Tuesday, April 24, 2012

TTYU Retro: 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. Can I add a third point: Entertaining? This usually applies to visual comedies and is often subjective, but if a character is just plain interesting to read about or watch, a lot of the audience wants to see what the character does next.

    Even total sociopaths can be entertaining, if they are the types to drive the story train is strange yet intriguing directions.

    However, there's this one book I'm still trying to figure out if the protagonist of it is interesting. The problem that he's unsympathetic, unmotivated, and boring, yet the book has some praise.

    It's hard to accept philosophical musings of any kind when the person thinking them has no cause. In any case, you want the person to receive a slap in the cheek, but that didn't happen with this one book. Despite me disliking the book, I gave it away.

  2. Chihuahua, it's an interesting question what makes a character entertaining. I agree interesting is important; relatability is also important, for me, at least. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Good post, and good examples, Juliette. I'd add that it's also a question of *relative* goodness of character, per Chandler's famous dictum that the protagonist should be "the best man in his world and a good enough one for any world." I think we measure and judge characters in context.

    Thanks as always for your ever-interesting sidelights on the craft :)

  4. Oh, I meant to add a big yes on the point of characters suffering, but only when they bear it with courage and/or humour.

  5. I think you're narrowing things down too much if you restrict your sufferers to bearing things with courage/humor. If it's an antagonist, he doesn't have to have courage or humor necessarily in order for the characteristic to make him more relatable. I agree that all characters should define their strengths and weaknesses relative to a cultural and contextual background.

  6. Excellent post! I find the books I give up on and don't finish reading are the ones with characters for whom I have no liking or admiration. I just don't care what happens to them.
    On a side note, I'm overjoyed that there's another person on the planet who disliked Seinfeld!

  7. Thanks for your comment, Joanne! Those who dislike Seinfeld are an impassioned minority, I suspect. :)