Thursday, February 3, 2011

Love Them or Hate Them?

Nothing is as important as a likeable narrator. Nothing holds a story together better. 
~Ethan Canin

A while ago, a discussion was started in a Young Adult writer group I belong to, about the types of characters we love. The question was asked, do you prefer a likeable main character or one that may not be likeable but who is intriguing. The responses got me curious as to how other writers feel.

To give you some examples, do you prefer your main characters to be the Scarlett O’Hara’s of the world - spoiled, manipulative and conniving? Or do you like the Harry Potter’s – good-natured and kind, despite being picked on?

Now, I’m not talking secondary characters here. Every book is going to have its villain. I mean the main “hero” of the book. This one had me thinking a little bit, because I have always heard that your main character has to be likeable. Who wants to read a story all about a character that no one likes?

Well, after thinking about it for a bit, I decided…a lot of people :) One member of the YA group brought up Scarlett O’Hara. Now, she definitely isn’t what I would call a likeable character. But she is intriguing. ‘Watching’ her get herself into all sorts of interesting situations is just fun. While in my writing I tend to go for the likeable main character, it is sort of fun to follow a completely unlikeable character…just to see what they’ll do next. Sure, I love Cinderella. But I would love to read about the ugly stepsister. It would be very interesting to get into her brain for once and see what’s going on in there.

And of course, I think even the less likeable characters often have some sort of redeeming quality. Even Scarlett pulled her designer boots up by their laces and dug her fingers raw in the onion fields when she had to. She eventually got her crap together without losing any of her spunk. So there is, as in most things, some overlap.

It’s a fine balance between intriguing and just plain detestable, so I imagine unlikeable characters are probably more difficult to write. But I might have to try my hand at it some time. It would be incredible to create a character that from the outside is just horrible…but is someone that people can’t get enough of.

Here are a couple others that I thought of…..Anakin Skywalker – you know he’s destined to be one of the badest bad guys out there, but man, I really liked him and definitely felt bad for the things that happened that turned him bad. Severus Snape – detested his character clear till the end when I found out just how amazing he is. But I loved to hate him. Definitely an intriguing character.

In your reading and writing, which do you prefer – a main character that is intriguing, or one that is likeable? Who are the characters that you love the most? And who are the ones that you love to hate?


  1. Okay, I admit, I like the likable ones. But it DOES intrigue me the idea of writing one of those not likable but intriguing ones. Would definitely be a feat!

  2. What an interesting challenge it would be to turn an unlikable character around. But this character would have to have an antagonist to bring out that hidden good stuff. An intriguing series could come of this, a very novel idea that could work.

  3. Hmmm, well, I would have said the likable for sure, and then you mentioned Snape. I love him as much, if not more, than the likable ones. I'm going to say both :)

  4. Great post, Michelle. So far I have only written likable characters (well, I think they are) but I don't mind an unlikable one. Unlikable characters are more the province of literary fiction and anytime you write a difficult character, you are increased your hurdles to publication since some agents/editors will be turned off.

    The hard part for a writer is hearing that the lovable but flawed character she wrote is unlikable or unrelatable - that hurts!

  5. If the character isn't likeable but is in the middle of an awesome story that keeps me hanging on the edge of my seat, then I'll happily keep reading. =)

  6. I love both types, but my favourites are always the "unlikeable" one. Unlikeable characters are a gamble, but there's one thing that will keep me reading about them, no matter what.

    The possibility of redemption.

    I'm a sucker for bad guys turned good (or good-ish). If I think your character has a chance to become better (I'm not hard to convince) and I'll stick to him until the very end.

    This is why I LOVED Snape. It's also why I, ironically, didn't like Harry Potter. He never corrects or even realises what I saw as faults in him. Nothing to do with the writing. He just got on my nerves. ;)

  7. Norma Johnson-MacGregorFebruary 3, 2011 at 10:44 AM

    Both, though I will admit to having a soft spot for the 'unlikable' character. I find sometimes the 'good guy' characters are a bit
    one-dimensional. I like to follow characters that are in more of a gray area, mainly because

    I think in real life there are seldom people who are either 'good' all the time or 'bad'. I'm fascinated by the idea that no one, no matter how bad others may see them, ever sees *themselves* as a bad person and that carries over into the types of characters I enjoy reading about.

  8. For me, it depends on the story. If there's a strong plot and an intriguing character, then I'll definitely continue reading and will probably enjoy the book--but if there are intriguing characters and the plot/setting aren't really attractive to me, then it does detract.

  9. One of my favorite series is Artemis Fowl. Mostly because its the first book I ever read where the main character is the villain and you end up rooting for him to win.
    I've actually written one of these unlikable characters. I was going for anti hero and ended up with arch villain, but boy did i have fun getting there.

  10. I like both, but the character that came to my mind when I thought of one I didn't like too much at the beginning, but felt myself liking more and more as the book progressed, was Samantha in Lauren Oliver's BEFORE I FALL. Whoo boy, I *so* did not like her at first. By the end though, I liked her quite a bit more. :)


  11. I like characters that are complex. And I'm writing an mc who ends up doing some very bad things but her motivations and characteristics are complex. She has strengths and weaknesses. I think having a character with more depth makes a story more interesting. Plus, it's neat to see if you can still empathize with the mc even if she does do terrible things.

  12. I like complex characters too. If I don't actually "like" them then I want to at least be able to understand why they do the things they do. ie: Katniss in The Hunger Games. Not a warm and fuzzy character, but I felt sorry for her situation.

    Great post!

  13. I couldn't stand Scarlett O'Hara. "Oh, I'll think about that tomorrow."

    Characters that annoy me, or are too ditsy for my liking.

  14. I lean more to likable characters but even the likeable characters have to be interesting. In the Hunger Games, I liked Katniss even though she was a little rough around the edges. I loved Monk, though probably in real life he'd annoy me if I had to be his assistant, but he is still a likeable character.

  15. I love intriguing characters.

    I despise perfect ones.

    And yes, characters that aren't exactly likeable can be damn difficult to write.

    I'm always worried that the readers will want to stop reading my story because of him.


  16. Of course, you'd be more invested in a "likeable" character, but sometimes reading about a bad egg MC is fun too...

  17. I'm not sure that "likable" is the best word. I think "sympathetic" characters can go a long way with readers though. They don't always have to be likable, as long as their actions are understandable and the reader can sympathize with them.


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