Thursday, January 26, 2012

Likeable Characters

     Our characters are supposed to have flaws, right? They can't be perfect or people wouldn't identify with them. They'd be annoyed by their unrealistic perfection.
     But on the flip side, I'd watch out for too much imperfection.
     I recently finished One Day by David Nicholls. It's about the relationship between Emma and Dexter. Each chapter takes place on July 15th of different years. You get glimpses of their lives over 20+ years. The format was new and different for me and I thought it worked well. The story was sometimes funny, sometimes smart, sometimes heartbreaking.
     I hesitate saying anything negative, but this has been on my mind since I finished the book. My only problem with this book? Emma and Dexter are not likeable. Dexter is annoying, selfish, stupid (in his choices), egotistical, and vain. About the only thing going for him is that he's handsome. Emma is a little more likeable- she's funny and witty- but she also has many annoying qualities like always putting herself down and yet acting all high and mighty with her opinions.
     Now I know people make mistakes, they're not perfect. Our characters should be the same. But we need to watch out how awful/annoying we actually make them. They need some redeeming qualities or moments that make up for the stupid ones. Dexter and Emma both had these moments, but they were very few and far between.
     Of course others who have read this book might not feel the same way I do. But what I learned from reading this book is to watch out. If a beta or critique partner tells you your character is annoying because of this or that- take note.
     Or maybe what I learned is that I'm more into books that don't display quite so much how awful/annoying human beings can be.
     What are your thoughts?


  1. finding a balance between being flawed and just plain annoying is difficult. Maybe if we ask ourselves 'what would I think of someone that does such and such' we can better distinguish between the two.

  2. Since most of us are writing for an audience that reads romantically (ie: they identify with the characters, they feel their feelings) this is really important for anyone who wants a readership in the commercial field. There are, however, some genres that aren't supposed to be read this way--most of them from earlier time periods, I think, because people weren't always conditioned to have an emotional connection with the main character(s).

    Also, it seems to me that perhaps the problem is not too many flaws, but not enough depth. I meet people regularly who kind of annoy me, and I tend not to pursue deep relationships with those people. However, of all the people I have gotten to know and understand very well--even those whom I got to know not by my own choice--I have trouble thinking of any I would hate to read as main characters if they were living a compelling story. Do you know what I mean? Even if I don't LIKE someone, once I understand why they are the way they are, it's a rare person whom I can't tolerate... And they would end up being the villains, I think...

    Maybe this is just me being idealistic, but I suspect the problem is more complicated than balancing flaws with virtues. I think it might be more of an issue of understanding where the character's flaws come from.

    Sheesh, sorry--that was LONG.

  3. Good points, both of you. Understanding where the characters from One Day were coming from... Well, I understood, the author showed it very well, but I didn't ... Identify? Or relate? I don't know exactly.

    I can say I enjoyed the movie more than the book (so rare) but I think that's because we weren't right in the characters heads. And they cut out a lot of the boozing, cheating, drugs, etc.

  4. In my WIP, I wanted my main character to start out as a monster and then grow and change and learn that how she had been raised, was a lie. That her hate was wrong. Only, when my critique partners read it, they both said part of them didn't want to keep reading because they disliked her so much in the beginning that they didn't care what happened to her.

    That was a huge eye opener. Of course I went back and changed a bunch of things about the main character, but definitely a lesson learned. :)

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