Tuesday, February 15, 2011

27 Crafting Character Likeability -- Plus a Giveaway

One of my characters has had me pulling my hair, worrying if I've given her enough good qualities to compensate for some things readers may find hard to swallow. And I'm not alone. Cam is the QUEEN of creating unlikeable characters that captivate, but even she has spent time wondering if she'd crossed the line. Anyone else out there have this issue?

You can create a well-rounded character, a quirky one, one with depth and fascination. Yet readers may still not connect.

So what is it that makes a character likeable?

There are some things that are commonly thrown around. Your character will be more likeable if:

  • She has something she loves.
  • She has something she fights for.
  • She is willing to sacrifice for something.
  • She has some special skill or ability.
  • She has some handicap or hardship that makes her an underdog.
  • She has a flaw that readers can relate to and forgive.
  • She operates from motivation the readers can see and understand.
  • She has wit, spunk, or a sense of humor.

Those are easy fixes, so often recommended that they've led to a whole class of character called a Mary Sue, a figure so romanticized or perfect she doesn't come across as believable.

Want to see if you have a Mary Sue character (or plot) in your WIP? Here's THE definitive quiz. Seriously.


But okay, say your character isn't a Mary Sue, and your character has one or more of the traits that should make her likeable. She's flawed and complex, and better yet, her flaws and strengths directly drive the plot and make the outcome of your story unpredictable. But still the UN-word rears it's ugly head.

Time for tougher questions.

Especially when it comes to the strong female protagonist that so many of us are trying to do justice to lately, how tough is too tough? How much vulnerability do we need to show? How much emotion does she need to express, and how often? How many hard, confusing, or unlikeable decisions can she make?

As a point of discussion, let's take Katniss Everdeen. There is no question that the whole HUNGER GAMES trilogy is beyond successful, and Katniss is an unforgetable character. But she is one of the recent characters I've seen most often described as "unlikeable." Do you agree? Disagree?

THE HUNGER GAMES is dark and the books get progressively darker. It's tough to be inside that world, and even tougher to be inside Katniss's head. I know for me, I fell in love with Katniss when I saw her willingness to sacrifice for Prim, and she had me hooked with her tenderness to Rue. Her concern for Rue's family, too, made me love her, as did her self-doubt, her willingness to acknowledge and dislike her own questionable motives. I believed in Katniss, hook, line and bow string. In CATCHING FIRE, Katniss was just as real. But Prim was stronger. There was no Rue character. Her situation was much harder, more ambiguous. She was tougher. Did that make her less likeable? I've certainly read that people believe that was the case. What about her depression in MOCKINGJAY? Was that too much?

I'd love to hear your thoughts. Where did you start to like Katniss? Love her? Dislike her? Was there some point where you read one of the books and said to yourself, wow, Suzanne Collins NAILED it here--I am so glad I have Katniss's thoughts or motives here? Or conversely, you thought, allright, shut up already and get on with the story?

As always on Tuesdays, give us your input and you'll get a chance to win a great YA book. This week, it's a hardcover of Lesley Livingston's DARKLIGHT.
We'll announce the winner next week.

Haven't read THE HUNGER GAMES but still want a chance to win? Just comment about your take on likeable characters. Or share a brief passage that sets up your character and makes her (or him) instantly likeable. Go on. I dare you!

Looking forward to hearing from you,



  1. I'll give you a passage from my will-be-finished-this-week-if-I-have-to-swear-off-sleep WIP. Marina (the MC) has pain issues that (hopefully) make her a bit more sympathetic.

    Memories of Trey mix with memories of my first days when it was me stuck in a bed with my arms and legs tied down so I couldn't hurt myself. His convulsions become mine, giving me a visual of what I must have looked like from an outsider's point of view. I don't have any scars on me to say someone had to boil the poison out of my blood, but close enough is bad enough.

    The invisible tormentor that serves pain's harbinger hooks the far corner of my vision and gives a sharp tug so that everything I see moves sideways and my stomach rolls from the sudden alteration of reality.

  2. Always love a good Hunger Games debate!

    After spending two amazing books with Katniss, by the time I got Mockingjay I felt she was such a fully realized character that I don't "blame" her for the less-than-stellar routes Collins took her on. I thought the depression could have been an excellent direction of character development, it just wasn't carried out with the same grace that Collins had exhibited in the first two books (I can't help but feel that last book was being pulled in too many different directions in the writing process).

