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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Likeable Characters

One of the most dreaded things an author can hear is, “your heroine isn’t likeable.” Since your leading character is not a snarky bitch and she never kicks puppies, understanding why readers aren’t relating to her can be one of the Universe’s most puzzling mysteries. Worse, some readers will actually root for the conniving puppy-kicker, but hate your spunky heroine, who incidentally is searching for a cure for cancer and grows her own vegetables.

How can this be? Simple. Likeable is subjective. Determining what makes a heroine unlikeable is about as easy as figuring out why Paris Hilton is famous.
Let’s use Harry Potter as an example. He’s a ten-year-old boy, a bit moody, wears thick glasses and sports a scar on his forehead. He gets into fights easily and doesn’t listen to his guardians. Seriously, if you didn’t know the story, would your first thought be: “Wow. There’s a character who will make millions for his author.” However, mention Harry is a boy wizard who
can’t practice magic without supervision and we begin to relate. Not because we’re into abracadabra, but because frustration is something we’ve all experienced. Throw in his parents died fighting evil when Harry was just a baby and his guardians are the Dursleys, and we’re hooked.

Obviously, one key to a relatable character is making sure s/he is an understandable character. The advertising world frequently resorts to icons with universal likeability--puppies and babies. Beer commercials resort to the age-old appeal of sexuality (a.k.a. breasts). Unfortunately, giving your heroine a boob job, a newborn twin on each hip, and a basset gnawing on her new Louboutin heels probably won’t be enough to make contemporary women relate (although the shoes might help). Again, likeable is subjective.

So how do we fix unlikeable characters?

First, get feedback. Lots of feedback. Expand your critique group to non-writers. Just because the main character gets a less than stellar rating from one group doesn’t mean she won’t appeal to another demographic. If none of the readers find your heroine mediocre, fageddaboutit. A character who gets strong reactions, both positive and negative, is not going to be boring.

If however, you get mostly negative, or worse, blasé feedback, ask the reader, “What makes you think my heroine’s a bitch?” [Well, you’ll probably want to word that a bit better :-)]. Readers will be able to point out obvious flaws: the heroine is too perfect (what woman has time to cure cancer, organically kill tomato worms and still have a flawless manicure); she’s unfair; the witch comes across as preachy; etc., etc.

What if readers don’t like your heroine but can’t pinpoint why? Don’t despair, just dig deeper. Humans can be very forgiving creatures, so often they simply don’t understand your heroine. Is her motivation clear? Does she have depth or is she one-dimensional? Maybe her goals aren’t consistent with her actions.

The best approach may be to simply write characters you like. Listen to criticism with an objective ear and make changes only if the modifications feel right. If the character doesn’t work out, you can always start over. After all, this is fiction. Right??


Anonymous said...

Great post, Robin! I love how your voice rings thru the useful tips :)

I've had 1 or 2 agents say they don't find a character likable but usually it's fixable. Great post!

Judith Ashley said...

Robin, Writing characters you love is a place to start. If we don't like our characters why would we expect our readers to which means they do have to be likeable and compelling enough to hook agents, editors and eventually the reading public. Great questions to ask ourselves to get to that next level.

Paty Jager said...

Well said, Robin. I agree if the characters aren't likeable you won't hook the reader. They have to be able to relate to them and enjoy going on the voyage of the story with the characters.

And if you as the author like the characters an dare rooting for them then it's a pretty good indication the readers will, too. Don't make a character you yourself can't relate to or it won't work.

Tam Linsey said...

Characters have to be empathetic even more than likeable. There has to be something about them the reader "gets." I love how Blake Snyder deals with this issue in his book, SAVE THE CAT.

Linda Lovely said...

How could anyone not like your characters if they share your sense of humor? But you can't please everyone. Just like I don't want to be friends with everyone I meet, agents/editors/readers aren't going to "get" and "like" every character they encounter. Changing your character may not be the answer--maybe it's finding your character's BFF in what is becoming an ever more diverse publishing world.

Terri Molina said...

Great post, Robin. Character development can be tricky so it's good to know what to look out for.

Jean Paradis said...

I think it helps to put a bit of yourself, and your own fears and insecurities, into the herione. Give the reader a reason to sympathyze.

Ginni said...

Great post, Robin. I think most writers have heard those dreaded words, "I hate your heroine." Very helpful tips on how to figure out why.

Carole St-Laurent said...


Great post. Love it! Because it's so true. In one of my stories, I have an anti-heroine. She's moody, violent (kinda), opinionated (internally since she doesn't talk much), but I hope her despair and her search for the truth will make the reader root for her. But, we never know.

Robin Weaver said...

Hi Ginni and Carole,

So nice to hear from my fellow CRWers!! So glad you liked the post.

Donnell said...

Great post, Robin. But some of the best authors out there, Susan Elizabeth Phillips get that it's all about character growth. Ain't She Sweet is a perfect example. The heroine who comes into town is so over the top awful, we can't help but turn the page, and of course we trust SEP to tell a dynamite tale.


Sandy said...

Had an editor tell me that. If she'd read a bit further, she'd have seen why the heroine is like she is and how she changes during the story. Or maybe my synopsis didn't make it clear. In that case, my fault.

Sarah Raplee said...

I've heard more than one writing teacher say that putting your character into a situation that is universal (like the Harry Potter is frustrated example) creates instant empathy in readers. You are spot-on! I like your suggestions for fixing a heroine no one likes. They are practical and logical. Thanks for another great post!

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of polling non-writers. Guess I'd ask my target audience, because if they don't get it, no one will!

Robin Weaver said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. Please continue to visit. We have some terrific bloggers in this group!

Sue said...

You’re absolutely right – no one likes a mediocre character. Your reader has to either love ‘em or hate ‘em, to hook them into reading more. Your recommendations and guidance are right on target – especially the part about getting others to read your piece, even non-readers. Better yet – get a book club to read it. Book clubs are notorious for giving lots of feedback on characters’ credibility and likeability. Good post – chock full of advice for other writers.