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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » likeable vs unlikeable vs interesting MC

   
Author Topic: likeable vs unlikeable vs interesting MC
rcmann
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I just got a story rejected because the protagonist was "thoroughly unlikeable". Which is fine, I wasn't writing her as a creampuff. She's tough, self-sufficient, and not above playing dirty to gain an advantage for the people she cares about.

But that added up to a lost sale for me. My question is, how likeable does a hero(ine) need to be? Does the reader *have* to either identify with them? Either that, or hate them as a villain and want to see them get what's coming to them? (Which I can't write well yet.)

Is it sufficient to have a protagonist that is merely interesting? What are the critically important aspects of a MC?

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Jess
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Brandon Sanderson has some lectures up from his BYU creative writing class. He addresses this issue. If you youtube "Brandon Sanderson Sympathetic Characters". He creates a list of things all characters should have to make them sympathetic, even if they aren't likeable.
I struggle with this too because one of my main characters is a bit cocky and most people don't like him.
Hope the video helps.

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babooher
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Look at the character of Natch from the Jump 225 series by David Louis Edelman. Many people found him unlikeable. Still an awesome series.
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extrinsic
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Readers want to identify with characters who represent their ideals and belief systems. Writing a character who runs counter to reader expectations fails from being someone who readers will not associate with in real life. Too selfish, too selflessly noble, too capable, too weak, too strong, too lucky, too high maintenance, too needy, and so on, and readers sense this is someone who is not respectable thus not their kind. Great for antagonist villains and nemeses though.

At core, a character with a readily identifiable-with major problem wanting satisfaction is at least an empathy-worthy character, if not a sympathy-worthy character. Antihero literature poses a selfish villain as a hero through the individual's selfless, noble acts, for example. Balanced and contentious selfishness, self-reliance, interdependence, and selflessness is a key to likeable, socially identifiable-with characters.

[ June 25, 2012, 08:20 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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MattLeo
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Jess brings up an important point: the distinction between likable and sympathetic. I'd extend this dichotomy slightly to add extrinsic's point: identification, which can often feel like likability but I'd argue is a somewhat different.

Our old standby, Sherlock Holmes, illustrates this. Every Sherlockian would love to *be* Holmes, but not many would relish being Watson and having to put up with that misanthropic wight. The desire to be Holmes feels a lot like liking him, but his unlikability is part of the fantasy. Holmes is so brilliant the normal rules of acceptable social intercourse don't apply to him.

Of course identification comes in a different flavor from hero-identifiation; it comes in the anti-hero flavor. But you can imagine stories written from Moriarty's viewpoint which make him out to be just as unlikable and far less noble than Holmes, yet still someone you'd like to be on some level.

Another thing you can do is make your protagonist complex enough that people see things they like and things they don't like, and want to see how that will play out. That's not so common in genre stories which tend to have idealized protagonists, albeit with a few token faults. Arguably Holmes falls into this category of multi-faceted protagonist, although clearly he's not a realistic figure.

You can write characters who show a spark of promise but repeatedly fall short, and one reason to read on is to find out whether he'll learn his lesson, or get his comeuppance.

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rcmann
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Not so easy to achieve in a short story. My protagonist is dirt poor. Her sister needs something. Not life threatening, but critically important for her education. There is a rich and thoroughly despicable merchant who has what the sister needs. So my MC decides to scam her. Things go wrong, there is a struggle. The MC tries to abandon the scam and escape, with the merchant in pursuit. The merchant gets *accidentally* killed. My MC snags the item and runs, setting a fire to hide the evidence. She takes the item home to her sister and goes after a drink.

OK. I grant she isn't a sweet person. How would you make an MC like that be more sympathetic?

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extrinsic
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I identify more with Holmes than Watson due to Watson giving Holmes grief for his social ineptitude and because Holmes is a sympathy-worthy misfit, thus portraying private and public larger-than-life dramas. Watson is somewhat sympathetic from loyaly standing by his difficult friend. Watson is also more fully developed a character than Watson.

First-person narrators taking second fiddle to other characters marks artful writing about others to access writing about first persons. Writing the other is one of Jerome Stern's story shapes discussed in Writing Shapely Fiction. The interplay between characters reveals at least as much about the narrator's character as about the other. One of the major challenges for developing narrators is developing narrator identity within the persons, moment, settings, and events of the unfolding action. Arthur Conan Doyle masterfully rises to that challenge.

