Friday, August 24, 2012

How to Make Unlikeable Characters Likeable

by Jean Oram

Last Friday RS Mellette dug into character descriptions and today we're going to dig into characters again--they are the bread and butter of a good read, after all. And that's always our goal--creating a good read. Let's get down to it.

There is one fatal flaw you never want to commit as a writer.

Never. Ever.

And last week I  committed it. In spades.

There is one thing a reader seeks when reading a story, and in particular, a romance.

And I didn't do it.

In turn, I received a well-placed (and well-deserved) smackdown from a traditional romance publisher.

What evil sin had I committed?

I made my hero (the love interest) unlikeable.

I know! How did that happen?

In my efforts to show how screwed up he was in the beginning of my story, CHAMPAGNE AND LEMON DROPS, (so he could later turn himself around and sweep the heroine off her feet at the most inopportune time--hello!) I inadvertently made him unlikeable. The reader couldn't see what the heroine saw in him. In fact, the reader probably cheered when the heroine returned the engagement ring.

You don't want that.

You really, really don't want that. At least not in the opening of a romance when the reader is supposed to be feeling the same heartbreak as the heroine.

writing likeable characters -- even Al Capone had his good points

So, in an effort to save you all from this fatal, fatal flaw (bangs head on wall repeatedly) here are five things you can do to make for a likeable (but still flawed) hero (or heroine):

1. Show Their Redeeming Qualities.

I know. That should really go without saying, shouldn't it? But it is important to note that even villains should have redeeming qualities. You need to offset the bad with something good to make them dynamic. And believable. Because really, who is all evil, all the time? (For example: Al Capone was sometimes called "Robin Hood" due to his generosity.)

2. Make it Identifiable.

For my story, the editor mentioned that (because it was a 'romance') the hero could be moody because of a romantic falling out, but not because he was screwed up. So in other words, make their issues something the reader expects of the genre and something identifiable in that regard. Romance readers don't want to read about alcoholics (unless it is backstory I am told), they want to hear about ROMANCE, ROMANCE, ROMANCE!

As well, character flaws should be identifiable to the reader. The average romance reader can identify with someone feeling like crap because of a bad romance. But for being an alcoholic after accidentally killing their father? Well… maybe not so much.

3. Use Humor to Show Flaws.

In one of my other stories, THE FIFTEEN DATE RULE (chick lit), I wanted to create a character who was on the fringes of the social world. In other words, she is a big, ol' geek. I wanted to show how awkward she was. I hit the mark. But so much so that my first writing critique partner didn't even want to read about her! My heroine was awful and unlikeable because she was so out there (non-identifiable). My critique partner very nicely informed me that if she was going to be awkward it should be presented in a humorous way. She wanted to like her. She wanted to identify with her even though she wasn't a gangly astrophysicist with a horrible dating record. But she needed to laugh along with the craziness. If we were going to do crash and burn relationships we needed humor. It was chick lit after all. Light is good.

4. Connectable Characters Connect.

In order to feel that vital empathy and get fully involved with a story we need to connect with the characters. We not only need our readers to identify where the pain, and flaws are coming from in our characters, but we also want our readers to connect with it so it becomes their issue as well. We may not have all been broken up with via an undating service like Allie in THE FIFTEEN DATE RULE, but we have (probably) all experienced a break up. And maybe even a humiliating break up to boot. Opening this story with a break up is my hope of providing something the reader can identify and connect with. Immediately.

5. Actions Have to Make Sense.

if you can believe it, I screwed this one up too. I had my characters in CHAMPAGNE AND LEMON DROPS do some stupid things without apparent motivation. Hint: That doesn't make them likeable. There has to be a BIG, SOLID reason for doing stupid, out of character, bad things. (Think of the shenanigans in The Hangover. Bad things, but we connected and liked the characters, right? Why? Because their actions make sense. They're stupid… but they make sense.)

People read to escape from their problems and the real world. More than anything they want likeable characters (even the awful characters--because we love to hate them, right?) and a story that whisks them away. Readers want to slide into the character's world and live their ups and downs.

Now that you have looked at characters from the write angle, what do you think? Have you met some unlikeable characters? What made them unlikeable for you? Did they redeem themselves? (I'm thinking of Professor Snape, here.) If you've cured unlikeable characters in your stories and have some tips on how to do so, share them below!

Jean Oram is now going through her manuscripts making sure those blasted characters are likeable. You can find her on her blog sharing her thoughts and tips on writing as well as on Pinterest, Facebook (do you like her?--ha ha!), Twitter, &


Suzi said...

I think this is one of my problems with my first manuscript I queried. At least, I got that from agents comments. It's been shelved so I can move onto my next project, but maybe I'll go back down the road. So these are great tips, thanks.

Jemi Fraser said...

Love the connections you make, Jean! Who else would connect Robin Hood, Al Capone & astrophysics? :) We do want to feel the pull to those characters (which you do very well by the way!)

Jean Oram said...


I'm glad they help. Sometimes we can make tiny tweaks to our characters and boom! It all works. :) Good luck!


Thanks! We do want to feel that pull to characters. I think part of my problem is that I get so wrapped up in it and see it and feel it all in my head so well that I forget to translate all of which made me feel that way onto the page for my readers. (Wow, that was a sentence, wasn't it? ;p )

Lynn Proctor said...

excellent ideas and points!

Jean Oram said...

Thanks, Lynn. I hope they come in handy for you.

Tracy Bermeo (A2Z Mommy) said...

This was such a good post and so timely. I've read a bunch of blog postings about voice and character lately. That combined with the rejected queries has me thinking I need to rework my ms to make it stronger through stronger and likeable characters, even if it's the bad guy.

SC Author said...

This is something I've been thinking a lot about -- I honestly feel there are no bad people, ever, in this world. Just bad actions. The people of this world are always great, and that makes for very interesting books and heroes vs. villains.

Jean Oram said...

Tracy, I'm glad this post came at a good time for you. I think everyone likes those 'bad' guys you just can't help but like/understand. It makes for some great tension too.

SC, so true about bad actions. As reader if we can see the reason behind an action it makes the scene/story so much more powerful. :)

Charmaine Clancy said...

Yep, I've done this too. In my children's mystery my main character was dull. I've been going back over and giving her some personality and motivations. I also recently learned about giving your characters a conflicting need to their goal to add depth. That's helping me a lot too.
These are all great points for character writing, definitely a post to keep.

The Aquablogger said...

I shared this on FB and Twitter. My own characters in my novel are fairly well-rounded (not a fat joke), but the character who wins the love triangle is the least likeable of the three. He is constantly redeeming himself in small ways that fit with his flaws, so it was not a stretch for people (even me) to like him.

Jean Oram said...

Charmaine, those sound like great solutions for the "unlikeable" issue. :)

Aqua, thanks for sharing this post, I appreciate it. This is something I need to do--make my love triangle winner, oh heck, both of them a little more redeemable. Gah!

Thanks for the comments.

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Anonymous said...

I had a contest judge ask me if the male protagonist was a hero or villain. It seems I went way too far to show that he had married on orders and not inclination and that he was overly influenced by the opinions of his mother and the woman he thought he loved. Even then I knew that it was out of character for him to be so influenced by his mother's opinions. It is going to be hard to make him more likeable and yet allow the action of the plot to take place. I think that along with giving him redeeming qualities, I'll have to send him out of town and let the women do the dirty work. It is set in 1815.

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