Saturday, January 12, 2013

Character Likability


Is he likable? 

What about him?




Is she likable?

Okay, never mind the fact that the first few are rather easy on the eyes...

Some people like Captain Jack Sparrow despite him being a pirate, a law-breaker, a pillager! There are some who love Klaus from The Vampire Diaries though he is a cruel killer. But he's lonely. He appreciates art, the wonders of the world, and love. He just doesn't have it. Of course, there are LEGIONS who swoon over Damon, the bad brother on The Vampire Diaries. He fails over and over again to do the "right" thing and is selfish. But he's spontaneous, passionate, absolutely consuming. (Being gorgeous doesn't hurt him, I know.) Don Draper from Mad Men is despicable but his ingenuity, intelligence, and determination is admirable. Snape isn't a good guy, but he redeems himself. Big time. He definitely has his own fan base.

And Bella? (Well, she's almost a post all in of herself.) She's an ordinary girl, nothing about her is exceptional. That's exactly why some people hate her. She didn't stand out as a distinguishable character enough for readers. But her being ordinary is EXACTLY why so many loved her, identified with her. People could relate to her - not the hot vamp boyfriend - internal monologue. She was a little self-deprecating, unsure, self-conscience, but she was also a good friend, self-sacrificing, and passionate.

Note: Jack Sparrow, Don Draper, and Bella are main characters.

So I ask: DOES a character have to be LIKABLE? Or do they have to be identifiable? Relatable?

I think a lot of agents and editors will say main characters need to be likable. Read: Likable DOES NOT mean perfect. I, as a reader, don't think the main character has to be have to be able to empathize/sympathize with them. You have to be able to identify with them in some capacity. You have to root for them, be on their side. Now, some people equate the two. Likable=Identifiable. I don't quite see it that way.

Here's an example. My friend and I both read the same adult contemporary. I loved the book. She didn't care for it. She didn't think the main character was likable. I thought the male mc was relatable. I'd been in his shoes and therefore could relate to his thinking. Did he make some bad decisions? Yes. He was a flawed character, as he should be. He had a dry sense of humor and tried to make light of depressing situations. Again, a trait I could identify with. Even though I didn't love the main character, I could identify with him, and I still thought the novel was fantastic.

So, what do you think? Is there a difference in characters being likable vs. identifiable? Does a character have to be likable? Or do they have to relatable?


  1. Intersting post Tonya. As I was finishing reading it, I was thinking of how important it is for the reader to be able to identify with a character--and then, you finished with that very question. I think the two (likability and identification) go hand in hand. As readers, and humans who love familiarity, we are drawn to people(and characters) with which we can identify; we can understand them, and therefore they aren't a threat to us. It's why our friends are who they are.
    If I don't identify with the character, it keeps pulling me out of the book. I'll think "Well, that's stupid. Why did they do that? I wouldn't do that..." and I start questioning the author, and the story, and the whole thing unravels. Luckily, different people like different things, thus providing many opportunities for differences in characters.
    Now I must go and prove I am not a robot.
    Thanks for the interesting post!
    ~Just Jill

  2. Very interesting post. I completely agree about the perfect thing. Making our characters too perfect makes them seem too flat. We can't really relate to them. A character's flaw is what often makes him/her identifiable to me. I'm not sure I have to like the character in order to identify with them.

  3. I think you cannot like a character if you are unable to identify with them. You need to be able to understand why they are making their decisions. This doesn't mean they need to be a mirror image of yourself, but their actions and motivations need to be believable. There are many characters I don't particularly like as people, but if I can understand where they are coming from, and if their actions all relate back to who they are, then I can identify with them and the story becomes engaging, and, ultimately, I come to like them on some level, even I wouldn't invite them over to dinner.

    As a followup to what Roxanne wrote, characters that are too perfect are flat, but characters that are too flawed are annoying. The trick is finding the happy medium.

  4. I don't think a character has to be likable if the story they are telling is compelling enough. I do think we need to be able to identify with the story in some way to keep us reading, though.

  5. I write adult contemporary romance and my experience is that heroines have to be likable and heroes have to be relatable. I think romance readers are a lot more forgiving of a hero's bad behavior than they are a heroine's. A heroine has a short window to make her case while the hero gets a lot more slack. If she's a b****, readers wonder what he sees in her; if he's a d***, but has his *moments* of appreciation for the heroine, readers are all swoony about him. Not fair, but that's just the way it is.

  6. I really like this post, I think you made a great point with the character examples. For me as a reader I don't think characters have to either be likable or relatable . I think if you can feel anything for a character either not liking them or being able to relate to them is enough to make them a good character.

    I was recently reading reviews of a book where readers didn't like a male character because he wasn't likable. This makes me think of the examples in this post (I'm looking at you Klaus an Damon) who aren't likable but yet no one really complains.

    Maybe it's a medium thing ?

  7. Oh boy, I could write a book on how likeable Lucky is (kinda did already but whatever). Which really sounds like bragging but he's won a couple of awards (Wittiest, Most Charming, Best Overall) and I have been told by everybody + Meg Cabot (MEG CABOT) that he's very easy to like.

    In my opinion, though, a character doesn't always have to be likeable to be connected with. Some, like my friend Elyse's MC Emily, are very caustic, down-to-earth anti-heroes who get down and dirty about the way the world is. Actually I seem to connect more if the boy is more likeable than the girl, because then that (usually) makes him a literary crush. If the girl's likeable too, then all the better.

    Of course, being likeable and being perfect are two different things. Someone can be likeable without being perfect. Their mistakes are usually little things, and if they're big things then the characters learn from it pretty fast. Usually.

    One last thing: I think in a character-driven novel, there has to be at least one likeable character. Otherwise you get a little lost, bored, irritated, etc with the cast. XD

  8. I agree that a main character doesn't have to be completely likeable if they are relatable enough, but, for me, unless I also like them, I don't really care what happens to them so the book loses its impact.

    (Oh, and Bella Swan was not a "good friend." Reread the books and read carefully how she thinks of her friends and how she treats them. It's one of the things I disliked about her.)

  9. All I need is for the character to be interesting--in what ways are they broken, in what ways are they noble, which traits are surprising underneath the more obvious surface? Relating is important because that's often what leads to "rooting for" or at least caring about a character's face. But all I need to relate is humanness--people who are a muddle of flaws and good qualities, especially if the combinations surprise me. I'll follow a character with loads of "unlikeable" traits into hell if he/she can make me laugh.

    It seems to me that likeability is much more a MG/YA preoccupation than in other areas of fiction. Maybe the key is to show good and bad qualities or, at least, interesting or unusual qualities early in the book. The sooner the character is humanized, the sooner they're interesting (at least, to me...a semi-grownup ;) )

  10. A character doesn't necessarily have to be likable, so long as s/he's someone you can identify with and understand the motivations of. Scarlett O'Hara and Amber St. Clare aren't exactly the most likable sheroes, but since you can understand what's driving them to do some of these less than nice or moral things, you want to root for them and even grow to like them eventually.

  11. Great characters have to be enjoyable, but not necessarily likeable. One of my favourite shows has been The Killing, the lead detective, Sarah Linden, is cruel, rude, selfish and narrow-minded. She put her partner in mortal danger again and again, she overlooked the basic needs of her teenage son and had a hissy-fit if anyone ever questioned her motives. But I love her character. I don't like her much, but she wouldn't be half as interesting if she ever gave her poor partner a break. She fascinates me and shocks me, but she always entertains me.