"A.J. Rose" (Jonathan) (ajrose93) wrote,
"A.J. Rose" (Jonathan)

Making a Character "Likable"

93, all!

[This was composed for sfandf_writers, but got too long, so I'm posting it here. Besides, I owe you guys a post. :) ]

Stop making that face -- this is a task some editor is likely to lay on you, sooner or later, and there are (as always) tricks o' th' trade for accomplishing it. In fact, there's Trick One: while editors are far from "always right"* (and in particular not infrequently ask for something other than what they're really trying to get), the professional response is to fight past the sensation that you've just been asked to strangle your (literary) child and ask yourself: IF this editor were not a complete maroon, what MIGHT they be looking for, here?

Trick Two: unless you're writing for a fairly juvenile outlet, understand that they don't really mean "likable," as in, Boy, I like this character, I wish I could be their pal: Conan has spent some seventy years as a stand-out character in modern fantasy, and I don't know anybody who'd want to invite him to dinner. And hell, nearly everybody at some point loves Sherlock Holmes, but if you were Dr. Watson wouldn't you have clubbed him with something by now? "You see, Watson, but you do not obser -- I say, Watson, do put down that bally regimental cudgel, there's a good chap -- !" Thump thump thump. (People forget that Watson was a soldier, once upon a time.)

So what do your hardworking editors (bless them!) really mean? They mean something more like: "Why should I give a damn about this character and what happens to her or him?" If they're asking for character "likability" in a revision, it usually means they approve of your plot, but think you need to draw the reader in a bit sooner with your central character. Okay, so, given that you want to comply...How?

First of all, editorial insistence aside, the problem may not be "character likability" at all -- Lovecraft, for example, arguably never wrote a "likable" character in his life. The art of the storyteller is spellbinding: ensorcelling the reader into caring what happens, and turning the pages to find out. The answer to "Why should I care?" isn't "Because if you keep reading, it gets important!" (much less, alas, "Because I want to be a writer, dammit!" or the ever-popular "Chuck you, Farley!") -- it's more like (sinister voice:) "Ohhhh, if you only knew...!" Once they ask, "Knew what?, knew what?," you've got 'em. (And there's Trick Three: one of the basic ways to get a reader turning pages is mystery, the sense that Something Grand Portends here, if they'll ooonly keep reading.) But suppose character is the problem. What then?

Aristotle pointed out that we can write about characters who are (a) worse than we are, (b) like we are, or (c) better than we are; as I recall he preferred (c), but all of 'em can make for good stories. The allied strategies: (a) pity and/or fear, (b) identification, and (c) admiration. In a way, all three of these can be called "identification": we relate to something in these characters, even if solely through fantasy projection. Again, your purpose is to fascinate, and the best way to learn to do this is to ask yourself which characters have fascinated you, and why. There are zillions of ways to weave such a spell**, and (a) through (c) above give a hint, but to tie off this post, here are a few specific examples:

(1) One reason we don't really resent the otherwise-insufferable Holmes is because he pretty much hates his life, except when he's on the hunt; we want him to care enough to go on living (so there's (c) admiration of his abilities, plus some (a) & (b), pity & identification (because who hasn't hated their life?)). (2) Poor little Frodo! He didn't ask for this quest, but he's doing it anyway (a through c -- and btw, one of the most common errors is thinking that the quest itself is enough to involve us, which -- particularly this many decades after Tolkien -- usually isn't so). (3) Introduce human problems: even a particularly nasty assassin can be "identified with" when, say, his target is even more unlikable than he is, he has no choice but to take the assignment, etc. (4) Finally, one of my faves: what makes for rounded characters, IMO, is a writer who identifies with ALL of them -- even the baddest of the Bad Guys. People (and other critters) do things for reasons...figure out what they are, and present them with some sympathy*** even when the characters themselves are abhorrent.

Enough for now; hope some of this helps. (And a tip of the Roseate cap to a resident genius, Simon Logan (fetishpunk), for prompting this post...not that he needs my advice any: he's in the pushing-against-resistance**** phase all geniuses hit, and he appears to be getting through it jusssst fine. :) )

93 93/93 -- AJ

* Except in the limited sense that "the customer is always right" -- i.e., they control whether you get a check or a rejection slip, hence possess an inherently superior point-of-vie...oh, okay, I mean you can choose to please 'em or walk on by, but small point in arguing with 'em until your name on a cover automatically means more sales, and then (magically) you're "right" a lot more of the time. ;) The first sales are the hardest, and nothing succeeds like success. Soldier on!

** I believe it was Harlan Ellison who suggested one way: give the characters something they want, since we all identify with desire. I think he also mentioned one Clarion writer giving her (?) short-story protagonist a small annoyance: something stuck between two teeth, another universal identification.

*** I.e., understanding of their motives, even when you hate them: insight, not (necessarily) approval...this being a trick I picked up from Kurt Vonnegut. My own breakthrough on this was when (in writing my unpublished 1989 novel Pledge of Allegiance) it hit me that Nazism was, in part, about idealism-run-amok.

**** That is, completely remaking his fiction (if not remaking fiction itself). Beat the rush, go to http://www.coldandalone.com and see if I'm wrong; the excerpt from "Hi Fi Queen" alone shows he's almost where he's headed, for the nonce. :) (Btw, of course he's "repeating himself": my money says he's reaching for his first full-length novel, and that's often done in several similar tries before the damned thing is ready to be born.)

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