1. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    unlikeable characters-beginners mistake or a brilliant move?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Tesoro, Aug 26, 2011.

    I read a book not too long ago where the main character were really unsympathetic, I couldn't find even one likeable trait in that person (and she also came off as quite unrealistic to me) and even the author said somewhere (perhaps on her blog discussing that book) that her character was not very easy to like and I wonder - Is that very clever? Doesn't the mc have to have something - at least some trait we can sympathize with, in order for us not to feel disappointed with the book afterwards? Is this commonly used? Because I have never read a book where I felt such antipathy towards that mc as in this one. I mean, it was not the fact that she was like a blank canvas, that you could apply whatever characteristic you wanted her to possess, no she was downright unlikeable.
    Do the mc's have to have traits that make us sympathize with them or can they be unlikeable like that?
    Another thing that annoyed me was that the author let the other characters in the book like her despite that and it was almost as if she was trying to make her come out as perfectly normal and even trying to make us look up to her... and that she found out only after the book was published that people didn't like her character. I don't know what to think after having read that, that goes against everything I thought I knew. I mean, what is the purpose of writing a book about someone like that? then why would I care what happens to her? And even that happy ending felt a little undeserved if you ask me.
     
  2. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    No, they don't have to. I read a book that was quite good not long ago where the MC doesn't have a single redeeming quality. There is just no way to like him in any regard whatsoever. It was a very good book and I wasn't disappointed with it at all.

    And no other characters in the book liked the MC either, as I recall.
     
  3. NikkiNoodle
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    NikkiNoodle Active Member

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    Scarlett O'Hara. Terrible person for the most part, and there were times when I wished she was real and standing next to me so I could slap her. LOVED the book.
     
  4. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    Steerpike: I don't know what you read but I can imagine this could work with a thriller/action/mystery/suspence-based novel, but this was supposed to be a romantic novel... which to me only make it worse.
    Nikki: I still have to read that one, I have recently gotten my hands on it, so i will:)
     
  5. jpeter03
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    jpeter03 Member

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    One very effective technique that great writers use is to play with the reader's preconceived notions about the characters. At the start of any story the reader has an impulse to empathize and identify with the main character/narrator although their opinion may quickly change. There are also those instances where a skillful author will take an "unlikable" character and influence the reader to sympathize despite themselves. In addition to that, having an unreliable narrator may add an element of interest to a story.

    So no, there is certainly no rule set in stone and having an unlikeable main character can be a very effective device if used correctly.
     
  6. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Tesoro: this was a fantasy novel. There were times I hoped someone would kill the MC, or at least beat him to a pulp. Horrible guy.
     
  7. The-Joker
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    The-Joker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Unless you're exceptionally skilled, more likely than not it would be a beginner's mistake, and not a brilliant move. One of the things that binds a reader to a book is the empathy evoked by the main character. If you create a character devoid of any good traits you've throw away a major draw card. I've started a few books where I immediately disliked the MC. I didn't finish any of them. It's a huge gamble to create an unlikable main character.
     
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  8. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    That is exactly what I thought too (and still think).
     
  9. WriterDude
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    WriterDude Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think the important part is to flesh out a character and avoid getting him/her a 2D cardboard. But that said, I think making the character easy to like is similar to giving the story a happy ending. It's strictly not necessary, but more people will like the story if you do. People in general expect a happy ending, and they expect to root for the MC. That's hard to do if the MC is as total a-hole. ;)

    Of course, if you give the MC a reason to act like that, it's a different matter. Plus, he/she can be surrounded by likeable side-characters to balance things.
     
  10. Trish
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    Trish I've been deleted.. again Contributor

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    I don't see a problem with it. Perhaps the reader continues to read it because they're hoping the MC gets what they perceive should be coming to them, or that they'll see the error of their ways, or that maybe there will be some twist and they'll learn that the MC had reasons for acting that way and was right all along. Does this require skill? Of course it does, but lets be honest, writing of any kind requires skill and dedication to be any good and if having an "unlikeable" character as your MC serves your story best, you should write it that way.

    As for it being a romance, I don't see the problem with that either. People fall in love every day. I often see couples fall in love that make absolutely no sense to me. That literally leave me with my mouth hanging open going 'Whaaaa?'. People find things in other people that they are missing, or see things in other people that they need, or find people that make them feel needed, or fall in love with the people that they think "get them" irregardless of whether or not that makes sense to anyone else. Make it make sense and it doesn't matter if neither one of them is likeable. As long as it makes sense for them to be together, as long as they are each getting something out of it and you can make the RELATIONSHIP development interesting you can make it work. You can make people love to hate them.
     
