Writing Wednesday: Likeable Characters

Hey, guys. I’m back.

Sorry for the long absence. I been workin’ on selling things and writing other things, as my first novel just came out. If you’re curious, or just want to see if I’m worth all the shit I talk, it’s available here:

Aurian and Jin: A Love Story

But that’s not why you’re here right now. I know, I know. You’re here because it’s Wednesday. Writing Wednesday.

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Today’s gem of semi-literate wisdom is brought to you by another frequently mouthed Writerly Tip, the ever popular ‘your main character must be likeable’.

I totally agree.

What, you say? I do. I totally agree with this  statement.

My problem (and you knew there was going to be one), comes in with some folks’ definition of likeable.

I read a book recently, which I won’t name due to the large amount of shit I’m about to talk, that featured the world’s most easy to get along with MC. This character was a font of understanding and acceptance. Forgiveness came as easily as microwave popcorn. All other characters, even the biggest dicks of the novel, were pitied or admired or helped as was most appropriate for showing off this main character’s incredible good nature.

It was, without a doubt, the simpiest and most treacly bit of characterization I have ever not enjoyed. And it wasn’t even good characterization. Nobody learned anything. Nobody grew.

This most likeable of characters was, in essence, the sort of person you want to noogie and shove in a locker somewhere on middle school grounds. I kept on hoping–really hoping–that something horrible was about to happen, and wipe that silly smile off her face and all her talk of dresses and relationships right the hell out of her head.

Why? She was likeable. (Every other character in the story certainly liked her). I’m not a naturally mean person (those of you who know me well, this is the part where you shut up). I wear dresses. I like relationships. I even have some with other people, when I can’t avoid it.

But here’s the thing, my barbies and kens. Think of someone you like in real life. (If you’re having difficulty with this step, go to therapy for a few years and then get back to me). Now, think of five specific reasons you like this person. Not general ones, mind you. No ‘s/he’s funny/creative/smart’. Specific reasons. Here are my five, for the handsome Definitely Not Dave:

1. He’s good with his hands. He likes to tinker, and he’s good at fixing all sorts of stuff around the house. He doesn’t just do it to do a favor, he does it because he honestly enjoys the tinkering.
2. His accent. My DND is from Boston, and there’s something so right about a magician asking you to pick a fookin’ cahd.
3. Cuddly person. If you are also lucky enough to have a cuddly person in your life, you know what I mean right here.
4. His impatience. I genuinely enjoy the fact that, before Christmases and birthdays, it is all he can do not to tell me what he got me.
5. He likes to know how things work. DND is a magician, and what this mostly seems to mean is that he has an unslakable thirst for knowledge of how shiny tinkly spinny things function. DND grew up watching old David Copperfield specials and pausing them, frame by frame, until he could figure out how the illusion was done. He would spend hours doing this. In a young kid, that’s dedication.

So there we go. Fuck, I feel like I just wrote a goddamn Valentine for demonstration purposes, but anyway.

Your list probably looks a lot like mine in some ways (yours, perhaps, with fewer card tricks). But the details are probably small, and you know what else is curious?

Some of these things are imperfections.

I mean, look at this list. Impatience, that’s not a good thing. And it isn’t, not always. Sometimes it’s downright irritating. Sometimes I don’t want to know what I’m getting for Christmas on the 21st.

But that’s where the growth comes in. In good characterization, there aren’t ‘good traits’ and ‘bad traits’. There is a single set of characteristics that, when expressed in different ways, can be likeable or dislikeable. That was so important I put it in italics. Because, and here’s the caps lock kicker:

YOUR LIKEABLE CHARACTER’S STRENGTHS ARE ALSO HIS FLAWS.

The guy whose pride causes him to practice his tuba playing six hours a day might also cause him to never speak with his estranged father. And that character’s struggle isn’t to get rid of his pride, it’s to learn how to use it for positive purposes.

I repeat, in Capslockian:

THE NARRATIVE JOURNEY OF A LIKEABLE CHARACTER IS THE TALE OF HIM LEARNING TO USE HIS PERSONALITY FOR GOOD.

Because his strengths are also flaws, see? What makes him likeable isn’t a set of ‘good person’ characteristics. It’s all the anger and hubris and small meannesses of an ordinary mortal, combined with the desire to do better, to become better.

Think about your favorite person again. Write a list of five things about this person that irritate you. When you’re done, burn it or put it somewhere they will never find it.

But it’s funny, isn’t it. Those two lists, though they may vary in magnitude, contain the same basic characteristics.

Love you guys, have a good day doing whatever you do other than read my blog.

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2 thoughts on “Writing Wednesday: Likeable Characters

  1. Awwww. What a cutsie valentine!

    Great point. Everyone has flawtributes. If you try and make your characters flawless, well, domo arigato, Mr. Roboto. “I was not uploaded with a sense of self. Does not compute. Love is all. I understand you, and accept you.”

    “Yeah, I get that. But what are your opinions on this?” *HEAD EXPLOADED*

    Sorry. I’ve read too many stories of likable arbiters who float around society with the pretense of being a functioning person. Also, though, a lot of people ARE just plain cool beans gravy train sippin’ margaritas. They aren’t too interesting (unless it’s Shaggy from the Scooby show. Like, zoinks, that dude’s cool, man. But even he has disagreements and flawtributes).

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