Likeable characters in literature

Occasionally, whilst my lady is reading, I will hear an exasperated sigh, and when I ask what’s wrong, she will reply in a resigned tone: “I’m not enjoying this book, there’s just nobody in it I can like”.

If you look on Google, you will find a large amount of essays, books, YouTube videos and even entire courses on how writers can create likeable characters.

Atticus Finch - literature's most likeable character?
Image © Dillon Snook

People speak of plot, and arcs, and realistic flaws, and skills, and goals, and wants, and motivations, and history, and many other things.

All of these are doubtless sterling qualities for a character to have, but for myself, and my lady, the very first question we ask is simply: “Is this person really someone you want to spend a book with?”.

When we read, we get a more intimate view of a character than we do in other art forms like film, or theatre, since we get to know not just what a character does and says, but also what they’re feeling and thinking, and the way the world appears specifically to them.

When an author is doing their job properly, this means we often feel a closeness to fictional characters similar to that which we feel towards people in real life; that characters almost become friends.

So for me, a lot of the factors which determine how likeable a character is, are pretty much the same things which determine the likability of a person I might spend time with. There are obviously a number of traits a person can have to make them likeable, being witty, having interesting experiences, being good at what they do, however one major one for me is simply the question of whether they are a “nice” person.

By “nice”, here I do not mean that a character is working for some overarching moral good, or is some big damn hero who must save everyone all of the time, I just mean, does a character tend to be decent or not to those around them. Do they listen to people, are they kind, if they excel in some way, martial competence, skill at performance, magical prowess, do they use this excellence to bully or lord it over others?

In Blake Snider’s oft quoted book on screenwriting “Save the Cat”, he notes that having a character save an animal from cruelty creates an instant connection with the audience. For me though, a character doesn’t necessarily have to save the cat to get my attention, just stroke it.

In the Disney film; the good one from the nineties, Aladdin gives the bread he’s just risked his life in a death defying chase to steal to some smaller, cuter orphans just to show how utterly heroic he is, whereas for me, Aladdin would have been quite fine just sharing the bread with some hungry friends or relatives.

Indeed, characters who take self-sacrifice to ridiculous levels can often feel alienating or unrealistic, whereas characters who are just plain reasonable to those around them, the sort of people you might run into on any average day (if you’re lucky), feel far more real, and thus are easier to connect with.

This is why, I suspect, very early on in A Game of Thrones Martin first has Tyrion share a moment with the otherwise outcast John Snow, then, when he hears of Bran Stark’s crippling injury, offer a design of a saddle Bran can use, so that Bran can ride again. Tyrion after all, despite being a cynical, foul mouthed, lustful, arrogant, self-pitying, and at times amoral person is still (as Sansa Stark is almost surprised to realise), kind.

I also disagree with others who tend to use “nice”, in character terms as a synonym for bland, since to me, blandness usually comes not from a character’s actions or attitudes, but an author’s inability to write character conflict or interesting dialogue into a story, since after all, just because a character is a generally decent person, doesn’t mean they cannot suffer from conflicting loyalties, complex emotions, quirks of personality, or all the other things that make a character three, rather than two dimensional.

Of course, whether a character is “likable” or not is not the only factor which keeps us reading, however, when a character is likeable, or at least has some likeable traits, it makes the character far more easy to sympathise with, for example, to be a character who we fundamentally want to see succeed rather than fail, and about whose fate we ultimately care.

Of course, an author may not always want us to sympathise with a character, either because a character is villainous and thus someone we actually want to see fail, or because a character is directly making some sort of mistake from which they will grow or develop, and obviously in such cases likability matters less.

As with most important values, I’d say that likability and sympathy are sliding scales, there may be times we dislike what a character does or thinks, especially if that character is a complex one, or when we’re wringing our hands at a character’s idiocy, just knowing they’re going to walk into trouble or scupper someone else, however just as we tolerate some idiosyncrasies in a friend we spend time with, provided the rest of their personality seems reasonable. In the same way, we can tolerate flaws in a character, especially if we see these flaws soften over time, and see characters grow and change, indeed some of the finest moments in books occur when a character we like messes up, becomes unlikeable, and redeems themselves, or when an initially unsympathetic and dislikeable character manages to actually make themselves likeable, and thus earns our sympathy.

One of the major problems I have in a lot of fiction, is firstly that authors confuse sympathy and likeability, expecting the reader to sympathise with a character who is dislikeable just because that character happens to be a badass, or physically attractive, or working for some ultimately moral end which somehow excuses the fact they behave like a gigantic arsehole much of the time. This problem feels most egregious when an author expects us to sympathise with a character simply because that character happens to be the protagonist, even when that character is being less than pleasant to those around them, particularly when it seems that the author does not realise their character is being unpleasant.

Of course, likability is not only a matter of what a character does or says, but also how they think as well. One of my favourite writing exercises is that established by Star Wars reviewer and part time psychopath Mr. Plinkett, namely how many words can you use to describe a character without mentioning their physical appearance, vocation, actions or anything external to them, for example, just their personality, since I can think of many characters, from Farseer’s Fitz, to Wheel of Time’s Rand or Kingkiller’s Kvothe, who might be less than pleasant people on occasion, but who we sympathise with because of the complex mass of emotions, circumstances and understandable reactions we experience from the inside of their heads.

This is unfortunately one aspect where the modern tendency of writers like Julianna Baggott to write entirely in present tense, still more present tense first person occasionally runs into problems, since if we only learn about what a character feels in the very moment they are feeling it, it’s rarely possible to have a character conflicted with different impulses, questions, thoughts, or Stephen King style head voices.

This is not to say it can’t be done, Suzanne Collins certainly managed to make Katniss a complex character in The Hunger Games, only that from the examples I’ve read, problems of character arrogance, selfishness and attempts to gain the reader’s sympathy without trying seem to occur more often in present tense.

Of course, as someone who predominantly grew up reading books set in the past tense, this might just be my inner grumpy old git talking.

Be that as it may, likeable characters are still going to illicit my sympathy more than dislikeable ones, especially if they have some degree of the above mentioned niceness or decency, and while authors can of course do wonders with dislikeable characters, or likeable characters having their nasty moments, I generally prefer this when I get the sense the author is aware of this dislikeability and is using it for purposes of payoff, rather than when the author simply assumes that good looks, bad attitude, or simply being the good guys will automatically make us root for a character, no matter what they do.

Should all characters be likeable? Certainly not, neither do all characters need to be sympathetic.

However, if an author wants me to sympathise with a character, then making them at least likeable some of the time, and letting us understand why they are unlikable on the occasions they are unlikable, is always a good thing.

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