Have you heard the term “likable characters” tossed around in your book group or circle of writing friends? If you’ve been in the writing biz any length of time, you may have even received e-mails from agents: “I didn’t find the protagonist likable” or “I just didn’t fall in love with your character.”
Fifteen or twenty years ago, I’d never heard the term “likable characters”. Then I began hearing it, and hearing it more often as my friends and I tried to find agents.
For a long time I struggled to discern the meaning of “likable characters.” Now I understand that agents and editors use “likable characters” to describe a feeling of distaste.
“Likable characters” is shorthand for “I got no pleasure from reading about these people.” The term is a signal that the agent would not enjoy living vicariously with your imaginary friend.
The Importance Of The Reader Bond
Agents, and readers in general, want to like and bond with your characters, especially your main character. In this blog post I’m going to talk about character likability and reader bonding.
What makes readers like some characters and detest others? I’m not speaking about villains here. We all know that a good villain is one readers love to hate. I’m talking about protagonists. These are the folks readers are supposed to cheer for. Flawed they may be, but on the whole our protagonists must capture readers’ hearts.
An Empathy Exercise On Likeable Characters
Let’s start with an empathy exercise, meaning let’s see how it feels to stand in published author’s shoes. Imagine you’re the author of a published book, and you’re glancing through Goodreads to find out how average readers feel about your latest offering. (At the bottom of this page, you’ll find the authors’ names.)
- These stories are dreary and devoid of any joy, humor, hope or beauty.
- What’s the point of wasting time in a book where you can’t relate to any of the characters??!
- …the stories are…brutal in a deep, almost subconscious, unintentional way, and they lack empathy
- Some stories are developed enough to impart quiet wisdom; others, though, are mere sketches, with one-dimensional characters and pat, trite resolutions.
- I disliked the character of Abby and despised her mother-in-law…
- I kept reading hoping that the plot would lead to some redemption—did not happen.
- Why should I care about these shallow characters that I haven’t developed any kind of connection to?
- He writes dialogue as if he hasn’t actually talked to another person in months, much less a woman in her twenties, like his main character.
- The characters are pretty unbelievable. All the female characters are described as beautiful but mostly neurotic or actually insane.
- The female characters are terribly drawn, with a misogynistic undertone…
- Plotless, misogynistic garbage with a dismal worldview.
- Not much depth to the characters, especially the women –the term “misogynist” frequently came to mind.
What did you think as you read these verdicts? Punch in the gut, right? So, listen up because you don’t want these kinds of comments about your book.
Create Likable Characters Right From The Start
One of the biggest puzzles for all authors is how to make readers and agents fall in love with our characters. We love our imaginary people, warts and all. Our characters are our children. But, readers do not necessarily have to love the little brat throwing a tantrum in the grocery store. Readers lead busy lives, and they make snap judgments. They won’t wade through an entire book waiting for the payoff–the day when the brat turns into an angel.
To be blunt about it, readers do not like characters who are negative, nasty, bitter, stuck, depressed, or hopeless. This makes common sense. If we have a friend caught in an endless loop of negativity, we give up on them. It’s no fun to hang out.
When you’re writing, try to avoid having the following:
- shallow characters;
- clichéd characters;
- misogynists, racists, or homophobes.
The Issues of Misogyny and Stereotypical Females
Let’s start with the issue of misogyny. Readers say that Writers #4 and #5 objectify women. Is each of these (male) authors attempting to create a misogynist like Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita?
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”
The opening of Lolita is one of the most evocative first lines in fiction. We forgive Humbert Humbert, the old reprobate, because he is unrepentant, and because he is funny and self-aware. One difference between his book and the two books maligned by the reviewers above could be this: Right from the beginning, Lolita is a particular girl, not an amalgam of body parts.
In workshop manuscripts I often see women reduced to a few physical characteristics, those that might ignite that Humbertian flame in a man. Even so, I’m sorry to see readers faulting Junot Díaz. (Oops! I let the cat out of the bag.) He’s really one of our finest writers. Maybe it’s as one of the Goodreads’ reviewers said: Díaz himself has admitted he can’t write women.
If a male writer can’t write women, that’s a problem. The female half of his readership won’t make a strong emotional connection with the characters he creates. It’s all too easy for men to project their sexual fantasies onto women, and women can spot that a mile away.
It may also be true that readers’ tastes have changed. Nabokov was a writer of his time. As writers in our contemporary world, we know that words have the power to wound. It’s not a matter of political correctness, but of empathy. We want to have empathy for all the characters in our books, to have that kind of deep understanding that creates a close author-reader bond.
By the same token, women writers need to watch out for creating shrill, bitchy females. The evil mother-in-law. The catty sisters. If you read between the lines of what the readers above are saying, you’ll see that readers don’t like stereotypical females. These characters hearken back to the way we felt about cliquish girls in seventh grade.
Let’s endow our characters of all genders, races and sexual orientations with the dignity and complexity of real people. If we do that, we can give readers what they desire.
Readers want to see themselves in the characters they’re reading about. If a woman can’t recognize herself in a book she’s reading, that creates a problem for the author. Bad reviews.
Readers Want To See Themselves
If readers want to read about folks who are, in some way, “like” them, then it follows that these characters must be “likable.” This doesn’t mean characters have to be Miss Goody Two-Shoes, but it does mean the characters should have positive characteristics.
Why? Because readers are more likely to bond with goodhearted characters. Characters who have a pure heart also generally have a conscience. Conscience and purity are admirable qualities that spill over into other aspects of a book. A character with integrity allows you, the author, to plant a moral compass at the very center of your plot. Readers who crave redemptive endings will be looking for that.
