myself, for example.... or the plight of a character could connect me to her/him ... perhaps her adversary shares traits with my own.... (or self-adversariality itself may be enough!)

Laurel said...

Nathan Bransford had a good post about this today.

Laura L. Sullivan said...

My tolerance for Holden Caulfield decreases the older I get!

Thanks for pointing me to Nathan Bransford's post. (I don't follow him as avidly now that he's not an agent!) I think my main problem is with the word itself. I think it is fine to say a reader needs to sympathize (or empathize) with the main character, but not actually like them. When I read, I tend to go into a state of moral suspension, and nothing about a character really bothers me other than pure stupidity or weakness.

Haley Whitehall said...

This is a great post. I agree with fayehatch. I have to relate the to main character not like them. There are many stories written from the point of view of the bad guy. Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind was such a brat I didn't like her but the story is a classic.

Shanan, The Book Addict said...

That is a great question. I agree with you about Scarlett--I loved Gone with the Wind, I had a huge literary crush on Rhett Butler, but I can't say that I found Scarlett likeable.

I think at least one of the primary characters needs to be likeable--but it doesn't always have to be the main character. Like above--I found Rhett likeable but not Scarlett.

However, if the person is not likeable he/she needs to be interesting and the reasons he/she is not necessarily likeable should be understood--allow the reader to empathize or understand even if they do not like. I think that is one thing that draws me to Scarlett--I understood where she was coming from. I may not have liked her choices (really Ashley--when you could have Rhett, silly silly choice), but I understood them.

In a more modern example, I am finishing up the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series now. Lizbeth is a character that I cannot say I like. She is a little odd and socially inept. But I do understand who she is and in some ways why she is that way. I am starting to understand the forces at work in her life that made her that way. It makes her a complicated and interesting character that I am rooting for--but likeable? Not sure I would call her likeable--not really sure she would want anyone to call her likeable really.

Laura L. Sullivan said...

Hi Shanan, thanks for stopping by my blog! I just started following you and wrote practically an essay on your post about the books we couldn't stand, but finished anyway... and silly blogger wouldn't let me comment. Ugh.
(In brief, agree with you re Twilight -- great story idea, lousy execution and infuriating MC. Also, The Quincunx. A professor I admired told me it was the best modern book. Usually I love dense books with Victorian settings, but this was intollerable. And I won't name the other one, because I want to ask the author for a blurb some day -- isn't that terrible of me? But this is the last book in a series. The first three books had a profound influence on me, and one of the characters is still a role model, personally and as a writer. But the books got progressively worse, and I only finished the last one out of deep affection for the author. It could have been edited by about 200,000 words, and I wound up hating a character I've loved for the last twenty years.)
Anyway, sorry I had to put your comment on my own blog! I just tried to comment there again, and it still won't let me. Double ugh!

Shanan, The Book Addict said...

LOL I am sorry that you had trouble commenting. Blogger has been frustrating for a couple of different reasons lately. But I am knocking on wood--and hoping that some positive thinking will help Blogger shine positivity on me (optimism is fun, isn't it).

I have had series that were just too long--at some point someone should have said stop before everyone ends up hating the series. In fact, series that are too long is part of one of my literary pet peeves (