First, some quotes from storytelling gurus who are not writing specifically about children’s stories but about stories in general. Here we have Lena Dunham, who has no doubt noticed that female characters, like female people, are held to a higher standard when it comes to niceness:

“I sort of object to the notion that characters have to be likable. I don’t like most of my friends, I love them. And that’s the same way I feel about most of the characters I write. So often, women are sort of relegated to sassy best friend or ingenue or evil job-stealing biatch, and it’s really nice to work somewhere in the middle.

from Lena Dunham talking about Girls, quoted here.

Here’s John Yorke, from his book Into The Woods.

If it’s difficult to identify a protagonist then maybe the story is about more than one person (say East Enders of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts) but it will always be (at least when it’s working) the person the audience care about most.

But already we encounter difficulties. ‘Care’ is often translated as ‘like’, which is why so many writers are given the note (often by non-writing executives) ‘Can you make them nice?’ Frank Cottrell Boyce, a graduate of Brookside and one of Britain’s most successful screenwriters, puts it more forcibly than most: ‘Sympathy is like crack cocaine to industry execs. I’ve had at least one wonderful screenplay of mine maimed by a sympathy-skank. Yes, of course the audience has to relate to your characters, but they don’t need to approve of them. If characters are going to do something bad, Hollywood wants you to build in an excuse note.’

Next, Yorke talks about what another storywriting guru, John Truby, calls ‘psychological weakness’. This means: How is your character treating others badly? Apart from that, I don’t recall John Truby mentioning anywhere in Anatomy of Story the requirement that a main character be ‘nice’. That’s because it’s a non-requirement. John Yorke continues:

We don’t like Satan in Paradise Lost — we love him. And we love him because he’s the perfect gleeful embodiment of evil. Niceness tends to kill characters — if there is nothing wrong with them, nothing to offend us, then there’s almost certainly nothing to attract our attention either. Much more interesting are the rough edges, the darkness — and we love these things because though we may not consciously want to admit it, they touch something deep inside us. If you play video games like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (and millions do), then you occupy literal avatars that do little but kill, maim, destroy, or sleep with the obstacles in your path. We are capable of entering any kind of head. David Edgar justified his play about the Nazi architect Albert Speer by saying: ‘The awful truth — and it is awful, in both senses of the word — is that the response most great drama asks of us is neither “yes please” nor “no thanks” but “you too”? Or, in the cold light of dawn, “there but for the grace of God go I”.

The key to empathy, then, does not lie in manners or good behaviour. Nor does it lie, as is often claimed, in the understanding of motive. It’s certainly true that if we know why characters do what they do, we will love them more. However, that’s a symptom of empathy, not its root cause. It lies in its ability to access and bond with our unconscious. 

 

Robert McKee makes a distinction between empathy and sympathy, though I don’t personally find this distinction useful when it comes to creating a fictional character. However, he reassuringly agrees with John Yorke’s idea that the audience must bond with the audience on a deeper level:

The protagonist must be empathetic; he may or may not be sympathetic.

Sympathetic means likeable. … We’d want them as friends, family members, or lovers. They have an innate likeability and evoke sympathy. Empathy, however, is a more profound response.

Empathetic means “like me”. Deep within the protagonist the audience recognizes a certain shared humanity. Character and audience are not alike in every fashion, of course; they may share only a single quality. But there’s something about the character that strikes a chord. In that moment of recognition, the audience suddenly and instinctively wants the protagonist to achieve whatever it is that he desires.

The unconscious logic of the audience runs like this: This character is like me. Therefore, I want him to have whatever it is he wants, because if I were he in those circumstances, I’d want the same thing for myself.” Hollywood has many synonymic expressions for this connection: “somebody to get behind,” “someone to root for,” All describe the empathetic connection that the audience strikes between itself and the protagonist. And audience may, if so moved, empathize with every character in your film, but it must empathize with your protagonist. If not, the audience/story bond is broken.

Story

And this from an expert in the kidlit world. On likeability in children’s literature, Maria Nikolajeva writes:

Some contemporary characters in children’s fiction efficiently alienate the reader by being unpleasant and thus offering no clear-cut subject position. While Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, repeatedly described by the author as “disagreeable” in the beginning, quickly gains the reader’s sympathy, being an orphan and exposed to the adults’ indifference; a character staying unpleasant throughout the story may leave the reader concerned and even frustrated.

Nikolajeva also writes, “…children’s writers most often wish, probably for didactic purposes, to offer their readers a psychologically acceptable identification object.”

