‘I didn’t find [the characters] likeable’ is a common lament on Goodreads and Amazon reviews of novels. In fact, it’s so common that I’d be willing to wager real money at least fifty per cent of 1, 2 & 3 star reviews contain the word ‘likeable’!
It should also be noted a perceived lack of ‘likeable’ characters is nearly always a complaint. Many modern book reviewers seem to feel characters ought to be ‘sympathetic’ … When they’re not, the reviews appear to feel short-changed.
Intriguingly, in the screenwriting world, it’s rather different. Whilst ‘likeable’ characters were demanded for a very long time too, in recent years anti heroes are much more common. In fact, villains might even be celebrated, or sympathised with, even when their actions are monstrous.
The Gone Girl Effect
The fact book lovers don’t tend to like UNlikeable characters so much makes it all more ironic that a book created the current screenwriting trend.
I am of course talking about the iconic Gone Girl.
Described as a ‘Marmite book’ (for the non-British, that means ‘you either love it or hate it’ like the titular black spread), Amy Dunne has kicked open the doors for more complicated lead characters. Some industry pros even go so far as to call it ‘The Gone Girl Effect’.
Of course, Amy Dunne was not the first female lead to laugh in the face of the label ‘likeable’. There were lots of classic, iconic UNlikeable female leads. Film Noir is the most obvious, especially with its ‘femme fatales’. If you’re a fan of hardboiled crime fiction from the 1950s (and I am), then you’ll find them in novels, too. It’s all cyclical.
Of course, it’s female characters that too often get the boot for not being ‘likeable’ enough. Yes, really.
Whilst male characters can behave in literally monstrous ways even when they are protagonists, female characters will be scrutinised and condemned for the smallest of slights.
Here are some complaints about the ‘likability’ of some of my own protagonists over the years …
- She’s a mother, but very selfish. This seems unrealistic.
- I hated her! She loves herself! She is so self-involved and vain!
- She’s a teacher, so she shouldn’t be drinking and having sex so much. She’s supposed to be a role model.
Some very revealing comments there on how society perceives women and what they ‘should’ do. I spend a lot of time reading random reviews because I am nosy and I don’t recall EVER seeing a male character derided for any of the things listed above.
I’ve noted that after female protagonists, class rears its head next. The characters condemned as not being ‘likeable’ enough are usually ensembles of so-called ‘posh’ people.
This is especially obvious in crime fiction. If there’s a mystery to solve and your characters met in Oxbridge, reviewers will confess they want every single person one in your ensemble to die, simply because they’re not ‘likeable’ enough. Yikes!
What is ‘Good’ Characterisation, Anyway?
The notion of ‘likeable characters’ has so many writers in a sweat. But ‘likability’ is a red herring. Beyond the actual craft of writing, everyone’s idea of what makes a character ‘good’ is fuelled by opinion. Pet peeves and experience will dictate who we feel we can empathise with.
There is no ‘right’ way to write a character. As long as a character has a clear role function and motivation, that’s it. The craft is the only bit you can control … You CAN’T control someone’s reaction to your character.
So that’s the bad news, BUT it also doubles as the good news. This is why some people LOVE your character, whereas others will HATE it. Both reactions are, in essence, good. (I always think the worst reaction ever is ‘meh’).
Do This Instead
So rather than worry about ‘likeability’ and end up going in circles, ask yourself …
- WHO is my character? WHAT does s/he want? WHY?
- Why would my target audience invest in his/her journey?
- Can my target audience relate to my character’s reasons, even if they would never condone that behaviour?
So as long as writers have done their homework like this, you don’t need to worry about ‘likeability’ of characters. Readers and viewers will like them or loathe them … and there’s nothing you can do about that. So get over it.
Get Your Free Book
If there’s multiple ways to write a character, it’s probably easier to list how NOT to … And ‘likeability’ has nothing to do with it!! Get your copy of How Not To Write Female Characters, completely free. You’ll also get a free email mini course, delivered straight to your inbox, on B2W’s ‘holy trinity’ of writing craft – concept, character, structure. CLICK HERE to get your book and mini course, or on the pic on the left.
Well, this is it, Lucy. This is the one. Your BEST-EVER article! Every actor knows that the best character to play is the baddie. The baddie does everything we wouldn’t dare to… but secretly wishes they could. Who wouldn’t want to have written and/or played Norman Bates and Hannibal Lector? As for unlikeable female characters… ladies and gentlemen, I give you the one and only Bette Davies in almost all her films!!! (Of course, there needs to be more than just the ‘one and only’; Kathy Bates had a terrific shot at it in ‘Misery’.) Ultimately, it’s down to we writers to come up the new successors to The Wicked Witch of the West.
Glad you liked it. It’s really exciting to see so many great writers picking up the mantle and bringing nuanced, layered, complex characters to the fore. It’s also very revealing when certain ‘get woke, go broke’ types declare it ‘impossible’ … seems they can’t believe their own eyes, or they are looking for reasons their writing is not landing. Guess it’s easier to believe they are ‘locked out’ by so called politicsl correctness, than face working on their craft!
So okay, one has to write slightly un-likeable characters. Fine. But at the same time, authors must also write towards today’s PC-parameters which make correct and ‘socially sensitive’ characters as is mentioned in the ‘Woke Culture’ (Bang2W article) here?
If your key takeaway from that article is that there are ‘PC parameters’ to writing and that characters MUST be ‘socially sensitive’, you are not ready to sell your writing in 2020. There’s countless links on this site about antiheroes, villains, how complexity is not about ‘positive’ representations, you name it. But then you know this really. Quit reaching.
OOOOkay. Reading your post and checking emails at the same time and what should pop up? This just in from my producer ..:
“don’t think *** (female protag) should be ***’s concubine & still try have a love interest with **** – as it makes her hypocritical – doesn’t it ?”
What part of BEING HUMAN don’t they get?
Gnash! Pet peeve of mine too. Plots should be simple to follow, definitely (whatever that means). In contrast, characters can do ANYTHING, as long as it fits their worldview.