  3. Hm ... I think, especially with a character like Katniss, there has to be some difficulty in her character, you know? Like, if you liked her too much, it wouldn't allow the story to progress properly. You have to watch her, and yell at her in your head, and disapprove - that's what makes the story cinch in your own head, because you begin to question her, to demand answers for her actions.

    Of course ...In the end, I liked her a lot.

  4. I thought Katniss was a well drawn out character. The thing is, given the society she lived in, I think she had to be tough. She's the provider for her family. We see softer sides to her, and her internal gives us a visual of her confusion/anger etc.

    I loved Mockingjay and seeing a more vulnerable side to Katniss. I mean, given what she's just gone through, I would think it okay to have a reaction to it (Peeta not with her, her friends using her, this whole other district).

    For me Katniss was spot on.

  5. I though Collins did a good job with Katniss. I agree, her affection toward Prim and Rue softened her a bit, but even those aside she didn't strike me as unlikeable. For me, it would have been unbelievable for someone gentle, easily scared, and more emotional to win the Hunger Games and live through everything Katniss did. Of course she's tough and can be angry, etc. Her world sucks, she's fighting to the death with a bunch of other kids, etc.

  6. I've actually been surprised again and again how forgivable I can be of flawed characters. The only flaw I can't forgive is stupidity, the kind that makes me tear my hair out every time a character needlessly screws things up. It's a lot easier to like people when they're fictional than when they're real, probably because we WANT to like them, so we'll go out of our way to find qualities that will make reading the book worthwhile. Think of Dwight from "The Office." I would hate him in real life, but in the show, he's my favorite character.

  7. I probably sound like other readers, but I think I started liking Katniss when she took her sister's place in the Hunger Games. That's when I knew she had compassion. Overall, I've had a very complicated relationship with Katniss. I loved her again during the whole Rue incident, but I didn't like the way she used Peeta and dismissed Gale. But I think the best characters spark debates. :)

  8. I liked Katniss, but admittedly she was more likable in The Hunger Games than later on in the series. But by that time I was already friends with her. LOL

    Connecting to a character really IS somewhat subjective, I think, even with a list of flaws and tender spots and strengths. It depends on the personality of the reader. Which is a good thing there are ALL types of books out there (and all types of writers). :)

  9. Katniss is a pain in the behind... but her thought process is really interesting and the story needed that, not a totally likable character.
    Peeta was always my favourite. Always will be.

  10. I miss these great posts of yours where you really delve in. And as for Katniss? I bought her from moment one as a real person. You know I love the whole trilogy. :D Giving those characters nuances, gives them dimension, and makes them feel more real.

  11. I've been there. I have a novel where the mc is not very likable. I tried some "Save the Cat" type techniques, but it was emphasizing her love for her family that helped in the end. Of course, that ms is in the bottom of a drawer, never to see the light of day. But it helped make me a better writer!

    Great post!

  12. I love Bianca from The DUFF. She's smart and sassy and I just loved her. She may have some physical differences but she believes in herself.
    Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

  13. I don't think it's just about 'likeable' and 'unlikeable' characters, it's about CARING what happens to them. True, it's easier to care about someone you like, but you can care what happens to someone you don't like, too.

    Thanks for the great post!

  14. I think at least for me anyway is where I can relate to her, not too whiney but not so kick butt so to speak you don't connect with her and her emotions- almost like a robot. I love characters with a sarcastic sense of humor as well.

  15. For me, Katniss was likable from the beginning. But I do agree that I don't always have to 'like' the character as long as they are believable.

  16. Josin, that's a clever way to introduce two unusual characters. I love stories like that, especially when the authors are careful not to be so lyrical that they step us back out of the characters feelings. Suzanne Collins actually does a beautiful job of that with Katniss, I think.

    Angela, for me, the third book was also the least successful--but the one that got me talking and thinking about craft the most. Pulled in different directions with the writing is a brilliant summary!

    Ammy Belle, YES! That's what makes the experience of Katniss so real, and what we should all strive for with characters, isn't it? The sense that they are real enough to yell at?

    Rebekah, (Hi btw! :D) Meh. still felt like a cop out to me. I can see how everything she went through broke her. But that's not the character I fell in love with in the earlier books, so it still felt like a betrayal. I wanted her to get up and try--didn't matter what she tried, so long as she did something.

    Tracey, very true, and Teralyn, excellent point. I do set of wanting to like the characters I meet in novels. And I HATE characters who act stupid for the sake of the plot.

