August Advice - Your Characters Don’t Have To Be Likeable
Likeability is the bane of all character creation. It’s a recipe for bland characters, boring conflict and normative stories. Yet you’ll keep hearing how characters aren’t likeable enough. Actually, no. Usually, you’ll hear how your female characters aren’t likeable enough.
And people wonder why there are so many ‘Mary-Sues’ out there. Fuck them. Ignore them. Your characters don’t have to be likeable - they have to be interesting. There is a limit to how ‘unlikeable’ they can be, but that limit is really dependent on how good a writer you are. There are books about serial killers and TV shows about drug dealers, so don’t be afraid to write characters that aren’t 100% peachy-keen good people.
When writing characters and trying to make them interesting and flawed, here’s a few things I always try to keep in mind:
1. They’re Part of Your Story for a Reason
Wanna write a sociopath? Wanna write a mass murderer? Wanna write a drug dealer? Great, on all counts. But why? What role do they play in your story? Are they the main character’s best friend? Are they the villain? Do they have important information?
No character should be in your story ‘just because’ - and certainly not just to illustrate how dark and gritty you are. They should always have a role or stake in the situation at hand, whether they’re being blackmailed, bribed, trying to get something, trying to achieve something or trying to get somewhere. It’s all very well and good to create a cool character, but they need to have something to do with the plot, otherwise they’re not just unlikeable, they’re unlikeable and unnecessary, which is a quick way to make anybody stop reading.
2. They Have To Be Relatable
Let’s make sure this is crystal-clear. Being likeable and being relatable are two different things. The reason why more and more people are reading about dark characters is because they can relate to them - they find the dark sides of themselves within them. The sadness and the anger isn’t covered up. So the trick to making human characters isn’t about making them needlessly evil. Give them motivation, and have them react in imperfect ways.
My favourite story to go to for this is ‘Big Driver’ by Stephen King. The main character, Tess, is raped, beaten and left for dead. A ‘likeable’, good, responsible female character would call the police. Tess reacts humanly. She worries about her reputation, she decides to hunt down her rapist on her own, and she even glories in taunting and torturing the woman who sent her in to be raped. It’s dark, it’s bloody, but ultimately it’s hard to say that anybody wouldn’t do the same in the same circumstances. Tess isn’t likeable, but she’s relatable.
3. Don’t Overdo It
Writing a serial killer is cool. Unless you have a really good justification or premise for it, writing a cast of serial killers (or drug dealers or pedophiles or whatever) can be over the top. (If you have a great idea for it though, I wanna see it.) My point being, balance it out. Nobody wants to read about 50 Harold Lauders, Holden Caulfields or Dolores Umbridges.
Instead, mix it up. Two of my character archetypes that I love putting together are the messy, jaded, dark-with-a-heart-of-gold, rough-and-tumble heroine and the totally amoral, kill-on-a-dime, no-remorse sexually-decadent…person. (I have qualms about calling them a hero or heroine. They’re pretty nasty.) Neither of them are ‘good people’ or likeable in the usual sense, but the first (whether they go by Csindra, Jamal, Simo or some other name) is always a caring person struggling with their own demons, and usually has that wry kind of humour about them. The second, on the other hand, is only likeable because they’re so utterly amoral, and because they’re funny. They make bad, horrible jokes about people they’ve just killed, and on one hand, I hate them because they’re terrible, and on the other hand, they’re hilarious and entertaining to both write and read.
(NB: I know the character archetypes thing sounds weirdly specific here. I actually kept putting the same characters in different stories because I got attached to characters but not storylines - eventually I returned to some of the stories, and as I wrote them, each ‘version’ turned into their own character. That, and I freely admit that there are certain types of characters I enjoy writing.)
The trick is, have somebody there to go ‘Holy shit, you’re a terrible person’, whether in jest or seriously. Bring it home. Make it interesting.
4. Everybody Has Some Sort of ‘Redeeming’ Quality
'Redeeming' is in scare quotes for a reason. My 'Archetype 2' character above's 'redeeming quality' is usually that they're lonely and/or that they're funny - hardly Christ material. But the characters don't need to be redeemed in the eyes of the other characters - they need to be 'redeemed' in the eyes of the readers. There needs to be something positive that draws your reader to that character despite all that yuckyness. It’s sort of like the relatability, but it’s more about balancing character traits.
Make them funny. Or make them sad. Make them protective of one or two specific people. (Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead comes to mind - the comics, not the show.) Make them just so, so brilliant in their depravity that you have to appreciate it. (Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, for example.) Make them fight in all the wrong ways for all the right causes. Little things like this don’t make your character ‘LikeableTM’ but they do make them appealing and much less like trekking through the cynical gorefest that a lot of these attempts can turn into.
By the end of this, you may be wondering what the hell ‘likeable’ actually means. I have contradicted myself a little bit, haven’t I? Well, the connotation (aka not the dictionary definition but the common understanding) of ‘likeable character’ isn’t really about being interesting. It’s about appeal. It’s about marketability. It’s about being safe. ‘Likeable’ characters, ‘likeable’ women do everything they’re supposed to and sit down and shut up when they’re told to. ‘Likeable’ characters know the perfect thing to say and when to say it. ‘Likeable’ characters are flawed by being clumsy and awkward, if that.
Fuck. That. Noise.