If you’ve ever read reviews on Goodreads or Amazon, you know that readers find characters unlikable ALL THE TIME. The fact that some readers find a character unlikable doesn’t mean that a writer has done anything wrong. Certain characters simply elicit strong positive and negative reactions.
One of the most powerful things about reading is that readers can empathize with characters even when characters do unkind or unwise things. Readers can recognize themselves—even the parts of themselves that they’re not proud of—in characters, and that can be a huge relief.
While every reader does not need to like every main character in every moment, most writers probably don’t aim to create alienating characters. I’ve been thinking about character likability lately because I’ve been working on a book with a narrator who is a bit…prickly, at times. I was lucky to have a couple of very insightful writer friends read my manuscript earlier this summer, and they pointed out a few places where my character was off-putting in ways I hadn’t intended. That feedback was extremely valuable as I revised.
Based on my friends’ feedback on my story and the reviews I’ve read for other people’s stories, I think there are a variety of reasons why readers might struggle to like a character. Those reasons include:
1.) Whininess. If a character whines too much and feels sorry for him or herself, that’s often a turnoff.
2.) Lack of obstacles/antagonists. This one is related to whininess. If a character is having a hard time or complaining a lot but things seem to be going pretty well, readers may get impatient.
3.) Lack of growth. If the character doesn’t seem to be growing or changing at all throughout the story, that can also be frustrating.
4.) Cruelty to likable characters. If the protagonist thinks mean things about or does mean things to kind, generous secondary characters, then readers might begin to dislike the protagonist. (Unless the reader understands why the character is pushing others away and the character is likable in other ways.)
5.) Extreme Cluelessness. It can be compelling to read about a character who doesn’t yet realize something that the reader knows to be true. But if there are too many blatantly clear signs of something (such as another character’s affection), the reader is likely to get annoyed at the character’s cluelessness. (Again, unless the reader understands why the character cannot recognize something that seems obvious.)
6.) Extremely risky decisions. Some readers might also shut down when they read about a character who puts herself in physically or psychologically unsafe situations. That doesn’t mean that characters shouldn’t do ill-advised things, but I think it’s useful to know that some readers might put a book down when a character is doing a whole lot of dangerous, cringe-worthy things. (Although, again, if readers understand why the character is making those decisions, that will help.)
Now, this is all pretty subjective. One reader might have an especially low tolerance for whininess, and another reader might balk at too many dangerous situations. Writers can’t control everybody’s reactions. But when it’s time to revise, I find it helpful to look out for these six potential issues.
As I was working on my new manuscript, I found that it’s also a good idea to balance potentially off-putting moments with positive ones. I tried to create relationships and situations in which my character could be her kindest self. Often, in the moments that my writing friends flagged, too many pages had elapsed since I’d included a positive scene, so I needed to find a way to add one. (Last year, I mentioned how Lyn Miller-Lachmann effectively weaves in positive moments in Rogue in another post on character likability.)
I also found that I needed to incorporate moments when readers can clearly see my character’s vulnerability. Readers need to see what she yearns for and fears even if she doesn’t want to acknowledge those things. Because, as I suggested throughout my list of potential likability issues, if readers see deeply into our characters and understand the reasons for the characters’ thoughts and actions, they are likely to hang in there and love our characters even in moments when they don’t especially like them.
What do you think? Have you noticed any other likability issues? Have you read other books with characters who are occasionally unlikable but still lovable overall?