Children’s literature is different from adult literature in one main way: It has many gate keepers who are not the target audience. While publishers  of children’s literature most often very open to characters with strong psychological flaws (understanding the way story works), books then have to make it past parents, librarians and teachers, who may hold the view that young readers blindly follow in the footsteps of naughty fictional children. Unfortunately, these (often conservative) gatekeepers have a very real effect on what actually sells, which no doubt influences what is published to some extent.

Another difference between stories for children and stories for adults: There are perhaps more Great Gatsby books in the children’s literature arena. By that I mean, they ‘star’ a main character who is actually the least interesting person in the story. They walk around as avatars for the reader, and because readers are all different, this avatar is as featureless as possible.

The brother and sister who star in A Series Of Unfortunate Events are almost completely featureless. Daniel Handler even avoided telling us anything much about how these children looked. They are instead surrounded by very quirky characters.

Bella Swan of Twilight is the every  girl — white girl kind of pretty, who likes nothing out of the ordinary, and mooches along causing no real trouble for anyone. Instead, Bella Swan is surrounded by a supernatural, unfamiliar world full of evil and suppressed desires.

Greg Heffley is arguably one of the least interesting characters in Diary of a Wimpy Kid. His diary is a commentary on what everyone else is like rather than a psychoanalysis of himself. Greg is the every boy. (The every American mid-Western heterosexual able-bodied white boy.)

Anyone can see from reading reviews at Amazon and Goodreads that there is a swathe of the reading and book-buying public who do not like to read books with unlikeable characters. If they’re going to spend 300-600 pages with someone they want that someone to be the kind of character they’d happily invite over for a cup of tea. Their reasons for reading: To enjoy the experience.

Another type of reader doesn’t have this requirement. This kind of reader can sound a bit more hi-falutin because, after all, you can’t read a lot of the classics if you start with the requirements that your characters have to be likeable.

Here’s a brainstorm of what I personally ‘like’ in a character:

what-i-like-in-characters

James Wood makes clear his own position, criticizing the type of reviewer who seems to think that:

Artists should not ask us to try to understand characters we cannot approve of–or not until after they have firmly and unequivocally condemned them.

How Fiction Works

This definitely has me thinking about picturebooks, and how certain readers require that any wrongdoing in a picturebook must be punished, lest children think that it’s okay to steal hats, or whatever.

IN WHICH LIKEABILITY ABUTS FEMINISM

A few years after James Wood published How Fiction Works, novelist Claire Messud was asked by a journalist to comment on why the main (female) character in her novel The Woman Upstairs isn’t very likeable. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that her response to Publishers Weekly sounded so well-thought through it was almost prepared; after all, James Wood and Claire Messud are married. I think they may have discussed this issue at some point, with Messud adding to the conversation that female characters are judged more harshly for being unlikeable, as are women in real life.

Unlikeable The Problem With Hillary

Lena Dunham spoke on the issue of likeability after criticisms that her characters in Girls are unlikeable:

I sort of object to the notion that characters have to be likeable. I don’t like most of my friends, I love them. And that’s the same way I feel about most of the characters I write. So often, women are sort of relegated to sassy best friend or ingenue or evil job-stealing biatch, and it’s really nice to work somewhere in the middle.

from Lena Dunham, quoted here.

Lena Dunham

If we take the enduring success of books such as Lolita, it’s clear that in literary works — the kind that take years or decades to write — the kind that will get reviewed in major publications, you don’t have to write likeable main characters and you may still make your mark.

If you are a self-published author on Amazon, however, the nature of user reviews suggest that likeable main characters sell more copies.

And if you aspire to be a popular author for children, that likeable hero rule is even tighter… for better or for worse. In fact, even in popular Hollywood films heroes have to have a ‘moral weakness’. In other words, they have to be treating other people badly in some way (too tied to their job to spend time with family etc). But this does not seem to be a rule in children’s books, especially those for young readers. Heroes for children only need a ‘psychological weakness’ (shyness, anxiety, hyperactivity, a tendency to blurt out uncomfortable truths, trouble handing in homework, etc.)

How To Write A Likeable Hero

We identify most strongly with characters we feel sorry for, worry about, or like and admire.

— Michael Hauge

It’s not actually that hard. There is even a checklist. This is from David Freeman, John Truby, Robert McKee and Howard Suber:

Make them heroic.

