A question I’m often asked by students on our creative writing courses is, “Does my central character have to be likeable?” The honest answer is, it depends on how you’re constructing your novel and how reader-sympathies need to work with it. Let me explain …
If you need the reader firmly on-side with your central character to make your story work, then it really is important to make them likeable and sympathetic.
On the other hand, if you’re writing a story where the reader needs to be gripped and engaged but doesn’t need to be on-side with the protagonist, then he/she must be striking and interesting, but doesn’t have to be likeable. Take Gone Girl, for instance: Neither of the married couple at the centre of the story is easy to like – but that hasn’t put readers off because they’re both fascinating and charismatic. There must be something in your central character(s) to attract the reader’s attention and ignite our imagination.
Traits to avoid in characterising your protagonist:
- The Bore: This might seem obvious, but the same traits that are offputting in life are also offputting in fiction. Picture yourself stuck on a train with your character or having a drink in the pub – would the experience be boring? Don’t write the kind of protagonist you’d find too dull to spend an hour or two with in real life.
- Unpalatable Behaviour: If it’s important for your central character to be sympathetic, don’t give them behaviour or actions that would turn readers against them. For example, if you want us to feel sorry for your female character whose husband is cheating on her, don’t make her nag him all the time. Don’t have her remembering an affair of her own that happened years earlier.
- Coldness: I confess I’m prone to writing cold characters. Novels are often rejected by agents or publishers because ‘the characters are all rather cold’. More than once I’ve been told by an editor, “Could you just warm the characters up a bit please?” A publisher will say this lightly, but any writer will know this is a major rewrite …
- Vagueness: In lots of novels, the central character spends much of the story on a voyage of self-exploration. “He doesn’t know who he really is”. It’s fine for a character to come to understand him/herself better by the end of the novel, but nobody is really a blank. I’ve often had students show me material in which the character appears not to feel anything, and is perhaps aping the feelings of others around him, or reflecting quietly on his/her lack of emotional affect. Again, I don’t believe that this is how people actually are in real life (unless for a medical reason). It’s a writerly conceit and it’s not popular with agents and publishers.
- Moaning: Try not to make your protagonist too much of a moaner. It’s irritating and will quickly make the reader lose patience and put the book down. Ironically, it’s often when writers base their central character on themselves (rather than “creating” a character) that they turn into moaners. When you’re writing about bad experiences that have happened to you (for example marital breakups or bereavement), it’s easy to start using the writing process as therapy and venting. And when a character is based largely on yourself, you feel the characterisation is already implicitly present in the material, when actually it’s not on the page. You need to work on characterisation even when a character is based on you.
- Billy-no-mates: Your character may be a loner, but how many people do you know who really have no friends and nobody to talk to at all? Almost everyone has someone they’re in touch with and who they would go to if they were in trouble. This is particularly true for women – this may be a generalization to an extent but I also think it’s true: Women almost always have a best friend to confide in. Write one in to your story.
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