  11. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Empathy is very different from sympathy. Some ways, as in completely the opposite. You'd have a valid point if you were talking about sympathy, as others are. If a story is written with a style that is supposed to be sympathetic, then an unsympathetic character is obviously bad. But when it comes to empathy, sympathetic traits have little to do with it. A good, empathetic story about an unsympathetic character can work fine, and the reader will still be compelled and connected to the story and character.

    In fact, many would argue sympathetic writing can only take a story so far. It's the kind of thing we see over and over in fiction that ends up cliche and expected. Even many popular, best-selling books have characters that are sympathetic to such extremes they're two-dimensional and will bore many more refined readers with deeper expectations in fiction.

    Empathetic writing, on the other hand, rarely feels cliched or expected because instead of writing about a character, which requires sympathy for the reader to maintain interest, one writers through a character, bringing their perspectives and experiences to life. Even if you don't like a character, it can still be equally (or more) fascinating understanding them, seeing through their eyes, walking in their shoes, etc.

    And, in the eternal business vs. art debate, the type of fiction that relies on a sympathetic style is often the best-selling, mass-produced sort of fare, while the empathetic approach is more often used by literary or award-winning sort of writers (or those trying for that). It doesn't make either right or wrong, of course, it's just a difference in styles. A crucial difference, though, as an unsympathetic character in a genre where sympathetic characters are expected won't be very successful, usually.

    The best example of an unsympathetic character I can think of is from the short story by William Gay called "Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You" that has a character high on meth, drunk, who steals the corpse of his ex-girlfriend, who we learn went down a bad road because the character got her into drugs and worse... and in the end when he's being beaten to death we still don't have a shred of sympathy for him, but the ending is incredibly moving because something stronger is at play: we understand the complexity and nuance of why he did what he did, and that maybe it's not as easy as him simply being evil or bad.
     
  12. jwatson
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    jwatson Active Member

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    Any character is likable in their own way, IMO.

    I think there are methods to create some kind of bond between the reader and the character, even if he/she is not likable. You can care about whether or not they succeed in what they are trying to achieve. That does not necessarily depend on if you like the character or not.

    If one has an appreciation for the craft of writing, I think they can tolerate an unlikable character.

    Just to be safe, I would try and give at least one or two likable traits to the character. Anyone watch that movie with Johnny Depp? Public Enemy? He was a thief who killed people and started gun fights on the streets. How many of us were upset with what happened in the ending? IDK, maybe that was just me. The reason for that was that he stole from the rich, not the poor, or from banks. Kind of like Robin Hood. Perhaps you should try something like that.
     
  13. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    You are right, and I don't say they need to be all likeable and nice and just the kind of person you would want as a friend either. Just that there has to be something that make you care about what happens to them, I think.

    Unfortunately that is true, i often get that feeling too :D

    You're right, i guess I got klind of confused about the two as well.
    I guess this novel was just poorly written, then, because I didn't feel neither sympathy nor empathy for this mc. there was nothing to make you care about her at all, that is why the happy ending left me a little unsatisfied, because you want people to get what they deserve, at least in fiction novels even if not in real life...
    I'm not saying that a mc has to be the kind of person that everybody loves, that has no enemies and so on, because that is pretty nauseating, actuaLLY. But even someone you dislike can still fascinate you, and make you care, even at a distance, to what happens to them.

    yes, it just takes a good development of that character then, and to make sure he/she is if not likeable so at least fascinating, and i think it is where this author failed.that mc was so boring it almost made me cry, but that too seem to be somewhat of a signum of that author. her characters are always too damn normal that it makes them boring as hell which ruins every good story theme she might have.


    I agree. I have read of similar characters, true life stories too, ┬┤to make things worse,and they were really moving even though or maybe because the characters were so unpleasant you'd wish it was fiction...
     
  14. CosmicHallux
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    CosmicHallux Senior Member

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    I wonder about this too. I've read in a writing book (I think it was The Art of War for Writers) that the reader has to have some reason to want to spend hours of her life tagging along with the MC. I think the author might have used friendship or some tangible human relationship as his analogy. It seems like it would help if the MC was likeable.

