Thursday, January 31, 2008

Likable Characters

Posted by Lynne Griffin

There's an intangible something, the proverbial it factor, that endears characters to me. It doesn't have anything to do with the set of physical traits the author chooses, though those can help. I don't like certain characters because they're nice, either. In fact, whether I'm reading or writing, I like my characters deeply flawed. To be honest, the more flawed, the more I seem to like them. Certainly in real life, some of my best friends don't have movie star looks or flawless moral character and I like them just fine.

So if character traits don't equal likability, and being positive, kind, or even admirable don't always up the it factor, then what does?

For me, character likability comes from two things. First, good characters are interesting. They say and do things that keep me reading. I don't need quirky, though quirky can be good. I don't need the carefully planned bizarre. Though bizarre can be good. It's the delicate balance between being offered enough to engage me, without being flogged with character details that are overly contrived. I don't like unusually usual names or hobbies I've never heard of--unless of course each is the perfect detail for the perfect character.

How's that for tangible.

Most of the time the less is more rule applies. I don't like writers who go overboard on so-called interesting details. More to the point, I want characters to react in interesting ways. To convey attention-getting thoughts, and to engage in note worthy actions.

Last week at a three day book event for Negotiation Generation, I met a woman who stood out from the rest because of her unusual fashion sense. Her distinctive look drew comments from those of us introduced to her. She became more memorable as she explained how she designs and markets the clothes that so fascinated us. Knowing she would be there the next day, I looked for her. And she didn't disappoint. Her overcoat with hand sewed designs embroidered into the fabric, held tiny flowers emblematic of her native country. The coat and her talent drew me in. At first it was the observable that enthralled me, then her back story sealed the deal. Why did she have the power to engage me, while the others she'd come to the workshop with, did not? Could it all have been because of a simple coat? Or was it because the very whole of her intrigued me?

The second likability factor that has the power to grab me, is the tight connection between plausibility of behavior and empathy. When a character acts in a way I personally object to, moral or spiritually, I can cast judgment aside if I can identify with him or her. In a previous post, I wrote about Ian McEwen's Brionny, and what a wonderful example she is of a character with the power to create empathy. Believability of plot rests on whether or not a character would actually do what she's done. When I don't believe in a character's actions or feel he would've made certain choices, that's usually the end of that book for me. But put intrigue, and curiosity, and plausibility, and empathy together and I'm hooked.

It's one thing as a reader to find characters likable; I love it. It's another thing entirely to capture likability on the page. As a writer, I'm committed to this element of craft and I rely on The Writers' Group to tell me when a character hasn't quite hit the mark. I will relentlessly edit until I've achieved likability, it's that important to me. I can honestly say that I like all of my characters in Life Without Summer. The next question is, will readers?


Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

You've nailed the characterization issue perfectly, especially in saying that when writers are told to write likeable characters, it doesn't mean that the characters should be nice, or likeable as though you'd met them on the street. Ignatius Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces is not someone you wouldn't want to sit next to on the train, but he will live forever as a favorite!


Trish Ryan said...

It's such a challenge, even as a memoirist. At a certain point, the you on the page actually starts to feel like a character, and capturing the right balance of good/bad/somewhere in-between qualities is way more challenging that I anticipated.

Anonymous said...

Interesting characters are out there; we see them every day of our lives, meet them and talk with them.
Yet it is so difficult to put them into paper, in a situation that meets the needs of the novel.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Thanks, Hannah!

That's interest, Trish. The memoir must offer a unique dynamic to capturing "character". I'd love to hear more about that.

You're right, Usman. Loving them when you read them, and capturing them on the page is a huge chasm to conquer.

Thanks for your comments, one and all.


Shauna Roberts said...

Thanks for a useful and thought-provoking post.

I never understood what it meant when an agent said my characters needed to be more likable or sympathetic. I greatly softened their rough edges and met with the same response.

I'm taking from your post that what people mean by "likable" is "intriguing" or "gut-grabbing." Or am I still not getting it?