Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Fixing Unlikable Characters

by Deren Hansen

Stephanie DeVita, writing on the Dystel & Goderich Literay Management Blog, asked about likable--or more to the point--unlikable characters:

Over the weekend, I came to the sudden realization that the manuscript I was considering wasn’t working for me for a specific reason: I found some of the characters to be completely unlikable. ... So for a writer, if a person comes back to you, having read your manuscript, with the critique that your characters are unlikable, how do you fix something like this?


Darth Vader + Kitten = problem solved, right?

Or, as David Horton playing King Herod in the Christmas Pageant on the old BBC sitcom, The Vicar of Dibley, said, after ordering his soldiers to massacre the infants in Bethlehem, “But kill them gently!”

More to the point, likability has more dimensions than good or bad. It’s one thing to give the otherwise-evil villain some justification because of something in their past that turned them to evil. But what do you do, for example, about contemporary characters who are unlikeable because they’re annoying, or tiresome?

A simplistic answer is to change the character so they’re no longer annoying or tiresome. That answer, though, masks a deeper question that you, the author, need to ask explicitly about every character (because your readers will ask the question implicitly): why would I want to spend time with this character?

Readers expect to get something in return for the time they put into a book. When readers say a character is unlikable, they’re really saying they find it difficult to predict what their return on investing time in the character will be.

Regardless of how morally reprehensible they are, we like characters that give us insight or teach us something.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

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