Make Me Like You

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Yesterday Mindy talked about how long she gives a book before she gives up on the reading and moves to the next book in the To Be Read stack.  She asked us what mattered most to us, and what a book needed to keep us reading.  We all had different criteria and it was interesting to see what everyone else wanted from the books they read (believe me, I paid attention – this is good information for writers to know.)  Some folks wanted an intricate, involved and gripping plot, and others wanted a rich and compelling voice.  For me, it’s the characters.  I’ll give a book longer to develop its plot as long as there’s someone I like in the story.  Even if it’s a secondary character, I’ll stay until the end.  But if I can’t develop a fondness for even one, I’m gone. 

Last week, I closed another book after 50 pages, disappointed once again.  It was a first novel, one that had been getting great reviews, but I just couldn’t immerse myself.  The characters, an adventuring group travelling on a ship, seemed to hate each other.  They sniped and argued, they refused to cooperate and had to be forced to work together under threat of death.  The leader (at least I assume he was the leader – he seemed to get more screen time than anyone else) was tired and ineffectual, and the rest came off like whining children who’d been given weapons to play with.  The book started with action, but I found myself wishing someone would kill the main characters and shut them up.  I reached 50 pages and closed the book forever.  The author’s voice was reasonably solid, and the plot was charging ahead in a lively manner, but I didn’t want to spend another second with those horrible people.

Look at it as if you’re joining a club.  Say you’ve always wanted to learn basket-weaving, and lo! and behold, a club is starting in your town.  You make arrangements to go to the first meeting – you clear your schedule, buy the supplies you’ll need, and show up on the designated night.  An hour into the class, you’re having trouble concentrating on what the teacher is saying because the two women to your right are trading barbs at each other that would draw blood if they were real, the man to your left is talking on his cell phone and the teacher is constantly being interrupted by the teenager in front of you who can’t quite get the hang of the first step.  Do you stick around?  Basket-weaving is something you want to do, sure, but the people you’re doing it with are going to drive you out of your mind. 

The fortunate part of writing versus real life is that when we  create characters with unpleasant personalities, we can also give them traits that make a reader like them, at least a little.  The skillful writer will blend the wickedness with something that keeps the reader reading.  Let’s look at Tyrion Lannister, of George R R Martin’s famous “Song of Ice and Fire” saga.  Tyrion is sharp-tongued and calculating, always ready to take advantage of someone else’s mistake if he can find a way to do it.  But Tyrion is a dwarf, and spent his life suffering the slings and arrows of his family, as if his size were somehow a punishment to them.  Should be pity Tyrion for his unusual size?  Hell no.  The thing that makes him worth sticking with is his sympathy for other people who’ve been outcast the way he was.  When he behaves kindly, the reader is able to see the worth in him.  He’s still something of a bad guy, but there’s something redeemable there.  It’s that redemption I’ll stay for.

Same thing with the good guys, really.  Look at Brother Cadfael, Ellis Peters’ famous Benedictine monk detective.  He was once a soldier, and gave up that life to become a man of peace.  He protects the troubled, feeds the hungry and shows kindness to even the most obnoxious townspeople.  You’d half expect angels to flock around him, singing alleluias.  Luckily, he isn’t perfect.  He makes mistakes, like any of us.  He sometimes trusts when he shouldn’t, and when he is pushed hard enough and loses his temper, it’s a sight to see.  You expect the good guys to be kind and honorable and all that, but if that’s all there is to the hero, you won’t care about him.  He needs flaws.  We’ve talked about flaws before, and how they serve to give a character depth in addition to driving a story forward. Flaws also give the reader a way to identify with the hero.  In the same way an antagonist is more interesting if he has at least one redeeming quality, the protagonist benefits from being less than perfect.  He can be afraid of water or spiders or puppets, and it’ll be the way he overcomes in spite of that fear that makes a reader want to stay until the last page.

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13 comments to Make Me Like You

  • Misty, you bring up an important point, that flaw / strength thing. If a character is well balanced with flaws and strengths, I’ll stick around a lot longer than if he’s two demensional, but I admit that I like to know reasons why the flaws and strengths exist as well. It’s that hinted-at backstory that that drives a good character for me.

  • Nice post, Misty (though initially I took your title to mean Make me BE like you!). Your analogy reminds me of something the actor John Gielgud used to say about considering whether to take a part in a new play. It was all about deciding how much time he wanted to spend with these people. For him, selecting a script was like going to the pub with a group! If he couldn’t imagine sitting and drinking with them, he wouldn’t take the part.

  • Misty, nice companion piece! :-) I once wrote an entire novel with a dark, tortured, alcoholic, abusive, abused hero. He was wonderfully complicated, but no one (including me, by novel’s end) liked the guy. I’m actually reworking it now, with a hero people can like…

  • I know that book! And you’re right, I don’t care about any of those people! I agree wholeheartedly…
    ALTHOUGH, come to think of it, I hated the protagonist in THE LAST WEREWOLF, even after the first 50 pages. But his voice was so compelling, and everyone ELSE in the story seemed to like the guy, I hung around long enough to fall to join the admiration society, and by the end, I loved the guy (in a sick, perverted sort of way).
    Excellent post, Misty!