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MattLeo
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quote:
I identify more with Holmes than Watson due to Watson giving Holmes grief for his social ineptitude and because Holmes is a sympathy-worthy misfit,
Both sympathy-worthy and rewarding to sympathize with...

Also, Doyle doesn't just churn out story after story in which the characters are exactly the same. He shades the characters in over time and we see that Holmes isn't quite the inhuman thinking machine Watson initially took him to be.

rcmann -- we need to know more about how you depicted the character of your protagonist. Feel free to send me your MS and I'll take a look at it. I don't have anyone waiting on critiques at the moment (a rare thing).

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by rcmann:
Not so easy to achieve in a short story. My protagonist is dirt poor. Her sister needs something. Not life threatening, but critically important for her education. There is a rich and thoroughly despicable merchant who has what the sister needs. So my MC decides to scam her. Things go wrong, there is a struggle. The MC tries to abandon the scam and escape, with the merchant in pursuit. The merchant gets *accidentally* killed. My MC snags the item and runs, setting a fire to hide the evidence. She takes the item home to her sister and goes after a drink.

OK. I grant she isn't a sweet person. How would you make an MC like that be more sympathetic?

Seems to me the main character must commit a noble sacrfice, a self-sacrificing, selfless act for pennance on par with the crime. That might take some setup. The robbery and killing crimes' fallout might be the main problem wanting satisfaction. Say she strives to avoid being caught but realizes along the way that struggle is more about avoiding self-admitting personal responsibility than not getting caught. Society is to blame, not me, she believes. So she doesn't deserve punishment or readjustment.

Where have I heard that before? Surely not in current events.

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rcmann
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Actually, it's an alternate fantasy universe. Quasi-medieval level. The MC is a peasant yeoman (yeowoman?) while the merchant is well-to-do. Not noble, but connected to nobility. The merchant is also far from admirable herself. The MC doesn't see scamming her as a crime, since she routinely cheats and extorts the peasants in the area for her own benefit. The killing was an *accident*, not murder. She only set the fire because in her kingdom 'justice' and 'peasant' are mutually exclusive terms.

It's possible I didn't exposit that sufficiently in the story. Is exposit a verb?

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extrinsic
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"Exposit" is a transitive verb.

"The MC doesn't see scamming her as a crime, since she routinely cheats and extorts the peasants in the area for her own benefit. The killing was an *accident*, not murder. She only set the fire because in her kingdom 'justice' and 'peasant' are mutually exclusive terms."

Robin Hood, huh? The likeability of the Robin Hood myth is he stole from the rich to give to the poor. Social responsibility akin to welfare taxes and entitlement programs. When an individual engages in social welfare it's akin to self-serving vigilante-ism, filling one's own pockets by justifying doing it for someone else's good.

[ June 25, 2012, 11:31 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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LDWriter2
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I've noticed that there are many likable rogues who do things like steal, cheat etc., it depends on who they steal from and/or cheat and why. Do they also help those in need or save someone from a bully while they are cheating someone? Or are they just mean?

Robin Hood might be the most famous. There's one in Lisa Shearin's novels. The MC's family are pirates, the most famous and feared of them all. They don't go out of their way to kill and they aren't into torture but you better not leave any valuables around. There's a series I read where the MC has killed, fights dirty, has been an enforcer, collects money from illegal activities but still she watches over a city and protects it and only really goes after those who try to harm her or her city. But against those she is ruthless and even a touch cruel at times.

Can't think of any more at the moment but some readers don't seem to like any type of rogues.

Yours doesn't sound all that bad to me. There might be things you didn't include in your short synopses that would change my mind but so far it sounds like I could enjoy the story.

There have been MCs I haven't really liked but sometimes I keep reading anyway because the story is interesting and/or I want to see if I keep disliking the MC.

And I really don't know about exposit.

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MattLeo
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Sounds to me like the problem is that the MC doesn't really have any agency in the solution to her problem, she just lucks out because the merchant is accidentally killed. It's not the scammer being scammed, or the underdog turning the tables, but the underdog getting lucky. I know it is shallow, but people more readily identify with success than with misfortune. Studies show that bullies enjoy enhanced social standing and their victims standing drops like a stone because people around them don't want to catch victim germs.