“The hero doesn’t become a hero simply because he takes a stand against the villain; he becomes a hero because he stands for something. This can be justice, a cause, his family, friends, community, or nation. Invariably, while the villain stands for himself, the hero stands for something beyond himself.”

― Howard Suber, The Power of Film

That said, the underdog hero is super likeable and very successful in modern children’s literature. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is consistently at the top of the bestseller lists.

An underdog hero doesn’t start out wanting to save the world from evil — that would be a superhero — underdogs start the story responding to some strife, of which they are the victim. At some point in the story there will have to be a switch in attitude, though, when they become proactive rather than reactive.

Howard Suber also says that although stars of films tend to have sex appeal, characters in films who use their sex appeal to get ahead usually end up dead in the end. In children’s stories, the hero is usually unremarkable in looks — the ‘every child’. Before Kristin Stewart came to represent the character of Bella from Twilight, she was described in very generic terms. She was the ‘every girl’, with defining qualities to speak of. As unpopular as Bella is among certain, more critical, readers, she is also widely loved.

See: The Appeal of Dark, Paranormal Romance.

forrest gump ice creams

Main characters don’t tend to be super smart, either. In fact, it’s often the opposite. (Rain Man, Forrest Gump). We empathise with characters who have other, compensating qualities.

Make their virtues personal achievements rather than privileges.

Education works the same way — a likeable main character doesn’t have to be highly educated. Education isn’t a personal achievement (it’s a luck thing, mostly), so films don’t reward characters simply for them being educated.

Suber also points out that whereas people in real life aspire to being rich, in movies characters are punished for this. (Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard). Oskar Schindler is an example of a character who starts off wanting to be rich, but part of his character change is that by the end he’s no longer focused on riches. (He has therefore become a ‘better’ person.)

We know Draco Malfoy is no good as a person because he comes from a background of privilege.

We know Draco Malfoy is no good as a person because he comes from a background of privilege.

Make them self-sacrifice for the greater good.

“The hero generally gains little or no reward for his sacrifice — it is the community that gains. To the extent the hero does personally gain from his sacrifice, he ceases to be a hero and becomes simply a smart operator.

Sacrifice becomes sacred when it is truly selfless.”

― Howard Suber, The Power of Film

Put them in danger and make them experience pain and sorrow.

…for what they’ve gone through, and for their impending deaths.This is why when you’re writing a memorable story you need to really put your hero through the wringer. Do the worst possible thing. A lot of popular stories are pyrrhic victories, leaving the hero in a miserable state at the end. (It’s a myth that Hollywood films all have happy endings. Take a closer look!)

Make them loyal.

A likeable hero does not stab people in the back. They push back only as hard as they themselves have been pushed.

Cater to Audience Prejudices.

Suber is upfront about the fact that Hollywood writers and producers cater very much to a conservative, particular kind of audience. It helps if your hero is young. And their values need to concord with those of the majority of the audience.

Many of us are ageists when it comes to heroes — we often think of heroes as people who are beyond childhood but not yet into middle age.

Howard Suber, The Power of Film

There is troubling and enduring audience prejudice when it comes to children’s book heroes: The white, middle-class boy as the ‘universal child’. The myth of the universal child must be based on the idea that there is an archetype with which young readers of all backgrounds can relate. We therefore have books disproportionately full of such types.

This is related to the idea that only white boys can be funny, and a lot of the most popular children’s literature is funny: Children of colour can star in tragic stories. Girls can’t be silly.

This state of affairs is changing, but slowly.

Make them a good mediator.

The hero is almost always an intermediary, someone who mediates between different social groups, between man and nature, man and God, or some other constellation of forces. […] Villains, by contrast, are usually well-integrated into their communities, and are often members of its power structure. They belong: heroes don’t. […] To be an intermediary is to always be lonely, because you never truly belong. One of the recurrent paradoxes of heroes is that they so often successfully mediate between contending cultures or value systems, but they often cannot mediate between contending forces within themselves.

— Howard Suber, The Power of Film

Make them empathetic, not sympathetic.

Sympathetic means likeable. … We’d want them as friends, family members, or lovers. They have an innate likeability and evoke sympathy. Empathy, however, is a more profound response.

Empathetic means “like me”. Deep within the protagonist the audience recognizes a certain shared humanity. Character and audience are not alike in every fashion, of course; they may share only a single quality. But there’s something about the character that strikes a chord. In that moment of recognition, the audience suddenly and instinctively wants the protagonist to achieve whatever it is that he desires.

