Weekly Musing: I Don’t Like You

A subject which has been floating around in my head for a while is what is the difference between unlikeable vs. unlikeable as it relates to a character? What I mean by this is what is it about a character that makes a reader want to go along on their journey even if that character isn’t easy to root for or like? The easy answer is it is all subjective. Each reader and each writer responds differently to a character. It’s why some people love the villains more than the hero. Or why some people prefer the girl pick the billionaire over the sweet, but broke, guy. Or why we can root for a character like Dexter Morgan even though he’s a serial killer.

So why does the piece of advice frequently given to newer writers to not have an unlikeable protagonist exist? Or at the very least don’t make them so unlikeable at the beginning because then the reader won’t want to take a journey with them. It makes me wonder how valid this piece of advice is. Is there an assumption that a majority of readers only want a “perfect” protagonist? I think this leads to many writers believing the protagonist has to be a good person who has bad stuff happen to them. Or somehow a less than pristine character cannot possibly resonate with readers. Or if those goods are damaged then the expectation is our imperfect protagonist will be made more perfect by the conclusion of the story.

Since we are dealing with fiction shouldn’t the characters in those stories reflect the variety of people we know and interact with in our daily lives? In my opinion, the answer is yes and that means telling the story of an “unlikeable” character. After all, isn’t his or her life and story just as valid as someone who is more universally agreeable? Yes, fiction is escapism, but that shouldn’t mean a less than agreeable character shouldn’t be the star. Also, it can be boring to have a protagonist who is just so gosh darn likeable all the time. Please have a wart or a bunch, please!

Yet there are times I sit in my critique group and listen to feedback giving, the word unlikeable comes out and often in a negative way. Or as I listen to people discuss a show, movie, or book and complain how unlikeable a main character is. Many times when I hear the reasons why someone finds a character unlikeable it is clear to me it’s a purely subjective thing. This is fine as we all have types we don’t like.

But what floors me is when people take it a step further. What I mean by this is when people express that kind of unlikeable character shouldn’t be in anything, ever. Take a character like Dexter Morgan. Serial killer of killers. Taker out of the trash. Hard to like a person like that yet Dexter Morgan does click with readers, and later TV viewers until the show got ruined. But there is also a large group of people who read the first few chapters of a book and went, “Nope, not for me.”

What concerns me as a writer is when I hear fellow writers give feedback that a character isn’t likeable and offer suggestions to soften the character to be more likeable. Granted, suggestions made after only reading the first chapter or two of a story in general tends to be a bit nebulous as we don’t know what kind of character development will take place. Sometimes it’s intentional and when I’ve not liked a character I try to explain why beyond “I just didn’t like this person.” Sometimes the writer has written a character too extreme without realizing it so it can be good to hear how a character is coming across.

Another reason why it concerns me is because perhaps it’s a reflection of this notion that nothing can be offensive or negative. It’s like living inside a Disney movie where everyone is so good with the exception of one or two people who are cartoony and unrealistic villains. Life isn’t a Disney movie and again, people exist in the world who aren’t good people, who you aren’t going to want to be friends with, and who view life differently. For some I guess that makes a character too unlikeable to read.

And how is an unlikeable character different from a villain? Some villains are easy to like, even love, and easy to root for yet a character that isn’t evil or have ill intent may not be someone you like. It comes down to motivation. A well-constructed villain views himself or herself as the hero of their own story. Perhaps there is something in their past that in a perverse way justifies what bad they are doing. Other times it’s plain fun rooting for the baddie.

I know that worrying about if my main character is likeable or not has given me pause many times. But a piece of advice I frequently come back to is everything comes back to being true to the character and the story. None of us are likeable all of the time. The trick then is to make the unlikeable character relatable in some way. Keep in mind many readers will “get” it even if the character isn’t someone they would normally like in real life. If their story is interesting, the reader will stick with them. Then there are those readers who truly won’t understand or care if a character is not absolutely likeable from the beginning. That’s okay. Losing readers because of reader preference is not the end of the world despite what some may say.

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