    However, some people spend hours or even years of their lives, voluntarily, with terrible people. Also, some people even pay money to spend time with prostitutes who they probably do not genuinely like and are not emotionally bonded with. Some people will sit through the most boring conversations because they are anticipating some other reward. My point is, that I can see how a reader could stick with an MC through the whole novel, because of other motivations. But it doesn't seem as common or likely.

    I've found myself continuing to read just to see what horrible thing will happen to the boring/annoying MC, even though I don't really like thriller/horror stuff. But I doubt that I would sit through a whole novel for that.
     
  15. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    exactly, that is why at least i choose someone that interest me and that i care for when I have the possibility (=when deciding on a book to read). There are enough annoying people in real life... :rolleyes::rolleyes:
     
  16. The-Joker
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    And yet I think sympathy and empathy overlap. You cannot identify with what a character is feeling (empathy) if the characters actions aren't motivated by something essentially within the boundaries of good. A main character who kills people because he enjoys the sound of their gurgling screams as he slits their throats. There's no empathy there. No writer can create an empathic connection between the reader and character if the character's actions are irredeemably evil. You can still create a compelling character, but empathy has nothing to do with it.

    For empathy to exist, the reader must be able understand the origin of this evil, and in some way, accept it and sympathize. In your short story Leonard is pushed into insanity by the death of his girlfriend, and the overwhelming guilt he feels for his role in that death. Guilt is a good trait, and when interwoven with his depraved behavior makes his actions understandable. We do in fact feel sorry for him because we know he is a product of his guilt.

    So the point is, Yes, I was and still am referring to empathy and not sympathy, and I still believe some redeeming qualities are required for empathy.
     
  17. Trish
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    Trish I've been deleted.. again Contributor

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    I know this wasn't directed at me at all, but I have to disagree anyway. Sorry. Most certainly your character that murders people simply to hear the screams has a reason for this, and even if it is only that some mental illness makes the screams sound like music to him, I, personally, could empathize with that type of character if his reasons made sense - to HIM. If you can make me UNDERSTAND, I can hate him and yet still get something out of it, still want to know, still empathize, even as I want him stopped, want him dead, want his heart ripped out with a blunt spoon if that's all that's handy. That is NOT sympathy, it is empathy. It is knowing where he is coming from. I don't have to feel sorry for him to do that.
     
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  18. The-Joker
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    The-Joker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Okay, I concede defeat. :D

    I got caught up in the semantics, and as such my logic blurred. However the point remains. It's far more difficult following a character you despise than one you don't. This might work for a short story, but in a novel it can get quite tiresome.
     
  19. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    If you like fantasy, try out Monument, by Ian Graham. The guy is unlikable. You don't ever really identify with him or understand why he's that way or have any sympathy for the guy. But it works well. A good read.
     
  20. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    maybe it also has something to do with what you want from a book. If you want to understand, a totally unsympathetic character can work just as fine, maybe even better. if you wanna be entertained you might look for another kind of character, a little uncomprehensible and mysterious even though not evil. if you want emotions/romance I think you definitely want a character to like and root for.
     
  21. Heather
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    Heather Contributing Member

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    Personally, I think the MC has to have something about them which makes them interesting to me, otherwise I have very very little interest in the book. I'm not saying they have to be good characters (take American Psycho, for example), they just have to have something about them, likeable or not, which makes you interested in them and why they are doing something.

    We had to read Ian McEwan's Enduring Love in first year Lit, and I found the MC the most irritating person, and I felt as thought I actually couldn't care less what happened to him, which in turn left me uninterested in the story. As I say, you don't have to like them, but you have to care about what happens to them, or you won't care about the book.
     
  22. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    completely agree with you! :)
     
  23. Trish
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    Trish I've been deleted.. again Contributor

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    That was way too easy :p

    I don't know, I could read a whole novel like that. Maybe it depends on the kind of person you are? I like things to be interesting more than I like them to be just entertaining (though to me interesting is entertaining I guess). I want to be engaged and invested, I want my brain to work, more than I want my brain to stuff itself on the written form of cotton candy or marshmallow fluff. Maybe that's just me though.
     
  24. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    My brain is already doing a serious amount of work during the day that i need the reading to relax from all the thinking for a while.
     
  25. Trish
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    Trish I've been deleted.. again Contributor

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    As I said... maybe it's just me.
     

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