The unconscious logic of the audience runs like this: This character is like me. Therefore, I want him to have whatever it is he wants, because if I were he in those circumstances, I’d want the same thing for myself.” Hollywood has many synonymic expressions for this connection: “somebody to get behind,” “someone to root for,” All describe the empathetic connection that the audience strikes between itself and the protagonist. And audience may, if so moved, empathize with every character in your film, but it must empathize with your protagonist. If not, the audience/story bond is broken.

– Robert McKee, Story

Make them empathetic, but not too empathetic!

Audiences identify with a character based on two elements:

  1. Their desire — what they want to achieve in this particular story.
  2. The moral problem faced in this particular story.

The audience should not identify too much with the character because they will not be able to step back a bit and see how the hero changes and grows. Character change is what makes a story a story. If the reader/audience can’t see that, they’ll walk away dissatisfied.

Give them will-power rather than power.

1. The hero is better than the other people in the film, not because they possess more of the kinds of powers, but because they possess higher principles.

2. The hero is better than other people because they possess more of what, in the final analysis defines all heroes: will power.

 

HOW TO WRITE AN UNLIKEABLE HERO

In case I haven’t made my position clear, there is absolutely a need for stories with unlikeable heroes. Here’s how to do it properly, according to the story experts.

Surround them with characters who do love them.

A classic example of this is Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, who for some reason, hasn’t driven everyone away. If the other characters don’t mind her, we think as readers, she must be all right deep down, and we persevere through the story.

Gone_with_the_Wind_cover

If the hero is unlikeable, at least make them super competent.

If I generalise that heroes have to be somewhat likeable if you want to write a bestseller, there is one big caveat. The main character’s unlikeability is almost completely cancelled out if the main character is very good at what he does. (My use of ‘he’ is deliberate there, because it doesn’t apply to female characters quite so much. Compare and contrast Skylar and Walter White. Both are super good at what they do, but one of these characters was vilified by a bulk of the viewing audience far more than the other.)

From Steve Jobs, who was a petulant, entitled asshole who bullied employees and nearly destroyed his own company because of his immaturity…from his father he was taught that even the back of the cabinets – the parts people never saw – still mattered. Being a craftsman means caring about every part of what you do, not just the visible or superficial parts.

Great Lessons From Bad People

Steve Jobs

Make sure the audience understands motivation.

Even in a story with an initially likeable hero, this character often begins to act immorally—to do unlikable things—as he begins to lose to the opponent. What’s really important is that audiences understand the character but not necessarily like everything they do.

AS FOR CHILDREN’S LITERATURE SPECIFICALLY

There are few genuine distinctions between what sells in children’s literature and what sells to adults, not least because adults buy all the kidlit.

Children’s literature expert Maria Nikolajeva writes:

Some contemporary characters in children’s fiction efficiently alienate the reader by being unpleasant and thus offering no clear-cut subject position. While Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, repeatedly described by the author as “disagreeable” in the beginning, quickly gains the reader’s sympathy, being an orphan and exposed to the adults’ indifference; a character staying unpleasant throughout the story may leave the reader concerned and even frustrated.

Nikolajeva is perhaps offering a rather cynical view when she also says, “…children’s writers most often wish, probably for didactic purposes, to offer their readers a psychologically acceptable identification object.

THE REQUIREMENTS OF SHITTY TV SHOWS

This is where there’s a place for unlikeable characters.

  • Mindless
  • Irredeemable, flawed characters
  • You feel like you’re in a position to judge the people you’re watching. “Whatever I’ve got going on, it’s not that.”
  • Soapiness, melodrama
  • If they’re better than you, the characters have to be better in really sexy ways
  • Ridiculous salaciousness

as explained by Roxane Gay in  Nerdette podcast

SLIGHTLY RELATED LINKS

12 Great Movie Characters We Hate By The End Of The Movie from Film School Rejects

WOULD YOU WANT TO BE FRIENDS WITH HUMBERT HUMBERT?: A FORUM ON “LIKEABILITY” from The New Yorker AND Claire Messud to Publishers Weekly: “What kind of question is that?” Do you like Jonathan Franzen’s characters? David Foster Wallace’s? Roth? Then stop asking Claire Messud about hers, from Salon

I Like Likable Characters And I don’t like female novelists’ new method of dismissing other female writers, Slate

Female Protagonists: Do They Need to be Friend Material? from Writer Unboxed

Forcing Readers To Like Characters from Moody Writing