    Pam, yes: The best characters spark debates. One of the ways I think you know you have a winner is when your critique group starts to argue what a character would or should do :D.

    Carol, great point (as always). We bring ourselves as readers into the story, therefore character likeability will always be subjective.

    Joanna,even Peeta was complicated. I have mixed feelings about him. He was never brave enough to speak to Katniss before the games, and he put her in a horrible position by making the announcement the way he did. To me, he would have been more heroic if he had simply "shown" his love for her in the games instead of declaring it ahead of time.

    Lisa--AWWW. You are such a sweetie. Katniss was REAL for me from the paragraph about the cat. The entrails, no hissing paragraph? Genius. That was brilliant. It characterized her, brought the world to life, and immediately set the stage for sacrifice.

    Tere--sounds like you've learned a lot since the first draft of that. Are you planning to resurrect the character if not the manuscript someday?

    Lisa Gibson, I love THE DUFF!

    Carolyn, exactly. You have to connect with the character in some way.

    BLHmistress, I'm with you. Sarcastic characters rock, when they are done well. Cassie Clare is a genius in that respect. Can't wait for the next book in TMI!

  17. I have yet to read The Hunger Games (I know, abomination!). I will be reading it soon though. Thanks for the giveaway!

    Best Wishes,

  18. Great discussion, Martina!

    As far as Katniss goes, like you, she hooked me with her willingness to sacrifice herself for Prim. But then...I liked her all the way through the trilogy! Yeah, she makes some tough choices, but people should cut her a break where likability is concerned. I mean, how *nice* would they be if they were put into a situation as bleak as hers? I love Katniss' ability to look beyond sentimentality to survival--it's so honest and real!

  19. Katniss has to be one of my all time favorite characters(which is why my email is the girlonfire!) She is just so believable and really makes me wish I was more like her.

  20. Vivien and TheGirlOnFire, I wonder if the mark of true believability is the fact that we are all discussing whether we like her and why as if she's a real person.

    Ara, thanks! Given what she went through, she wouldn't necessarily be the kind of a person any of us could relate to comfortably, but I agree. The plot, the situation, all of it was incredible. And yet we aren't discussing the plot. We are discussing Katniss. In my mind, that's another mark of the work's brilliance.

    Britta, you have a treat in store. I hope you'll let us know how you like the series once you read it!

  21. I loved Katniss in books one and two. I wanted to have the same passion in reading catching fire but Katniss was not strong in the kick assery and so many of her low moments in character really kicked a lot of her appeal out of it for me. I try to remember the early Katniss and hold her strong to me heart.

  22. I liked Katniss from the beginning because she was capable and resourceful. And then she volunteered for Prim, and I fell in love. That she retained any humanity at all through the series was a testament to her strength.

    I did think the third book was problematic -- love the description from the previous poster that it was "pulled in different directions". I also thought it was so interesting how Katniss retreated into herself the more her notoriety grew. I don't know much about Suzanne Collins, but the parallels are intriguing. I really wonder how the series might have been different if it hadn't made such a huge splash with the first and second books.

  23. Katniss. I loved Katniss maybe that's what I was so upset by the last book. I felt like Collins really wanted to talk about the effects of war. Almost to heavy handed for me. I don't mind an ending with a sad ending but this ending just had no hope at all.

  24. Thanks for the wonderful, timely post. I am struggling with making my MC likeable. One agent said she was too grown-up (age 12). Another agent said I portrayed her acurately for the situation in which she was facing. And yet another agent said she wasn't fully developed enough to make her feel anything with her. Personally, after having let the manuscript sit for a while, I didn't really like her much myself. She was boring, so I am now rewriting her with the hopes of making her someone readers will care about. Thanks again.

  25. Love this discussion. I fell in love with Katniss the moment she took Prim's place. I LOVE (that's shouting people) characters who show courage when the stakes are high like the kite runner.

    Her depression, let's be honest, drove me crazy in Mockingjay. She sounded like a whiny brat and not the Kat from Hunger Games. I wanted to rise above it. But I felt it was a responsible ending. Katniss definitely went Jack Bauer in the end but who wouldn't?

  26. I'm ashamed to say I haven't read the Hunger Games yet. I'm one of those that likes to read the lesser known books. Of course I did read Twilight...but that's just because a friend made me. I guess I'm gonna have to read Hunger Games

  27. still haven't read hunger games. But I like characters that make it a little hard for you to like them until he realize that the way they are is coming from somewhere real.


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