1. greyhoody
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    greyhoody Member

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    Does a short story have to have likeable characters?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by greyhoody, Aug 19, 2009.

    I am just wondering do people think short stories have to have likeable characters or can they portray egotists, narcissists, the vacuous etc. as equally well as novels e.g. John Updike's Run Rabbit, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby or whatever comes to your mind?
     
  2. Gallowglass
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    Gallowglass Contributing Member Contributor

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    They can have those characters, but as you usually need to explain things which have made characters what they are then I'd think some careful planning of dialogue is needed so you can get that backstory across.
     
  3. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    They need to have interesting characters, not necessarily likeable ones. For example, you could have a truly obnoxious character who gets his comeuppance. But as long as the character is interesting, the readers will stay with you long enough to enjoy the way you put the squeeze on him.
     
  4. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Why? It's a short story. You need to keep a tight focus in a short story, and that often neither requires nor allows time to delve into how he or she became a particular way.
     
  5. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I'm with Cog, there's no need to explain why a character is the way they are. You don't need to know a person's history to understand them, just like when I meet someone in real life I don't need to know about their childhood to get a sense of them as a person.
    As for the original question, characters definitely don't have to be likeable, but you need to be able to empathise with them. I may hate a character with all my heart, but if I can understand what they're doing and why they're doing it, even if I don't agree with it/them, it is readable. So don't worry about making them likeable, worry about making them consistent and relatable.
     
  6. Kas
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    Kas Contributing Member

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    Or in other words, simply realistic. I'm not sure if 'relatable' is the ideal way to say it. I understand a number of people and views that I don't relate to at all. But so long as it is understandable, that's enough. I feel that 'realistic' and 'understandable' are virtually synonymous here.

    But my perception of fictional characters is a relection of my thoughts on humanity in general. . I think if you truly get to know a person--any person--you can understand him. I guess that comes from my interest in psychology, which is basically all about understanding our fellows, as well as ourselves. Thus, if your characters reflect reality, they will be understandable, or at least explainable.

    I think you do need to know why your character is the way he is, if you want to write something realistic/relatable/understandable. That said, you don't need to actually write any of this. The history and psychology is for you to know, and for the reader to ponder. Show, don't tell.;)

    Your knowledge will show itself in the writing, and bring your frankenstein monster to life. How hideous or marvelous your creation will be depends entirely on your comprehension.
     
  7. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    No, the characters do not need to be likeable. As was said, the story should be interesting.

    I had a short story published that I would dare say has no characters that would be considered likeable, especially the main/POV character: The Scene of My Second Murder

    Terry
     
  8. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    The most difficult part is building sympathy for the character. We have to feel something for him, or we might not give a rat's behind about what happens to him.

    In the Godfather, Mario Puzzo uses a great technique to gain our sympathy for a gangster. The technique is to make us feel for a good character, perhaps the daugheter of the MC. Because we feel for her and relate to her, when the arrogant MC is introduced you can shift the sympathy we have for the daughter to the MC. You could do this by having the girl get in trouble, and he wants to get her out of truble. He will do whatever it takes. We are rooting for him, not because we like him, but because we like his daughter.

    Another way to do it, is to give the MC likeable traits that we can relate with. Put him in a situation that drives sympathy. There is always a way to make readers sympathetic toward an unlikeable character.
     
  9. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I think you're confusing sympathy with empathy. I feel sympathy towards a man who is fighting to win the love of the woman of his dreams. I feel empathy for a terrorist who is fighting a holy war. You need readers to empathise, but not necessarily sympathise, with your characters.
     
  10. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i don't see why empathy would be needed for a story to be a compelling read... you do not need your readers to empathize with dastardly characters, for them to want to keep reading and find out what happens to them... and/or root for their comeuppance... i agree wholeheartedly with cog's take on this...
     
  11. sorites
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    sorites Senior Member

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    This is a great response.

