Writing Likable Characters Isn’t The Goal
We're all told our characters should be "likable", but what if that shouldn't be the goal at all, but instead, make them relatable instead?
Why likability in the first place?
Firstly, I believe humans are inherently born wanting to be liked. Being “liked” kept us alive back in our early days, and survival was necessary. It also feels pretty damn good to be liked, as well. We feel like we belong; we’re apart of something and therefore-important. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be liked or writing a likable character; I’m not saying there is; what I am saying is this: likeability in your characters isn’t what matters. Why? Because our characters do not need to be liked by readers, they’re not sentient to our eyes upon them; they have no concept that their stories and personalities are being analyzed and scrutinized by millions of eyeballs. “But what’s wrong with me wanting my character to be liked by readers?” you ask? Nothing, but perhaps the focus on likeability isn’t where it’s truly at? Hear me out.
What's better than likability
One word: relatability. For example, the “Save the Cat” story is a perfect example of this. If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard of the “Save the Cat” beat sheet by Blake Snyder. I’m not sure exactly how this story goes, but the term came from an element of storytelling and characterization. The story goes like such: you’ve got yourself a miserable, ass-hat, unlikeable character who nobody in the story likes, and the readers hate him even more. Somewhere in the story, this character ends up doing something quite out of character. He saves a cat. Why is that important? It reveres him to the audience; it gives him a redeemable quality that we all can relate to. Who the hell doesn’t want to save a cat?
There's so much more
Thirdly, what’s even more relatable is all their internal conflicts and character arcs. This will only work if you combine your character’s unlikable traits with real, deep, profound internal struggles: heartbreak, childhood trauma, sexual abuse, a plane crash-it matters not. What matters is that this unlikeable character is CLEARLY suffering from something; otherwise, why are they such an asshole? It’s gotta be a clear cause and effect. The pain of heartbreak causes this character to be a raging bitch to the men she dates because she’s got a massive wall built up around her heart and cannot fathom opening it up to love again. Therefore, she’s unlikeable yet hella fucking relatable. When this character confronts her pain and opens up to love again, letting the pain and anger leave her in hopes of finding that love she truly longs for, is when the readers will truly love her.
Your Characters Should Be of the sentence.
Isn't plain old likability boring?
Personally, I think so. In terms of storytelling…ABSOLUTELY! “Why is being likable boring?” you ask? What’s another word for likable? Agreeable? Pleasant? Sweet-natured? Sure. The problem with that in storytelling is a lack of conflict. A lack of conflict is a huge problem in fiction. Additionally, conflict leads to tension, which heightens the stakes. I believe that our characters should be the driving force behind what happens to them, versus the plot happening to them and the characters simply reacting to it. When you’ve got a character with some unlikeable traits, it’s more in their character to cause conflict with other characters that aren’t the Antagonist. That character on character conflict is gooooolden, because naturally, humans (your audience) are inherently drawn to conflict.
Additionally, audiences enjoy characters that aren’t all that likable. Just look at the show “The Boys.” That show has so many unlikeable characters, who do some really, truly awful shit, but people still love them. It’s not about making these characters 100% black and evil; it’s about showcasing their humanity and heart and wounds bleeding wide open within them and finding these moments to reveal their “likable” sides to the audience. That’s what it’s about, not having this perfect little angel of a character who has positive traits. Bella Swan is a perfect example of why this doesn’t work. Geralt of Rivia from The Witcher is a perfect example of why unlikable characters are actually, ironically, likable. Sort of an oxymoron, but for the reasons I listed above, it works. It works really, really well.
In closing, I want to implore all my writers out there not to be afraid of creating and sticking to unlikable characters. Constantly, it’s shoved down our throats that we’ve GOT to make our characters likable, otherwise, our books won’t be read or beloved. Contrarily, we actually lose a lot more storytelling-wise than we gain from writing likable characters. I’m not saying your character should all be assholes, but they should have an air of realism to them. If you want to know more about writing grey characters, check out my blog on How to Write Grey Characters for more inspiration. Be fearless in your writing, and your authenticity will shine through no matter what character types you write.