Do Your Characters HAVE to be “Likable?”

The answer is a resounding no. Here are some of the characters in books, movies, and TV shoes that we don’t like… but still manage to love.

Dr. House from House
Professor Snape from Harry Potter
Hatsumomo from Memoirs of a Geisha
Agent Smith in The Matrix
Meryl Streep’s character in August: Osage County
Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada.
Jake Gillenhaal’s character in Nightcrawler
Tyrion from Game of Thrones
Reese Witherspoon’s character in Wild
The writer in Californication
The commentator of Hunger Games
Walter White from Breaking Bad
Frank Underwood from House of Cards
The main character’s brother in Slumdog Millionaire

We could go on…

But instead, let’s look for some patterns that emerge in the list above. The characters we don’t like often fit in one or more of the following categories.

We don’t like the character, but…

… we respect them for their special skill set or outlook on life. (Tyrion from Game of Thrones, Dr. House from House)

… we feel sympathetic to them because their outer unpleasantness reveals a certain amount of inner pain. (Meryl Streep’s character in August: Osage County, the writer in Californication, Hatsumomo from Memoirs of a Geisha)

… we’ve developed a bond with them because we first met them before they went over to the dark side. (Walter White from Breaking Bad, Jake Gylenhaal’s character in Nightcrawler)

…there is something redeemable about them that we hope will overtake their evil side. If they undergo a redemption, it will give us hope that people can change. (Reese Witherspoon’s character in Wild, the main character’s brother in Slumdog Millionaire.)

…we like the author for nailing down personality traits in a way that feels real. (This one varies from person to person, so take your pick from any of the above.)

TV Tropes for unlikeable characters

TvTropes.org is a Wikipedia-style site that catalogs tricks of the TV-writing trade. Here are just a few examples on the site that show how people in the movie/TV world describe the traits of less-than-likable characters.

Writing Assignment: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Premise: It’s helpful to remember that bad traits can have a positive flip-side. And, good traits can have a downside. Think of the reasons people break up – they were attracted to someone’s ambition only to find out the person works all the time. Or they liked someone’s laid-back attitude only to find out the person is frustratingly lazy or doesn’t follow through on promises. The same is true for character traits. The things that bother us about unlikable characters can be the exact things we would like about them if they were less extreme or better controlled. Meanwhile, the thing that makes us like a character can get on our nerves if it becomes extreme.

Directions:
1. List five character traits that you like in a person, along with their potential downsides. Remember that the downside is often a more extreme version of the upside.
(Examples: Generous / bad With Money; Sweet / Pushover)

2. Then list five character traits you don’t like in people along with their potential upsides. Remember that the upside is often the better-controlled, less extreme version of the downside.
(Examples: Jealous / Attentive; Violent / Brave or protective of loved ones)

3. Now, pick a matched set of characteristics and write a character sketch of someone who embodies both the positive and negative trait. Tell us everything you can describe about this character that might be relevant to the story. They don’t actually have to do anything yet. A character sketch is just a description.

Note: This exercise can be great for those Dr. House type characters that we don’t like but do respect. It can also help you make your heroes more flawed and thus more human and relatable. After all, likeable doesn’t mean perfect.

Now, are you ready to take your characters to the next level?

Or, a better question might be: are you ready to dig down to the next layer?

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