A popular post from April 2009
by Annette Lyon
I consider myself lucky that I learned this lesson relatively early on: Make your characters likable.
The lesson for me was shortly after I joined my critique group. I read a chapter of my work in progress, and everyone around the table agreed on one thing:
My heroine was really unlikeable.
She was in a somewhat embarrassing situation, so I had her a bit defensive and trying to explain herself. She came across as rude and nasty.
I had no idea until they pointed it out, but after that meeting, I was able to stand back and see that they were right. I changed several scenes to make sure that she was sympathetic and that the reader was compassionate toward her, not annoyed or turned off.
With a few exceptions where anti-heroes actually work (think: Artemis Fowl), your hero and heroine need to be good, likable, people whom your readers can relate to and root for.
Let's use the romance genre as an example. In the classic format, boy gets girl, loses girl, and then gets girl. Ideally, the reader roots for them to get together, is dismayed when they're separated, and then rejoices when they finally commit and live happily ever after.
Your reader won't engage in that way if your heroine is whiny and snobbish or your hero is so arrogant he deserves to be left at the altar.
On the other hand, your characters can't be perfect, or we won't care about them. They need to be human. They need flaws.
But make them too flawed, and the reader hates them. So in a sense, you as the writer have to walk a narrow tightrope: How much of a flaw is too much?
Romances often have the hero and heroine despise one another at the outset. It usually works, but in that case, neither can be so despicable that the reader won't ever overcome their own dislike. The reader needs to see their flaws to understand why they hate each other, yet at the same time be able to see past the same flaws and want them to be together.
The classic example of a writer who pulled off this type of character arc is, of course, Jane Austen with Pride and Prejudice. We pretty much sympathize with Lizzy for the entire book, while Darcy comes across as pretty darn arrogant and irredeemable. Yet Austen made him human, and oh-so-redeemable when we see him in his own element at Pemberly.
Suddenly we know he's not only a good man, but a likable one. We start to think that maybe Lizzy was a bit off in her initial judgment. From there, of course, the more we learn about Darcy and the more we see his noble actions, the more we like him, so that by the end of the book, we're thrilled that he and Lizzy finally get together.
If we hadn't seen Darcy at home, if we hadn't learned about his relationship with his sister and how kind he is to his staff, and if weren't given good reasons for his earlier stiff behavior and prejudices, or learned about how he secretly saved the Bennett family honor, the story wouldn't be the classic it is today, two hundred years after its publication.
A romance I read recently, however, narrowly missed being chucked against my wall because of this very issue: the characters were unlikeable, not only toward each other (which, as we've discussed can work well), but to the reader. For the entire book.
By the end, I figured they were both so annoying that they deserved each other.
On the flip side, I read a remarkably well-written self-published romance that handled the hero and heroine perfectly. In the beginning, they had a dislike for one another, and for good reasons. They both had flaws (quite big ones) and issues they each needed to overcome. But none of the flaws were irredeemable, and none were too big. They were both very sympathetic characters, so well-drawn, layered, and human that they became quite real to me, and I believed the story.
Here's one of the biggest compliments I can give a book: there were times I got so engrossed in the story that I almost forgot there was a writer behind the scenes pulling the strings.
The other book, however, never let me forget for one minute that a writer had put the words together. One big reason was that the characters were so annoying that they never became real to me. They were caricatures, cardboard cutouts.
I won't publicly say what the first book was, but since the second one was so good (in spite of some minor line-editing issues) I want to give it some props.
For a good, flawed, very redeemable, and likable hero/heroine pair, read Seeking Persephone, by Sarah M. Eden. (It's a Whitney Award finalist for Best Romance, and in my opinion, it deserves the honor.)
It's definitely worth your time.