So you're setting the bar very high for getting people to identify with your MC. You can't take it for granted that readers will root for the underdog; almost nobody does that unless they expect an upset win. What you've given her is more of a victory by forfeit, confirming suspicions that she's a loser. (speculation of course as I haven't actually read your story)

There are tricks and techniques you can use to build sympathy, but no "save the cat" moment is going to turn things around if the MC is a victim. You can't count on readers instinctively standing up for the downtrodden, because most people instinctively stand up for winners.

Now as for Robin Hood, he makes my case. I've read one of the earliest Robin Hood legends in which he murders a young Norman page for no particular reason at all other than he was traveling with his wealthy master. It was presented as a very jolly thing. There was no mention of giving to the poor. He robbed rich people because they had money and he didn't.

Now think about the modern, post Errol Flynn legend. Now he's no longer a dirty Saxon brigand, but a Norman knight cheated out of his inheritance (which of course was in turn stolen from the Saxons, but we aren't supposed to think about that). He's not even a proto-socialist redistributing wealth from the societal superstructure to its base, not any more. He's a *victim* who's fighting back. Oh, and his Merry Men are protesting excessive taxes -- and since they pay taxes they're not peasants, but must be yeoman farmers, tradesmen and merchants. So it's all about taxes as theft and we're not expected to empathize with anyone unfortunate enough to be a peasant.

The one constant in Robin Hood's various incarnations is that he's a winner, and he wins through his decisive and clever actions. Over the years he's been scrubbed and dolled up in green tights so he's not too threatening to be presented in polite company, but underneath it all is the eternal admiration of power.

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extrinsic
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Also, since the Emcee nobly scams for her sister's benefit, for that to have meaning, it must come with costs and cosequences. Sitting down and having a drink after scamming, killing, and setting a fire seems to me an incomplete ending.

The very rules of the imagined world require individual exacting of justice. Wouldn't the merchant's people seek to catch the culprit? No poetic justic outcome per se required, good rewarded and evil punished, but a final, unequivocal, irrevocable outcome of the precipitating events is.

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rcmann
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I can see from the comments that I haven't done a good job of describing the story. If anyone is interested in reading it, I'd be happy to email a copy. All feedback is welcome. Reciprocity is a given.
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MAP
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Okay, I've got some thoughts on how to make your MC more likeable.

1. When a character does unseemly things, she needs it to be for a noble cause. Make sure there is a good reason why her sister needs whatever she is trying to con from the merchant. If it is just a trinket that the sister fancies, it's not going to fly. It needs to be something big that will save the sister from some horrid fate to get the reader on her side.

2. It almost seems like you (the writer) are protecting the character from the consequences of her actions with the accidental death. Readers don't like characters who get help from the writer god. If you are going to have your character do something that is wrong, don't shield her from the consequences of it. Make her pay some sort of price, and the audience will sympathize with her. Make her sacrifice something to get whatever her little sister needs, and the readers will love her.

Just my two cents. take it or leave it. [Smile]

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Meredith
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First of all, kudos for getting the feedback. That's not all that common.

Second, try listening to this interview with Dan Wells . If he can make a sociopath sympathetic, he must know something on the subject. [Smile]

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Robert Nowall
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I've had it come up in relation to my work, and have made an effort to avoid it---but I can't say what makes a character unsympathetic. My characters don't go around conquering the world or kicking kittens, but that's not enough to make them sympathetic in the eyes of the reader.
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MartinV
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Please don't make adorable characters just to get the audience to love them!

Think about who's the most likeable character in Game of Thrones: for most people it's Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf drunk slash whoremonger. He's not pretty or goodly good but he's still likeable.

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rcmann
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I couldn't make an adorable character if I wanted to. All my characters are composites of real people I have known, and the only adorable ones are less than a year old.
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Robert Nowall
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Offhand...well, the comment on Game of Thrones reminds me...I haven't read any of that, but I read a lot of George Railroad Martin's stuff that came before, and, again offhand, his characters never really came off as particularly likeable. In fact, they were often jerks.
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mayflower988
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[QUOTE]Originally posted by MAP:
1. When a character does unseemly things, she needs it to be for a noble cause. Make sure there is a good reason why her sister needs whatever she is trying to con from the merchant. If it is just a trinket that the sister fancies, it's not going to fly. It needs to be something big that will save the sister from some horrid fate to get the reader on her side.

I hate to make this reference at the risk of sounding like a pop-culture droid, but this makes me think of The Hunger Games. Katniss, the MC, volunteers for the kill-or-be-killed Game because she wanted to save her sister. Those books do make you wrestle with that issue, but my point is that Katniss didn't go into it wanting to kill people. And the author references that throughout the story to keep Katniss's motivation at the front of the reader's mind. That is what makes her likeable.

