As I’ve stated many times, characters drive a story. How well the characters are written can bring life to the world and the narrative. Elements like setting, themes, plot twists, magic systems (for fantasy), etc. are all great but cannot effectively drive a story. Readers become attached to the characters in the world in which they’re reading but if the reader struggles to care about the characters, it has to be asked if they even care what happens by the end (assuming they even reach the end)?
I’m going to take two examples of two “main” characters and delve into their likeability. For me as a reader, I’m immediately judging whether or not I care about the character whose journey I am following. Their personality is being revealed to me slowly, peeling away until I see the inner workings. What are their motivations, passions, desires, fears, weaknesses, shortcomings, etc. If I can relate in anyway, then I am definitely hooked early on. If not, then I am reading in search of qualities I can gravitate towards and maybe empathize with. If the character has obvious faults (selfish, conceited, proud), then I am reading in hopes that they find redemption and become a changed person whom I’m happy to see the maturation and growth of.
I’ll start with Quentin Coldwater of Lev Grossman’s book, “The Magicians”. Quentin is a young man, looking to graduate high school and make the next step in his educational career. He discovers that he has been selected to take a test that would–if passed–enroll him into a secret school for young magicians to learn magic and excel in the “arts”. It’s not a unique story in itself and Quentin is somewhat the typical main protagonist. There’s just one problem…he’s a bit of a jerk.
Now, he has not come from a loving family; his parents are often out of the country and having no real relationship with him and that seems to be the cause for much of his attitude towards others and the struggle he has to form relationships. In this, Quentin makes friends but he really does struggle to have healthy relationships. Most of this is the basis for his selfishness and insecurities. Where he does excel as a character is his believability. I know people like him. I’ve seen them over the years and treat others as he does, followed by having to face the consequences of his choices and more often his mistakes.
I personally struggled to like Quentin throughout the first book and series (though I did finish it and even now cannot remember if his final moments mattered to me). He has some redeeming qualities over the course of his story but his angst and “woe is me” attitude (all brought on himself by the way) drove me crazy at times. So often I just wanted to speak to him and tell him he’s acting like a petulant child and needs to be better at life and treat others with respect and value. (Of course, I could not do this and therefore read on, shaking my head in continual annoyance.)
Next, let’s take Tyrion Lannister of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series by George R.R. Martin or “Game of Thrones” for TV watchers. To put it simply, he is quite the character. There is depth to him that is revealed in such a way that you’re continually finding yourself liking him more and more despite some of his less than admirable qualities. He’s a lecher and drunk but loyal to his friends and family despite the latter continually regarding him (sometimes quite openly) as being only of value because he bears the family name. You sympathize with him because you recognize his ability to possess passion for others who have endured horrible hardships. He abhors cruelty and is not prone to hurting others (cough, cough), often believing he can use his status, knowledge, and wisdom to get the upper hand.
Tyrion goes on a whirlwind of a journey that sees him rise and fall but always remaining who he is. Specifics would lend way to spoilers so I’ll stray from those but as a storyteller and fan of a good story, Tyrion is one of the best out there in my opinion.
The more I read, the more I recognize these characters like Tyrion who I find enjoyable and surprising despite what I might personally regard as vices in their lives. Do the virtues outweigh those vices? In Tyrion, I actually do think this. He has a propensity for getting out of difficult and sometimes life-threatening situations without comprising his established character. His sometimes heartless reactions to situations make sense and not out of left field for someone of his capability.
As a writer, I am continually thinking about my characters more than the grand plot. Do I want to make them likeable? Yes, but I also want them to feel real to the reader. They cannot be perfect in every way otherwise where’s the risk and danger? Even if the reader has a sense that some character(s) won’t die, there still needs to be this burden of wonder that something bad or even horrible can happen to them either by way of outside forces or as a result of their choice whether that choice was honorable or not.
One thing I like to ask beta readers is whether or not the characters were complex, relatable, etc. or the opposite. Getting that feedback helps me as a writer. As I revise, I take the time to examine every thought, word, and action of the characters to make sure they are not simply doing something for the sake of the plot. Rather, everything they do should be based on their reaction and/or response to what is happening around them. Writing likable characters is forever an exploration and process of becoming a better writer.
Call to Action: Are there any examples of unlikable characters you’ve read? Or maybe ones you did like in the beginning of a book and then did not by the end?