A number of years ago, when I was just starting to seriously write fiction, I showed a new story to my girlfriend of the time. She read it as carefully as she read all my work, and afterwards said, “I didn’t like the main character.”
At the time, her response surprised me—and not because I disagreed with her. The protagonist was, basically, kind of a whiny, selfish perpetual adolescent, using his desire for a lover to mask all those tiresome elements of his personality. That was actually the point of the story, and at that phase in my development as a writer I thought it justified making my leading man into a twerp.
The reason I was surprised by my girlfriend’s critique was that it was basically an emotional response to one character. Normally she focused on internal logic or the strength/weakness of my writing itself—in other words, things that could be critiqued rationally, described objectively and fixed. How could I address a reader’s subjective, gut-level response?
Years later, the answer has come through to me: I dunno, but you’d damn well better try.
If you read through reader reviews of erotica—not those by professional critics, but the kind of emotionally engaged feedback that readers post on Amazon and Goodreads when they’ve just finished the story and absolutely must let the world know what they love or hate about it—you’ll see the question of likability comes up quite a bit, especially when the reader’s response is negative. And I don’t just mean they’ve panned the characters and judged the rest of the story on its various merits, but that the whole story has fallen flat for them because they didn’t like the characters. It’s phrased in different ways: I couldn’t relate to Rosalyn; I couldn’t stand Derek; I didn’t really have any strong feelings about Mitzi; I didn’t connect with the cougar shifter; I didn’t exactly hate Razglord, but I just didn’t like him…
It’s true that—at first glance, certainly—a great many famous characters in fiction aren’t “likable” as such. Sherlock Holmes, for instance, isn’t terribly likable; he’s fascinating, certainly—who among us wouldn’t love to sit down and have a real conversation with a mind like that? But he doesn’t inspire much in the way of warm fuzzies.
On the other hand, Dr. Watson is quite thoroughly likeable. He’s warm, loyal, relatable, and generally seems like a great guy to go out and have a drink with. He’s an excellent counterpoint to Holmes’ slightly chilly charisma; it may be that the balance of, and tension between, their personalities is the reason so many people love the Holmes stories.
Love—as I’ve said in at least one other column—is a key word here. People have an emotional response to stories and characters in stories, just as they do to real people. Give them a character that evokes a strong positive response, and they’ll likely love that person, whether it’s Dr. Watson or Sam Gamgee or Harry Potter or whoever. They’ll read and re-read the books, recommend them to friends, start blogs about them and write their own fan fiction about the characters. This seems particularly important in erotica and romance, where so much of the stories’ subject matter is about pleasure.
The story I gave to my old girlfriend all those years ago had nothing in the way of a likable character. Now sure, not all stories have to evoke warm fuzzies in their readers. Some very worthwhile stories are basically dark, and some important characters are basically bastards. But my character didn’t have much in the way of redeeming characteristics—be they heroic, interestingly villainous or relatably human. He wasn’t even rotten to the core, he was basically just a sophomoric jerk. If you met him in real life, you wouldn’t even hate him, you’d just think, “Poor screwed-up kid,” and do your best to avoid him in social situations.
Compare that kind of character to the narrator of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, who’s very similar in a way: immature, socially awkward, not terribly pleasant to be around. The difference is that Dostoyevsky’s guy has a certain self-awareness; he knows he’s a twerp, and part of the point of the story is that we come to feel something for him, and understand that we ourselves might not be utter paragons. Or look at Wuthering Heights—sure, it’s impossible to imagine that book without Heathcliff, but without Catherine it’s even worse: just a book about a sadistic schmuck out on a farm somewhere.
Sympathetic characters speak to readers even when they’re not terribly likeable people. When a natural likability comes through in a character, readers respond even more powerfully; it can provide an all-important balance between characters, and make the difference between a flavorless, tiresome story and one readers will take to their hearts and cherish forever.