Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Likable Characters

No doubt you’ve met some despicable lunks, in literature as in life. So what’s all the fuss about likable characters?

Let’s assume you love your characters deeply and passionately, even the evil and naughty ones (maybe you love those the most). But what if your readers aren’t as taken by them? While characters must of course be themselves, it’s worth noting the traits that readers seem drawn to. Likable characters tend to be proactive and driven, though we also appreciate passive characters who are given a chance to show their mettle. We like characters that are vulnerable and redeemable. Charm doesn’t hurt.

Our interest in characters builds from the set up. “I remember reading once that if you want readers to bond with your main character, put him in love or in trouble on the first page,” says author Elise Broach. “The reason isn’t hard to fathom: it makes the character vulnerable, and readers are instinctively drawn to, interested in, and protective of vulnerable characters. A difficult situation with a high emotional investment for the character sows the seeds of compassion and affection in the reader.” Broach notes that this one trick of circumstance can compensate for a bunch of off-putting personality traits.

Spunk, courage, persistence, ingenuity, kindness, loyalty – these are among the traits that make a character likable, she points out. Humor can offset a number of vices. We’re also endeared to characters with weaknesses like poor judgment (in moderation), as that helps build suspense.

What don’t readers like in a character? Predictability, self-pity, preachiness, whining – we have a low tolerance for characters that suffer from these flaws. The passive character can be also be tricky, although author Robin Romm points out that some of the best stories have passive protagonists, characters who have not yet acted on their latent desires. A fierce protagonist can alarm or exhaust the reader, Romm notes, and he may not be capable of the same revelations as a passive character.  “The trick is that the passive character doesn’t stay passive,” Romm says. The passive character should be pushed toward moments of complicated crisis that make readers rethink who she is.

Is a likable female character different from a likable male character? Though it’s not especially literary, Shana Mlawski conducted ananalysis of Entertainment Weekly’s 100 Fav Fictional Characters list. Her conclusions: “Most great female characters, the EW list seems to say, are doers—not thinkers or losers or comedians or lovable ogres or what have you.  Great male characters, meanwhile, range across the entirety of human experience.” Perhaps, Mlawski posits, the problem lies with writers who don’t know how to write nuanced female characters, and in particular with male writers who are afraid they’ll be accused of misogyny if they push beyond the safe strong female character mold. “Or is it that Hollywood’s female characters have been focus-grouped to death, as A.O. Scott suggested in his (hilarious) review of Knight and Day?” Mlawski asks. “Are writers shackled by the market research that says that likable female characters must be ‘tough but not aggressive,’ ‘sexy but not actually having sex,’ and ‘willing to fall for a certain kind of guy without entirely losing their heads’?” 

“The perfect hero is the one who offers the most conflict in the situation, has the longest emotional journey, and has a primal goal we can all root for,” notes author Blake Snyder. Though he’s speaking of screenwriting, it doesn’t hurt the literary writer to consider the questions he poses on character:

  • Is your hero’s goal clearly stated in the set-up?
  • Do clues of what to do next just come to your hero or does she seek them out?
  • Is your hero active or passive?
  • Do other characters tell your character what to do, or does she tell them?

In the end, all we want is to create characters that readers care about, characters they’ll stick with to the end and continue to think about after they’ve finished reading.