    Actually, I think you have it backwards. If I'm reading about a man who wants to win a woman's love, I can empathize with that. I've been there, and I know what it's like to love someone and to want them to love you back. I can feel what the MC is feeling. I cannot empathize with a terrorist who kills innocents. Intellectually, I can understand the rationale for committing horrible atrocities against innocent people and I might even be able to sympathize with the cause if it is a just one. The terrorist is part of a minority who has had terrible things done to his people (ethnic cleansing, whatever), but that's sympathy. I feel bad for him because he and his people have be persecuted. That doesn't mean I can imagine myself in his shoes or that I really understand his anger. Now, maybe a good writer could manipulate me into empathizing with him, but just the flat concept of "terrorist" is not something I can empathize with.
     
  12. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Sympathy= (from dictionary.com)
    1. harmony of or agreement in feeling, as between persons or on the part of one person with respect to another.
    2. the harmony of feeling naturally existing between persons of like tastes or opinion or of congenial dispositions.
    3. the fact or power of sharing the feelings of another, esp. in sorrow or trouble; fellow feeling, compassion, or commiseration.
    If you can relate to the man in love because you've been there and know what its like, then you are sympathetic towards him (assuming you want him to succeed).

    empathy=(same source)
    1. the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
    I highly doubt any reader would sympathise with a gangster, or a terrorist, but assuming his character is well constructed and his motives clearly explained, its perfectly reasonable (and even expected) that you would empathise with him.

    It all comes down to how the author portrays the characters, I guess. And @maia, I would argue that you do need to empathise with a character in order to care about them. Isn't having empathy/sympathy for them implied in caring about them? If you can think of an instance where we are interested in a character without empathising with them, I would be interested to hear it.
     
  13. sorites
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    sorites Senior Member

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    Your mother dies, and you are sad about it. You have my sympathy. You are sad and because I am in harmony with your feeling, I am sad too. I may not be able to empathize with you. That is, it might not be possible for me to intellectually or vicariously experience your feelings of sadness. My mother is still alive so I do not truly understand what it's like for your mother to die.

    We see a bum on the street. He has my sympathy too, but I can't empathize with him either. I have never been homeless so I can not truly identify with his feelings brought on by his homelessness, not intellectually or vicariously. I do not know what it's like to be him, but I bet it sucks, so I sympathize with his plight.

    I might sympathize with an underprivileged minority too. They have gotten a raw deal in life, and they just can't seem to get a break. I might even secretly help them due to my sympathy for them. Again, I cannot empathize with them because I have never been in their situation or anything like it.
     
  14. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Back on topic, please.
     
  15. sorites
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    sorites Senior Member

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    To steer this thread back to the OP's discussion topic, I think that you are naturally more prone to sympathize with a likable character than one who is not.
     
  16. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    ^ which is where empathy comes in XD
    Empathy allows readers to understand and become interested in characters they do not like or agree with. If I was writing an essay about someone trying to bomb a bus, it would be a huge mistake for me to make that character sympathetic - if people like and relate to that character in a sympathetic way, my portrayal will have failed. If, however, the character is well constructed and I achieve the portrayal well, readers should empathise with him - that is, they should understand his motives, his way of thinking, and even though they find his actions abhorrent and him as a person intolerable, they have invested themselves in his story and, as it were, are living vicariously through him. This is empathy, and I think that the reason, for the OP, that characters need not be likeable is that a good writer will be able to make you empathise with the character regardless of the reader's personal opinions on that character (ie when they are unable/should not be expected to sympathise with them).

    (I hope this made the difference between empathy and sympathy clear, and also made it clear that having sympathy for someone in the way that it is commonly understood is not the same as sympathising with a character - I'll stick to the topic from now on.)
     
  17. sorites
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    sorites Senior Member

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    Setting the sympathy/empathy argument aside for the time being, I'll just respond to your example story.

    I don't think anyone is going to continue reading a story about someone they find intolerable and abhorrent if that's the long and the short of it. Even if you, as the author, can efficiently construct a character that illustrates *why* he does the terrible things he does, that's not going to be enough to keep a reader around.

