Sep 24, 2015

The Unlikable Character

Several years ago, while teaching a workshop on unlikable characters, I was asked this question about an unintentionally unlikable hero in a romance writer's work in progress: 
Do you find that when no one likes the hero, it is due to situational plot events or more about the writer's characterization and the character's personality traits?
The answer I gave in that workshop was this:

I think you can make any situational plot event work if you motivate it well enough.  I also think that unlikable characters (whom we don’t intend to be unlikable) come across that way because we write reactions and dialogue for them that seems childish or irrational to editors and readers. 

One reason this happens is that we create conflict based on a simple misunderstanding -- one that could be cleared up with one real conversation between the characters. 

Several years ago, I critiqued a story in which the heroine traveled across country to take over some property she’d inherited. Because of a misunderstanding she had ignored the relative who left the property to her for years and he had died without family around him. This isn't an unusual setup for a romance novel. It's familiar, tried and true, and there's nothing wrong with it. 

The hero in this story had cared deeply about the heroine's relative and was angry with her for ignoring the poor old guy. She arrived in town, and he immediately began to mistreat her without ever once discussing the situation with her or telling her why he was angry. Instead of confronting her and saying, “Why did you ignore poor old Uncle Felix?" he jumped from one conclusion to another about the heroine as the scenes progressed. As a result, it didn’t take long for me to decide I didn't like him. 

Thinking back, I can say that his anger was actually motivated well enough, at least well enough to propel the story through the first few chapters, but it was the fact that he roared through each scene without making any reasonable attempt to find out the truth that made him so unlikable to me. Far from wanting the hero and heroine to end up together, I was waiting for her to tell him to take a hike. 

Another cause of unintentionally unlikable characters is when we put motivation into the story but choose the wrong details to share with the reader. As a result, the motivation is unclear to anyone who hasn't read all your notes or who doesn't approach the world from the same place you're standing.

It’s not what happened to the character that matters so much. It's how the event affected him and why it did. Ten different people can go through the same experience and emerge with ten different reactions.What devastates one person will be a joke to another. Their reactions will be based upon childhood experiences, values and standards taught by parents, religious beliefs, political beliefs, and a whole slew of other things. 

Driving motivation is usually based on the character’s deepest fears, and it’s those human fears that create reader identification. 

Let’s say I want to write about a bad boy hero who comes home again after twenty years.  He’s cocky and he’s short-tempered, and he’s rude to people.  He was in trouble all through high school for being belligerent and fighting.  I decide to motivate his youthful attitude by saying .... what?

Let's say that the other kids laughed at him for having a big nose or big ears, or for limping, or for any other physical challenge such as wearing glasses. 

Kids can be mean, and knowing that he was laughed at by the other kids creates a tiny spark of identification with the reader. But it's still not enough to hook a reader so thoroughly that s/he will excuse the hero's current behavior.

Our characters need to be vulnerable on some level. Unless they are, readers may have trouble identifying. 

But if I explain that our hero's father called him ugly as a small boy, that his mother ran off with another man when the hero was a child, and that he has never been able to keep a long-lasting relationship, all of which fuels his secret fear that there's something seriously wrong with him, I'll have a better chance of convincing readers to understand what he does and why. A well-motivated hero will be able to get away with a lot of “bad” behavior if the reader understands what he’s secretly afraid of. 

Bottom line, when a character is unintentionally unlikable, the fault probably lies in characterization and personality traits rather than situational plot events.

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Dancing on Coals Online Workshops
http://www.dancingoncoals.com

photo credit: You gonna get punched! via photopin (license)

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