The other day my sister and I were talking about a book she’s reading. She said she was enjoying the book immensely, but the story’s main character was troubling her. “She’s heartless,” my sister said. “I don’t like her.” She almost spit the words out, like she’d just bitten into a bad tomato.
What a great reaction!, I thought to myself. That author had done a terrific job of bringing that character to life. To me, that’s solid writing, when you can evoke a reader’s emotions – good or bad, love or hate – like that.
Much is said and written in writing circles and in reviews about a character’s likability, but I don’t think it’s necessarily relevant. When I read for pleasure, I’m not consciously calculating whether or not I like a character. I do subconsciously pick up on traits that I like, but more importantly, traits or behaviors that I can understand.
Let me clarify and make a distinction here. If you’re writing romance (as defined within the industry), I think it is vital that the main characters (the ones who fall in love) are likeable. It’s tough to make one character fall in love with another who’s a jerk all the time, after all. That’s not to say they should be perfect (quite the opposite), but they should be the type of characters readers can find themselves falling in love with, and the romance between the characters should be believable.
Aside from romance, though, I think it’s more important for a character to be relatable than likeable. Sometimes the “baddest” characters who do the most horrific things are the most interesting. (On a side note, I love writing bad guys. They’re my favorites. I love digging into their heads and trying to figure out what might have changed along that character’s life to make him or her a monster.) I think that’s what drives the popularity of some of the highest-rated TV shows and movies: the fascination with the bad guy.
But “bad” isn’t enough. Some spark of humanity has to be present in that character’s profile, a reason that he/she turned bad. Why? Because can’t we all, in some deep, dark place in our psyches, at one point in our lives or another, imagine being that angry, that self-focused, that we could almost understand the bad guy’s actions?
It’s that “almost” that keeps us fascinated, I think. We know we’d never go as far as these characters, but if they’re well written (acted), we can relate to or maybe understand, on some level, what they do and why they do it.
Look at one of our most beloved bad guys: Tony Soprano. He made New Jersey cool, didn’t he? (As a native Garden Stater, I say it’s about time!)
Tony could go from having drink at the sleazy topless bar that served as his headquarters (yuck), to having a fight with his wife or kids (most of us have been there, done that), from chasing off a bear in his back yard (yikes!) to ordering a hit on one of his competitors (no way), all without breaking a sweat. But wait…he did break a sweat, didn’t he? In fact, Tony spent a lot of time on his therapist’s figurative couch. It was the therapist who served as the viewer’s conscience, I think – forced by her profession to try to help this man, this murderer, come to grips with what he’d done. I think there were times when she forgot who and what he was, times when she almost began to like Tony.
It was the same for me. Sometimes I sympathized with Tony and really pulled for him. And then he’d go and beat the you-know-what out of someone, or order the extermination of his nephew’s fiancée, and he lost me. It was a fascination with the yin/yang of his personality that kept me watching week after week. It’s the same reason I watch shows like Justified and Sons of Anarchy, shows that aren’t afraid to reflect the reality of life, that sometimes good guys do bad things, and sometimes bad guys aren’t all bad.
People are people. They’re good, they’re bad. They’re strong, they’re weak. Characters should be the same, especially your main characters. Even when drawing a character that’s (hopefully!) so far beyond an author’s reality – like a Tony Soprano – the author needs to incorporate the elements of humanity that readers will understand. With a full-dimensioned character like that, you can take your story anywhere.
So, to answer my sister’s complaint, I told her to keep reading. That character, like most people, had a lot of living, and growing, to do before the last page of her story could be turned.
Happy reading, happy writing!
After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work in the publishing industry as senior editor for Edward Allen Publishing. She also writes commercial fiction under a pseudonym and knows how tough it is to get all the pieces in the story puzzle to fit, but she loves the journey.