The appeal of the unlikable

fear06 047bIn the search to construct a likable character, amateur authors often forget that the major character needs flaws. When authors want to escape this world by imagining themselves as the person that everyone adores, this adulation occurs only within the story that they craft. Envy and distrust are the real life responses to the almost perfect person.

Some writers try to lull the reader into a favorable attitude towards the protagonist by making them naive and childlike. However, when it comes time to solve the major conflict this artless character may begins to display great skill. When a character always seems to rise to the level necessary deal with a conflict, readers will become wary. If the character does not have to work to overcome a flaw, it is not a real flaw.

These flaws cannot simply be minor idiosyncrasies, such as refusing to eat vegetables. Dislike of  spinach is a major problem only for children’s cartoons and picture books. If you are familiar Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, you will note that even picture books can a have a main character with a deeper struggle.

A pleasant, amiable, conscientious and exquisitely  resourceful protagonist is as likely to rub the reader the wrong way as an egotistical  narcissist. Some readers are bored by a character that never offends anyone. Others will despise them. The problem has to be a personal one, a negative trait that hampers the main characters—shyness, fear, anger, rigid behavior or, lack of self-control. Often, what is seen as a positive behavior, such a lively sense of humor, can morph into a cringe-worthy behavior when the main character is hard-pressed. Humor can become a flippant disregard for the serious situation of others.

The key to prevent reader alienation is making the character to be aware of their flaws. The slovenly appearing and often tipsy Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities is both more  interesting and empathetic than the lovely, sweet Lucy Manet. His realization that he is not worthy of the love of a nearly perfect heroine endears him to the reader. However, negative traits must be balanced by positive ones. Carton is an individual capable of caring more deeply for others than himself.

The best drawn characters are not just two traits, but a complex personality resulting in a person that is not quite predictable. Not all readers may find the person that you have spent hours creating likable. But then, remember no one is really loved by everyone. Write a character that you feel pleases everyone, and you may end up pleasing only yourself.

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