Do not feel disappointed, Bonny Tylers epic song can be found at the end 😀
Thought I would kick off my Unbreakables series with one of the more controversial claims. Please read all the way before you foam at the mouth..
Frequently, in the annals of good writing practice (so tempting to go with a malapropism and put anal.. but I restrained 😛 ) you will find likeable frowned upon. Relatable! invariably comes the cry. Give them depth, give them flaws, construct them like jenga towers forever threatening to fall, a literary homunculus crafted in ink and paper and don’t forget to poke a hole in its heel.
Yet, equally one of the most common complaints almost any writer will encounter is this – your mc is not likeable enough..
Enough to make you spit infinitives..
From the very same people who advise your character doesn’t have to be likeable. If you confront them they will start to backtrack.. I just mean I’m not interested…he still has to be engaging.. I mean I don’t enjoy reading about..
And that’s it in a nutshell. Think of someone you dislike, now imagine immersing yourself in their thoughts, feelings, conversations for the next few days. You wanna pick up that book?
If you want people to invest and engage with your story you need to make them care what happens to your characters, and how the hell are you going to do that if they don’t like them?
The biggest issue seems to arise from people confusing likeable with nice or pleasant or (and I am still getting my head round this one) noble.. In real life if I describe someone as likeable I might mean nice, the two are considered synonyms, but its most basic definition is ‘easy to like’ and in fiction that’s what you should have at the front of your mind.
There are many ways to achieve this. Hannibal Lector can be a likeable character, Mother Theresa can be utterly unlikeable. Remember in dynasty how much you loved Alexis? Or how naughty biting Spike became more popular than tortured veggie Angel? Who is your favourite in Harry Potter? the ever misbehaving twins? Grumpy Ron? Bossy Hermione?
When you ask the ‘Relatable’ Crew why flaws are so important they will pretty much always come back with, ‘because nobody likes perfection’.
So why not simply use relatable and avoid controversy, if they are essentially the same thing? Because they aren’t. Not always. Remember the Unreakables are not techniques, nor do they restrict style. There are a million viable ways to write a character. You can make them relatable, but is Hannibal Lector relatable? Can we honestly consider both him and Bridget Jones as resulting from a similar approach? Well yes, if you put aside relatable, realistic, credible and simply consider likeable.
I think its important to look at how the effect might be tainted by your approach. If you are simply clinically putting together a realistically flawed individual you run a very high risk of leaving your readers similarly disengaged. Even if they can technically appreciate the skill, the reasoning behind certain behaviours/traits, it often doesn’t feel right to them. (If you are genuinely curious about this its worth looking at reviews on amazon.)
I have this theory – one particularly hard to prove – that how we feel about our work comes out in the prose. If we are disengaged emotionally, if we don’t like our characters there is a high chance that our readers won’t either. Character in particular is an organic thing, a meshing of millions of tiny little traits and quirks that can be difficult to break down and quantify. Trying to build a person from scratch seems almost impossible, often resulting in a strange holey construction that feels fake. For me, its something I feel my way through. I find the thread that connects me to my characters and use it to climb inside their head. From there I live and breathe each scene as if I were them. It allows me to discover who they are in the moment rather than apply a set of arbitrary values that must be adhered to.
Sometimes, for some writers, this can result in the IM: The Idealised Me. The IM is a very common construct in literature, and while I am sure your creative writing teacher would frown on the idea, I don’t think agents, publishers or readers have any issue with it. (they may even be unaware of it 🙂 )
Ian Fleming famously said that he never understood why people liked James Bond. He was an arrogant, murderous, misogynistic bastard. Yet they did, they do, film after film, book after book. Why? Because he never sweated it. Because he had the right line at the right time. Because he got the girls. Because he got them on his own terms.
Because deep down they wanted to be just like him. Even if just for a day, or an hour.
Chances are who you want to be, just for a day or an hour, isn’t that far away from the person an awful lot of readers want to be. Plenty of authors have made a career out of providing the fantasy figure for others to slip into, and it rarely, if done honestly, often without the author’s awareness, results in the Mary Sue Suit. Truth is most of us enjoy the idea of being a bit badass, of being able to misbehave. A quick peek through the most memorable and beloved characters in literature reveals brigands and bitches more often than sweet noble doormats.
And please whatever else don’t believe this recent hype, what I call the Bella Swan Effect. Many claim her blandness is a deliberate attempt to allow the reader to imagine it is them. Rubbish. Her perceived blandness is a direct result of her creator’s ideals clashing with readers ideals. It happens, you’ll never please everyone and the more you are read the more you risk offending.
But an honest character, however idealised, that arises organically from your instincts and desires will stand a much better chance of engaging readers than a clinically constructed one. Especially as one of the greatest issues I see with constructed characters is actually the creation of the Martyr.
Oftentimes erroneously referred to as the victim, the Martyr seems to be particularly popular in our Role Model obsessed world. Arising out of some desire to preach about morality or inspire unrealistic virtues, perhaps for some there is a sense of obligation, but for many I suspect it has more to do with the curious effect of divorcing the character from themselves in an attempt to be clinically literary, yet being unable to divorce it from their ego.
Martyrs oftentimes don’t have flaws at all, apart from dullness, simply existing to endure unendurable suffering without complaining, They are bullied for no reason, they have horrible home lives, they are abused, they think they are ugly, they think they aren’t good enough, usually because of the way they have been treated… Many writers don’t seem to realise these are not flaws. They are outside your characters control. Or maybe they do realise but think its a sneaky way of getting round having 😦 ‘ to give their character flaws. They want perfect untouchable creations – creations who are usually vindicated in the final scenes or in (oh lord do I hate this!!) extraneous scenes added purely so other characters can admit how much they are really jealous/in awe of/in love with the mc.
The rise of the geek hero in recent years, while now bordering on overdone to the point of charred, has shown how the IM can be at its best. The geek embodies the writer, all his weaknesses and feelings of inadequacy but also his hopes and aspirations, and ultimately finds a way to celebrate him as he is while still pushing him to be more. It can also step out of the realm of pure wish fulfilment and make a valid social commentary , or perhaps more accurately as it has become such a staple across all fiction mediums, a cultural commentary.
The key is be yourself, then add the frills. The best IM’s don’t rewrite us, they validate us. The klutz, who is loveable instead of a graceless idiot.. the grumpy bastard with a heart of gold.. Most of us don’t want to be someone else, we just want to be appreciated for who we are warts and all. What we don’t want is to be reduced to a clinical study, a stereotype, a label. A person is more than a collection of attributes and if you approach your character as such you can be sure the one thing you won’t end up with is a person.
And now.. Bonnie! Johnny Five! Legend..