When extraordinary things happen to ordinary people. That’s the essence of so much compelling fiction. When we see character thrown into a dilemma, or deeply wanting something, or suddenly needing to change their life––we wonder: what would we do?
And that is why, if you are writer these days, you have noticed the word “relatable.” The admonition to beware–that a character must be relatable. That the readers need someone to root for.
At every writer discussion, the topic now arises––what does relatable mean? And it does relatable necessarily mean likable? Does likability matter?
We can name characters we are fascinated with who are certainly not likable. Sherlock Holmes is not the most fun guy. Hannibal Lecter, though brilliant, is not the person you’re invite to dinner. Nobody in Gone Girl is in any way likable. (And that book seemed to do well.…) in For Your Own Good, Samantha Downing’s darkly hilarious serial killer Teddy Crutcher is irresistible, but better to stay out of his way. And even though Dexter only kills people he considers bad guys. you would not want to introduce him to your mom as your new love interest.
If you have not read Frederick Forsyth’s seminal Day of the Jackal, please do. And you will certainly find yourself rooting for the Jackal to kill at Charles de Gaulle. We know he did not succeed, but yet every time I read the book, I wonder if this is the time he will! He is so smart, so technically skilled, and so debonair. Yes, we are supposed to be rooting for the schlubby detective, and indeed we are, but it is the Jackal we remember.
But are those the outliers? As a writer working on an early novel, do you want to risk the reader’s wrath by having a main character who is a killer? Who is nefarious, selfish, manipulative or grasping? Do you want to risk that they are…unlikable? But what if they are behaving that way for a good reason?
In my upcoming book HER PERFECT LIFE, main character Lily Atwood, a famous television reporter, is lying to cover up the secret she fears will ruin her career. Is that the best course to take? Do we like her for that deception?
But what if it is not only her career she is protecting, but her own daughter’s safety? Does that change things for you?
Every Monday morning at the Career Authors gather on zoom ostensibly for a business meeting. That part lasts about five minutes, and then we talk about writing, and our books, and the writing world.
The topic of likability is a constant. Wanna listen in?
Dana Isaacson: Even if they don’t particularly like its main character, readers may still enjoy a novel if they identify with that central character’s motivation–regardless of whether that desire is good or bad. For example, a less-than-good character might be bravely trying to save their endangered daughter from bad guys–or, less altruistically, a character might have the chance to score an unexpected financial windfall. Wanting to protect one’s family and wanting more money are pretty universal. As an editor, I know that when a reader can imagine themselves in your plot, you’ve got ’em right where you want ’em.
Hank: Love that! And it’s also fun to see what happens. A good author can turn the tables on likability, by revealing parts of the characters personality along the way.
Brian Andrews: This is a question I’ve wrestled with since my very first novel. A dozen plus novels into my career, I’m now of the firm opinion that for a novel to really resonate with readers the protagonist must inspire. He or she doesn’t have to be likable in every scene, but they must speak to our better angels. As a reader, I don’t want to commit a dozen hours or more of my precious time to reading about a protagonist who I don’t like and doesn’t respond to challenge and crisis with strength of character. Why should I expect my readers to be any different?
Paula Munier: Yes. As a reader, I prefer protagonists who struggle to do the right thing against demons real and imagined, external and internal, and find a way to become better versions of themselves, rather than lesser versions of themselves. Not all readers feel this way, but I read to feel better about being human, and I’m looking for reading experiences that fulfill that need for me. And as an agent I can tell you that certainly those kinds of stories with those kinds of protagonist are easier to sell.
Hank: Good advice! But also proof that people are drawn to different kinds of stories. And “better” for one character maybe a different better than it is for someone else. Including for the reader.
Jessica Strawser: I think discussions of characters’ “likability” can fall under the category of maddeningly contradictory advice for writers, because we’re trained to recognize that the best, most engrossing characters are flawed and complex—just like people in real life. (As a women’s fiction writer, I also find it worth noting that female characters tend to be held to a different standard of likability than their male counterparts… also, ahem, as in real life. There’s even a podcast devoted to this phenomenon called Unlikeable Female Characters hosted by a trio of suspense writers: Kristen Lepionka, Layne Fargo and Wendy Heard. You can check it out here.
Hank: Ha. Love them. And they say: face it. It’s real. How can you not “like” someone who is going for it? They don’t have to want what you’d want, or even do what you’d do, but you have to understand it.
Jessica: I suspect that when readers say a character seemed “unlikable,” what they were really looking for were even small moments of connection: When we can glimpse something—anything—sympathetic or redeemable or, yes, relatable about a character. With that in mind, I think writers would do better to strive for authenticity than likability.
Hank: Authentic. Yes. When I get to a rough place in writing my books, one of the first things I ask myself is: what would this person really do? Not what would I do. But what would this character do. And it is always so revealing.
And maybe that’s why we can even admire people lead characters we know are doing something questionable. Because we understand why they are doing it, and we know what it feels like to want something.
What do you think? Maybe it depends on the story you are writing? Brian’s valiant heroes, Paula’s brave crime fighters, Jessica’s women’s fiction, or my twisty psychological suspense? Let’s talk about this on the Career Author’s Facebook page.