Friday, April 8, 2011

Do characters really need to be likeable?

I've seen multiple discussions recently, in various locations, of whether characters in stories need to be likeable. At last I was inspired by Janice Hardy's post yesterday on what makes one POV "better" than another to write out my thoughts.

I don't personally think that all characters have to be likeable - not by a long stretch. I can see the point of those people who say much of a story may be lost if everyone has to be likeable. But I do remember feeling that I just couldn't stand the characters of "Seinfeld" - and for that reason I couldn't be bothered watching them for more than five minutes without feeling they'd robbed me of valuable time. What is the critical criterion?

My answer is going to seem overly simple, but I think characters have to be relatable, not likeable. There has to be some quality about them that makes you feel like you recognize them, and that they are real.

So what makes a character relatable?

This is a question that I've done a lot of thinking about. I write science fiction and fantasy, and that involves creating lots of alienness - alien languages, fantasy cultures, characters who are not human and characters temporally or physically (even physiologically) far divorced from our day-to-day experience. I don't get to work with the girl or boy next door, unless that person is about to encounter something really unexpected! However, in my writing I always strive to give my readers the insider's viewpoint. That means that if I want the story to succeed, particularly if I want to push a reader out of his or her usual way of thinking, it's absolutely essential for me to try to achieve that relatability, in order to invite reader investment in even the most unusual characters.

Every point of view character should have at least one relatable element - even antagonists. It's also likely that you'll want to find relatable elements for non-point of view characters. This kind of element could be:

  • a relatable goal - e.g. wanting to fall in love, or wanting monetary or other success, wanting freedom or justice, wanting to create or protect family, or even just wanting to keep a full stomach and a roof over their heads, etc.
  • a relatable external conflict - e.g. being up against racial or other discrimination (in the case of sf/f, we often see "other"), facing peer pressure, facing bullying, dealing with bureaucracy, dealing with a rival for the same goal, etc.
  • a relatable personal characteristic (good or bad) - e.g. being deeply religious, being dedicated to one's work, having a disability, experiencing self-doubt, depression, or a recognizable mental illness, trying to pursue a virtuous life, being haunted by one's past mistakes, caring deeply for others, being unable to make a decision, etc.
At this point I'll give some character examples from my own writing, to try to make this a bit more concrete.

From "Let the Word Take Me":
David Linden is a kid who is trying to win the approval of his father.
Allayo is a gecko-like alien. She is deeply principled and understands her life through her faith.

From "Cold Words":
Rulii is a 6'4" wolflike alien. He is discriminated against as an oppressed minority, and has paid a steep price for the power to help his people: he's addicted to a cocaine-like substance because it keeps him from shivering and thereby losing his ability to work toward justice.

From "At Cross Purposes":
Lynn is an engineer who loves her work and resents a boss who doesn't understand what she does.
Tsee is an otter-like alien. She would do anything to protect her twin brother, and she loves science and beautiful things.

From my WIP "For Love, For Power" (with special thanks to beta reader Jamie Todd Rubin for pointing this out):
Tagret is a privileged boy who loves his mother, suffers because his mother and father hate each other, and experiences awkwardness in trying to approach the girl he likes.
Aloran is born a servant, but believes in gender equality and becomes angry when he sees anyone abused.
Nekantor is a power-hungry boy (the antagonist) who suffers from mental illness including paranoia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

From this list you may notice that I find character psychology to be a great ally. Even a character like Rulii who seems very strange, or someone very unlikeable like Nekantor, can be relatable. Funny enough, suffering for a recognizable reason - and by that I mean really experiencing distress - has huge potential for increasing relatability.

What about your characters do you find relatable? Are they likeable? Do you see a difference?

It's something to think about.


  1. Sometimes it's the less likeable characters that are the most interesting. When done well they have a tendency to challenge the reader and raise a lot of questions. I have a fascination with mean people.

  2. Sarah, good point. That's one of the reasons I don't usually think in terms of likeability (though at times, having likeable characters can work well).

  3. It seems to me very difficult to discuss the question of whether "characters should be likeable," since there is no absolute standard of what is and is not likeable. Some people like characters whom others dislike. The characters of Seinfeld, mentioned here, are an example. A great many people obviously liked them whereas this writer did not. Referring to my own recent novel,"A Place to Die," some readers have said they really disliked two of the main characters, others have said the interaction between these two is one of the best things in the novel, and they really liked one or the other of them. I think a writer cannot possibly create characters according to what people may or may not like or relate to -- a writer creates characters who, if they are any good, take on a life of their own, and the reader likes or dislikes them, not a controllable outcome.

  4. Dorothy, thanks for your comment! You raise a very interesting point - I agree with you that there is no absolute standard of likeability (and it's clear that the Seinfeld characters were likeable to many, if not to me). Relatability as I've spoken of it is also complex, and what one person finds relatable might not be common to everyone, especially across cultures. However, I do think there are prototypical qualities out there that many people relate to. By prototypical I mean that a considerable cluster of people will find a particular characteristic "very relatable" and some will find it peripherally relatable if not centrally compelling. It's a good idea to take a look at the quality of characters in what we read, and see what makes those characters relatable to us. I find it important to consider these questions because if I make my characters too alien, people may not have any interest in reading my stories! Thanks again for your thoughtful comment.

  5. Relatability is certainly a major key for building an "unlikeable" character. But the route to that can have many starting points. I was considering Fagin from OLIVER TWIST recently, thinking how he is thought of as one of literature's greatest villains. I found myself sympathizing with him and the pack of pickpocketing children he'd gathered around himself amidst the dank underside of London. Fagin provided shelter, food, energetic fun (what would robbery be to a 10 year old boy but fun?), and even a kind of purpose. Certainly he was exploiting the children, but these castoffs would have received much worse treatment from "respectable" institutions. With Fagin, the kids could have a laugh, enjoy the rough camaraderie. And, after all, what the hell did they owe society at large? Why not be a thief? Really, a very legitimate story could have been told entirely from Fagin's viewpoint--and I believe the typical reader would have understood him, and even liked him.

  6. Good point, Eric, and I agree - there are lots of ways to make a character relatable. Fagin makes a very interesting example.

  7. One of the things I'm working really hard at it, is to make my monster if not "likeable" (let's face it, she's a killer of children) at least understandable. I'd like people to read her story and say, "I can understand why she's doing what she's doing", even if they don't agree with her actions.

  8. It seems if a character had all three of these categories, he'd be likeable. For example...

    Samwise Gamgee: Goal: help best friend save world. External conflict: Mordor and the forces that be. Characteristic: simple, uneducated gardener with a penchant for potatoes.

    But, by taking one of these out...

    Gollum: Goal: get the Ring even if it means slitting everyone's throat (erk!). Conflict: There's a piece of him that's fighting to be better (aren't we all trying to become better people?). Characteristic: Small little guy turned more than half-crazy by too many years with the ring (poor guy).

    I think Gollum is such a loved antagonist because he hits two of the three so well. I do love books peppered with these kinds of characters, but I personally like having a likeable hero at the center of it (at least for novels; I'll look at any fascinating for 4,000 words).

    Interesting post -- got me thinking.

  9. Suzi, that makes perfect sense. I feel the same way about my antagonist.

    Interesting breakdown, Megan. I'm glad you liked the post. I think it's very interesting to have a villain who has a lot in common with a hero (barring a few key factors). Much more interesting than a purely evil person.