  • TwilightHero

    Ahh, Tyrion. He’s the reason I didn’t put down A Clash of Kings – my first Song book – because of the sheer brutality of it all. That still throws me off sometimes, but I read for character and plot – probably the characters first, but a good plot helps :) – and there’s no denying George Martin does a good job of making not-so-good heroes and heroines and not-entirely-bad antagonists. I’ve always preferred villains who’re a little good – or at least started out good, fallen heroes and so on – and protagonists who are just a little bad. Nothing turns me off a book quite like two-dimensional characters.

    Great post, by the way :)

  • For me it’s the story. I want to know what happens. And yeah, because of that, I want to root for the characters.

    Last year (eep, it’s been that long) I received some feedback that my character was hard to like. And it’s true, she was a lot more rough around the edges than I’d intended. So in stages, I’ve been engaging in, to put it blunt, de-bitchifying her. I want her to be likable. I *think* I’ve managed that now.

  • Cindy

    It is all about the characters with me, then the story. I don’t finish books that bore me. The only book I didn’t finiah for those reasons was “A Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin. I dumped it two thirds of the way through and will never pick it up again. It is a very well written book with great characters, but it is too dark for me.

  • I had the same problem of a too-bitchy character with my MC. some beta readers found her too harsh–though interestingly the responses split along gender lines. Men found her unbearable, women found her a little harsh. I softened her some because what they were seeing wasn’t what I wanted for her. She’s better now. Less inclined to take out her own problems on other people.

    The characteristic that makes me really want to put down a book–more than a bitchy mc, a mean mc, a cruel person, is a near-fatally stupid one. I admit, I see it more with women mcs than men (but maybe that’s my reading choices). Where competent, strong women suddenly become idiots. They wander down dark alleys alone, when they could get help with no consequences. They make poor choices for the wrong reasons knowing they are wrong. It’s one thing to be flawed–it is another to be stupid so the plot makes sense.

  • Pandora, eek! I guess I wasn’t as subtle as I thought. -laugh-

    Pea Faerie, the character in my western is an antihero, so he’s not particularly likeable. Luckily he has an irresistible need to help a certain subset of people, and that need makes him a good guy in spite of himself. It’s been fun learning to write a dark character like that, and I hope that when he’s finally in print, everyone will agree with me.

  • Thank you – I think this is a point that’s a bit over due. The MC has to have flaws, but they have to be balanced – that’s what makes an MC like-able, instead of just Good or Bad. Case in point – Chris Longknife could be disgustingly heroic (she’s rich, brilliant, a skilled pilot, and driven by the memory of her dead brother to save others in need of rescue) or annoyingly flawed (she’s a dry drunk who’s losing the fight to stay dry). But the combo of the two, along with the fact that her heroism doesn’t always work the way she planned makes her internal and external struggles compelling. In addition to that, she has a genuine sense of humor and perspective about herself which keeps her from being whiny.

    I don’t know the book Misty is referencing, but I know the phenomenon; it’s one of my pet peeves. Witty banter is great, but endless whining and grousing at one another is not witty or appealing. My other pet peeve is the “strong woman” character where her only claim to strength is a tendency to issue orders and take offense at the drop of a hat. Robert Jordan’s female characters are an endless example. In real life, women (and men) like that are assholes – they aren’t likeable and most of the time they’re weak and ineffectual too. I like good character tension, but it has to come from a complex place not just from one character being a determined jerk. If someone is going to be seriously pissed off all the time, they better have a good reason for it. And even then, they need something appealing to balance the pissed offness.

  • Razziecat

    I’m with PeaFaerie, a stupid character is a deal-breaker for me. The occasional stupidity in an otherwise well-written, complex character isn’t so bad, especially if they learn from their mistakes. But constant, unrelenting stupidity–bad choices that lead to more stupid actions–and I’m gone. I love it when the good guys have flaws because I can relate to people like that; nobody’s perfect! And bad guys with a few likeable characteristics are so much more memorable than villains who are pure evil.

  • Sarah, I’m glad you didn’t know what book I meant. Not that I want anyone else to suffer reading something I think isn’t good, but I hate to diss other authors.

    You know, I think the whole stupidity problem is related to authors trying to control the narrative instead of letting it flow. We often say that our characters take over and run things, and what we mean is that the flow of the story takes us in directions we weren’t initially expecting. Gorgeous, thrilling, marvelous directions. If we try to force the story in a direction it doesn’t seem to naturally go, we run the risk of making our characters appear…well, stupid. :)

  • JJerome

    Misty – In the heirarchy of the writer’s goals, I can’t place character over plot or the other way around, but when it comes to reading, I prefer a well-devoloped character over an intriguing plot. Jurassic Park would have been so much better with stronger characters, despite a strong plot. Does the same apply to movies? What would Star Wars episodes IV-VI be without Darth Vader and Han Solo? Answer: Episodes 1-111.