The Imaginary World
We’re writers, but we’re readers, too. As readers we step outside our ordinary lives. We accept the writer’s invitation to live inside her or his world. In exchange for the gift of our time and attention, we want several things:
- characters from whom we cannot look away;
- characters we can like, admire, and cheer for;
- characters who show something pure about themselves;
- characters who are multi-dimensional;
- and characters with whom we can identify.
Take yourself back to childhood, and remember the characters you loved and the magic you found in books. If you can create that same magic for readers, you’ll earn their loyalty.
Writer #1 is Alice Munro, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. This beloved Canadian writer obviously hasn’t won over everyone.
Writer #2 is Maeve Binchy. This prolific and bestselling author may have gotten a bit lazy.
Writer #3 is Anne Tyler. Anne Tyler is one of my favorite authors, and I’ve often used her novel, Ladder of Years, as an example of how to plot. Her latest book, A Spool of Blue Thread, didn’t grab readers the way her earlier books did. Note that readers react to the female characters the way they would to people they actually know.
Writer #4 is Jonathan Franzen. Readers panned his latest book Purity. “He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the German Akademie der Kunste, and the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.”
Writer #5 is Junot Díaz. ” He is the author of the critically acclaimed Drown, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and This Is How You Lose Her, a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist. He is the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, PEN/Malamud Award, Dayton Literary Peace Prize, Guggenheim Fellowship, and PEN/O. Henry Award.”
A complicated topic — as a reader, I wholeheartedly agree that most people don’t want to slog through a book with an unlikeable protagonist. But as a writer, I want to struggle against the constraints you’re recommending.
“To be blunt about it, readers do not like characters who are negative, nasty, bitter, stuck, depressed, or hopeless.” I wonder why it is that readers don’t want to engage with these types of characters. I find myself in that category, tossing aside books that I don’t identify with. I guess it’s a sign of my reading habits — I’d rather read about people who are like me. A bit of a scary stance, if you think about it!
Niki, I agree with you completely. I love characters with dark sides, and I especially love unreliable narrators. Over the past fifty years, which is about the time my adult reading life began, I’ve seen changes in the kinds of books readers enjoy. To me it seems that readers’ preferences are heavily influence by what they see on television, in movies, and on talk shows. The books that sell well in the mass market (not literary books, but women’s fiction, let’s say) tend to have characters who are “like” us or “like” people we see on TV and talk shows. Of course, we’ve become much more attuned to the nuances of sexism, homophobia, and racism, so if a character exhibits tendencies in that direction, most readers can’t separate the character from the author, and they think the character is somehow a spokesperson for the author. “Oh, he’s sexist! He’s misogynistic!” The better a writer is able to capture the voice and personality of a problematic character, the more “real” that character becomes to the reader. Essentially, the reader is saying, “Ewwww, I didn’t like the way she treated her mother. She was so mean and disrespectful!” It’s as if our characters are guests of talk shows–Oprah, let’s say, when her show was popular on TV. Or, Geraldo, when the audience would get heavily involved in the guests’ lives, sometimes shouting at them or booing.
I’m not advocating that writers succumb to this, just commenting that it’s something I’ve noticed going on, and it’s especially apparent when I look at book reviews. I think each of us has to make choices about how far we try to bend our people to some universally acceptable “popularity” norm. Certainly, if an author’s aim is to reach a large audience, then it’s wise to take character likability into account. I know that is the ambition of many authors. I mean, we spend YEARS writing a book, and it would be nice if people liked the characters enough to finish reading said book.
Thank you for these pearls of wisdom, Marylee. It’s a great reminder and will prompt me to take a closer look at my stories and characters currently in development.
There’s always one more thing to look at, isn’t there?
Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride with its mesmerisingly awful central character, and Elizabeth Strout’s nasty-natured Olive Kitteridge spring to mind. (Admittedly Olive is not all bad).
I love both of these novels but nobody could find these characters ‘likeable’. And hearing book club members arguing fiercely about her made me glad the protagonist in my own novel wasn’t straightforwardly nice.
I love both those novels and characters, too. I think it’s possibly true that readers of genre fiction need to find someone who is likable. Strout’s book wasn’t always a close third in Olive K’s persona. At writing conferences I do hear agents promoting the idea of likable characters, almost to the exclusion of a book’s literary merit.
But please could you explain your third sentence – sorry to be so stupid.
Perhaps agents in the UK don’t use the phrase “likable characters.” They may not even say they didn’t “fall in love with your characters.” Here in the
US, however, those phrases are used quite often. Agents may not want to spend time and energy thinking about what they don’t respond positively to a book. Instead, agents use the aforementioned shorthand. Here are a couple of additional sites that have weighed in on the issue.
Yes UK agents do use the same expressions. I was referring to 3rd sentence of your your comment: “Elizabeth Strout’s book…”
I love comments like this because they encourage me to be more precise. So, my take on Strout’s book is the her main character, Olive K., is not likable, per se, but rather indomitable. She is a character from whom you cannot look away, just as you would not look away from a tornado on the horizon.
She holds our interest because she has an agenda and because we understand her motivations. And, yet, many readers today would have no patience with Strout’s book, nor would they find Olive likable in the conventional sense.
Because the book’s a story cycle and not a novel, Strout doesn’t require us to stand in Olive’s shoes for an entire book. Other POV characters provide relief, and readers have a chance to experience Olive from the inside and outside, to see how the world views her and how she views herself. That’s a big reward for readers who enjoy character-driven, literary fiction.
However, as I said, not all readers are going to enjoy that sort of reading experience. Olive is competing with the latest TV programs, with cell phones and video games, and with page-turning books like GAME OF THRONES.
Strout is a literary writer with wonderful gifts, but the distractions of our entertainment/celebrity-driven culture mean that not all readers would find Olive a character they would willingly choose to “hang out with”.