Experts who write how-to’s for writers frequently state that a writer needs to have a realistic but likable main character. Even if your star is a serial killer, you have to give him something—like having him selflessly rescue a puppy—for readers to latch onto. It makes sense—what I’ve learned, though, is that we all like different kinds of people. If we didn’t there’d be some people who would never have friends or get married.
An editor told me a while back that the main characters in my book, The Partial Garden, are profoundly unlikable. After spending a day frustrated, confused, and depressed, my roommate helped snap me out of it by reminding me that she and I never like the same characters on our TV shows. She likes women with an attitude who often make bad choices in men—like Charlotte (Kaydee Strickland) in Private Practice—and I have always gravitated toward the weird, quirky, and villainous—right now Dr. Joe Briggs (James Van Der Beek) in Mercy is really winning me over. So there’s most likely someone else out there who will love my characters just the way they are.
For my newest book-in-progress I’ve been reading a lot of teen/young adult novels, which has been extremely enjoyable. From the few I’ve read so far I’ve made some observations (sweeping generalizations) about likability.
- Boys seem easier to make likable than girls. It seems to me that you just have to make a boy nice or compassionate instead of a jerk, and you’ve done it, but with girls you have to strike a balance between being so nice she looks weak to so strong she’s painful to have to listen to. My perspective on this is most likely skewed, though, because I am female, and the teenage girl inside of me easily forms a crush on those kind yet mysterious boys.
- Sidekicks are often more likeable than main characters. On the male side of this issue I’ve seen some very likable love interests for female narrators who only managed to win me over toward the end of their books. There were a couple of stories I stayed invested in only to read about and “see” that male sidekick more. I’ve also read some books with male main characters who came off whiny at times and selfish—maybe I heard too many of their thoughts and opinions. Let’s face it, would any real person be likable if we could hear all of their thoughts all of the time?
- First person narrators are less likable than third person narrators. I’m still investigating this idea. My favorite main character from my research was in a third person book, and many I’ve read in first person take me a while to get into, but first person is harder to pull off effectively to begin with, and there are books like Catcher in the Rye, and A Clockwork Orange with narrators I adore (that second one probably screams to my demented taste in characters). I intend to research this idea further on my next library trip.