    As a reader, I need to either like the character, or I need to be able to believe in what the character is doing. That doesn't just mean that it's believable or "in character" for them, but that I need to agree with it to some degree. I can't watch a baby eater eat babies all day long unless the baby eater feels terrible about it and wants to stop, but can't. Or he's doing it for a non-evil reason. Or whatever. I need to get behind the character.

    There has to be something about the character that makes me step back and say, "OK, this MC is completely off the charts F'd up, but for some reason, I can't stop reading." Take Mickey and Mallory Knox from Natural Born Killers. These are two twisted, murderous people that are despicable, terrible people, but they are not through-and-through terrible. We get to see the "good" side of them--their love and commitment to one another, their "cool" factor, their rebel attitude. They are actually quite likable. Like the people on the street who are interviewed..."I'm not for, you know, mass murder or whatever. But if I was a serial killer, I'd be Mickey and Mallory Knox."
     
  18. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I disagree, I think an interesting character, even if its one you don't like and don't agree with is enough to make you keep reading.
    Take Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis as a much less extreme example. Its about a kid who is completely self-obsessed, shallow and amoral who recognises that he and all his friends are terrible people but does nothing to change or challenge this. As a character, he isn't particularly likeable, and the way he acts...I don't think many people would support it. And yet his story is compelling because he is an interesting character, its interesting to see how he thinks, why he thinks that way and whether he will ever change, even though you don't like him or what he does. Through good character construction and good writing and empathy, a profoundly unlikeable character can produce an extremely interesting story.
     
  19. Kas
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    Kas Contributing Member

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    That is my reason to continue reading. Screwed up minds are fascinating, assuming the author knows his subject and knows how to write.
     
  20. Fox Favinger
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    Fox Favinger Contributing Member

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    I agree that a character does not have to be likable.

    I have a concept written down where the protagonist is a very dislikable person. He has an agenda, which is actually a likable goal. To find out how his childhood friend died and why. But he has no morals. Anything or anyone that gets in his way or may get in his way is disposed of. He is also a deceptive bastard and he uses innocent people to get what he wants.

    How I make him interesting is by making the supporting cast very dynamic. They will like him, try to reason with him, even fool themselves into thinking he cares about them! And then I show how he destroys and abuses them, all for his own gain. And of course I advance the story of his search.

    Maybe the reader will like my character because of his noble cause. Maybe they will hate him for his disregard for human life. I don't say he is Evil because evil is a subjective term, but I have fun letting the reader decide for me whether my character is evil or not. I don't really know myself or what I would do in his shoes, maybe I would be just as determined, maybe I would let it go. It's a fun concept to play with.
     
  21. sorites
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    sorites Senior Member

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    But didn't you actually kind of like the MC? I mean, he's a spoiled ass, sure, but since you got to know him, don't you kind of like him? Or when the book was over, you were like, Man, I really hated that guy. >(
     
  22. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I liked him less at the end than I did at the beginning, which I think was kinda the point of the novel, but I won't go into that here.
    And the fact that I didn't like him didn't make the story any less readable. Watching him deal with the decisions he makes and the way he chooses to live was still compelling because through reading I was able to empathise with him and become invested in him, which is still something different to sympathising with him and finding him likeable as a character.
     
  23. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i don't need [or want] to 'care about' bad guys, but that doesn't mean i'm not going to want to read about them...

    empathizing means being able to put yourself in that person's place and understand how they feel about things... and most of us can't and/or don't want to empathize with the hitlers, idi amins, iagos, and michael myerses of the real or imagined world...
     
  24. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    I agree with Sorites.

    Dr Hannibal Lecter, though, complete mad is a likable character. He's intelligent and kind. He has a lot of good traits. But he is also manipulative and evil. I think this makes him interesting.

    Micky, Natural Born Killers, has many good traits that make him likable.

    Dexter has traits that make him likable. One being his humor. And besides, he kills serial killers.

    Lestat has many likable traits.

    Hitler had likable traits. He was a gentlemen. Heck, he was even against animal cruelty, as long as they weren't humans.

    But a few likable traits might not be enough to keep us reading about a crazy killer. But if you can root for his good cause, you probably will. If the crazy killer is trying to save an innocent girl, or save the president, etc.
     

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