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LDWriter2
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I came back here because I recently recall done book I stopped reading because of the MC. There's another one where the MC was a factor but it was the only main reason I stopped reading that one.

But this book a UF CSI tale. The concept sounded very interesting and entertaining, Even though I haven't watched the TV CIS-s I know the concept even though I have watched previous CSI-s before that term became popular so they were called something else.

Anyway, the UF CSI had a lousy MC, from my point of view anyway. Seemed like most of the action had nothing to do with CSI work and she was a B... About half way through the book when out of no where she smoked crack to relax I put the book now. That was the last straw. There are too many thing for me to list or by now remember of why I didn't like her and the dislike kept growing but as I said that was the final action.

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rcmann
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If I understand correctly, it sounds like the MC was inconsistent. A CSI investigator is a cop. A cop who uses crack to relax is a villain, not a protagonist.
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MartinV
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So when George Clooney's character in ER smoked a joint, he immediately turned into a villain, even if he saved a boy's life ten seconds later?
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rcmann
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Doctor's don't take an oath to uphold the law.
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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by rcmann:
If I understand correctly, it sounds like the MC was inconsistent. A CSI investigator is a cop. A cop who uses crack to relax is a villain, not a protagonist.

Sherlock Holmes injected cocaine. I know it wasn't illegal at the time, but it was depicted as a purely self-indulgent, unhealthy and altogether abominable thing. In any case he and Watson did plenty of illegal things.

As for illegality, would you say that a US Marshall who turned a blind eye to slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad was automatically a villain because he was not upholding the law? Writing off lawbreakers is tantamount to writing off anyone who has conflicts of duty. If that is the rule, then to be sympathetic a character must be a sterling straight arrow who always follows the law or a lovable rogue who always disregards it. There's no room for characters who are conflicted.

No, I think the problem with the crack-smoking cop is credibility. Most of us don't have direct experience with crack, but it is depicted in the media as the tool of the Devil, an irresistible corrupter that inevitably debases anyone unfortunate enough to experiment with it. Whether or not that view is true, in the mind of anyone who believes it a character who uses crack is beyond tainted - he's degenerate. So this would apply on both sides of the law. The lovable rogue who smokes crack is to those readers no longer lovable; he is a monster or on his way to becoming one.

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rcmann
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This pushed a button for me. I may have overreacted. I grew up around drunks and dope addicts. In fact, several of the people I went to school with crashed and burned that way. I have seen first hand what hard drugs do to lives, and neighborhoods. To me, crack is pure evil. There is no mitigating factor that can excuse it. Anyone who uses it is a junkie, and has no business carrying a badge or holding any position of responsibility. Anyone who deals it deserves to be shot where they stand.

A junkie, who carries a badge, and still continues to keep their job and refuses to get clean, is a villain in my eyes.

Sherlock Holmes was a private citizen, as was Watson. The laws in Victorian England were also notably unjust in many ways. If they did break the law (rarely) it was almost always to give some poor sap a chance to go straight rather than ruin their life over one mistake. As private citizens, they were not required to do things like get warrants, etc. Especially when acting with the permission of the property owner, which they usually were. And they seldom shot anyone, always in self-defense.

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LDWriter2
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quote:
If I understand correctly, it sounds like the MC was inconsistent. A CSI investigator is a cop. A cop who uses crack to relax is a villain, not a protagonist.
quote:
No, I think the problem with the crack-smoking cop is credibility
In this case for me I think it was both in her case. But I just thought of something. It might turn into something the MC has to fight with--she realizes she is an addict and has to quit. One of those personal inner problems UF MCs are always fighting. In this case I don't know.

But even before that I didn't like her all that much.

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extrinsic
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Ethos, yes, credibility might be a concern, challenging willing suspension of disbelief. Widespread random drug testing policies make it highly unlikely any law enforcement official today can get away with using drugs at all let alone being high on the job. Unless the crack-smoking CSI's method for evading detection is given. Since it's urban fantasy, maybe she magically cleans her bloodstream.

I'd wonder what the purpose is of having a crack-smoking CSI getting high to relax. Smoking crack isn't relaxing in the first place. Is she meant to be an indictment against the legal system? for example. Or against drug culture? Or against society for making her miserable? Probably unrelated to the central theme, maybe.

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