Monday, January 9, 2012

Unlikable Characters? Fear Not. You too, Can Be A Published Author.

One thing I expect as a parent is to be annoyed on a daily basis. Whining, arguing, spills, bills, boogers, poop, blah, blah, blah. Last night’s annoyance took me on a different tangent, however and back to writing.

My daughter was watching one of her favorite movies: “Pippi Longstocking.” Ugh! This movie kills me with the songs, bad acting, and horrible main character.

I don’t like Pippi. She drives me insane, and I don’t see how my daughter loves her. The secondary characters are boring; the monkey is even annoying. Her father is a jackass who abandons her with only her big arse shoes and dilapidated house. Why isn’t my daughter watching “Annie” or “Anne of Green Gables”: two red headed orphans with a penchant for trouble and a tongue full of sass? Those two are likable and readable.

So Pippi Lamestocking had me thinking about other annoying characters that made it to literature and even a movie. Since I’m on the children's side of things, I’ll continue with The Cat in the Hat. I hate the cat. He’s not funny. He’s annoying. I’ve read this book a few times as a kid and then a couple more when I had my own, and I’ve never loved it. Cute rhyming, sure, but the cat is an ass. I don’t like him. The Grinch was also an ass but we see him change and become likable, we root for the Grinch to love Christmas. The Cat? We want to kick the cat out of the damn house before the fish goes belly up from a heart attack—at least I do. Where's a squirt bottle when you need one?

Next, there’s Isabella Swan. Oh mama, how I hate this character. I admit that I read the books. I actually didn’t mind the story, even tolerated the love or should I say “hunger” for Edward, because I saw the potential for something great with the Italian Vamps and a possible shakedown in the undead world—oh, how you went wrong Ms. Meyer. Anyway, Bella is whiny, mopey, lame, and more lame. Seriously, how much scrambled eggs can a person eat?

I didn’t care about her; didn’t care which beastie she chose to love; didn’t care that she nearly died. Nothing. I just wanted her to grow up somehow, transform into something redeemable. Unfortunately, being a vamp was apparently the only answer because then she gets the best power of them all and becomes the prettiest vamp—LAME!

I didn’t love Twilight but the next book I’m going to talk about I did like—a lot. Hunger Games was an exciting book. Yes, there were some writing issues that I didn’t love, and the final book was a complete waste of time, but I truly liked the story. Katniss, on the other hand, I didn’t care for so much. She is a tough chick, but something about her bothered me. I loved Peeta; I sympathized with Peeta; I wanted the best for him. Katniss . . . I’m not sure. I rooted for her simply because of Peeta. She needed to win, to stay alive for his sake. The story kept me going more than the MC.

I was trying to think of a literary/movie character for adults to compare to and was having a hard time until I remembered Gone with the Wind and Scarlet. She’s a selfish bitch, yet for many of us we can’t wait to see what happens, which somehow makes her likable or at least readable. And, tomorrow, after all, is another day. 

So when someone critiques your writing and tells you your MC is unlikeable, don’t just jump on what they have to say. Likeability is different for everyone. Think of Hannibal Lector, is likability the right word? We shouldn’t like him, he is evil, yet we read on because he is dynamic—interesting. Dexter Morgan, same thing. He kills people. Sure, they are also serial killers, but his actions also screw up the lives of innocent people around him—he makes big mistakes. Doakes was a shithead, but he was not a killer. (spoiler) Dexter’s actions lead to his death. All of this aside, Dexter is interesting, complex, and we can’t get enough of him. We turn the page or buy DVDs, because we simply have to know what will happen next in the life of a serial killer with a conscience.

Harry Potter wasn’t a bowl full of excitement. He was average. He succeeded because he had a mess of great characters surrounding him, helping him grow into the great wizard he was born to be. By himself, Harry wouldn’t have grabbed me (oops, sounds a bit pervy). But add in the twins, Hagrid, Luna, and the rest and we have interesting and dynamic personalities that keep us going.

What characters have you found unlikable? And, what makes a character likeable to you? Have you ever been told your MC is unlikeable? Did you agree?  Talk to me. 


Anonymous said...

AWWW, I LOVED Pippi! :-)
I can see your point about Bella, but I liked the Twilight series.
And now to the part of your post that nearly made me pass out. *melodramatic pause*
You didn't like Catniss? . . . Really?
Ok, she kind of went downhill in the last book, but til then, she was golden!

I know as soon as I hit "publish" on this comment, fifteen unlikeable characters will come to mind, but right now I can't think of who they are.

Great post, and definitely food for thought!

Jordan McCollum said...

I think the big lesson here is that we don't have to like a character to sympathize with them. Scarlett is an interesting case, since Margaret Mitchell does just that. Alicia Rasley has a great explanation of this in her article "Sympathy without Saintliness" . The main thrust of the article is that perfect characters aren't sympathetic, either, and sympathy isn't automatic, but earned through seeing the character struggle.

(Yeah, I didn't enjoy the last book of Hunger Games nearly as much as the first. The mental anguish was realistic, but that doesn't always make it good fiction. But the thing that bugged me the most was the violation of the rule of law in the conclusion. Ridiculous . . . but that's neither here nor there.)

NĂºria Coe said...

That's funny, I felt the same way about Katniss too. I thought that the only reason she was likable was the fact that she loved her little sister so much. That and only that was what made her somewhat human. Take that out and I couldn't find it in me to root for her.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Great post, Diana, though I don't agree about Bella! My grown-up daughter and I thought she was pretty strong in what she eventually went through. Haven't seen the Pippi film but I'm rewatching Anne of Green Gables and loving it. Haven't read or seen Hunger Games yet.

I do agree about those 'bad' characters we love to watch. Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair is similar to Scarlet, and is just as watchable.

Diana said...

I'm glad I wrote this because it just proves that just because someone says a character is unlikable another person totally gets it. I'm especially hard on female characters, I don't know why. I hate hate hate the snarky, dectectivey kind of characters and I especially hate whiny ones. One of my all time fav female characters is Emma. Love her. Thanks for commenting. :)

J.L. Campbell said...

Really interesting post as I've been writing a paper on characters. They definitely don't have to be likeable for people to want to read their stories as you've proven here. Still haven't read the Hunger Games. I must remedy that soon.

Lani Wendt Young said...

I hate Pipi Longstocking. Ugh. But I liked Bella.

Is interesting question about the likeability of the main character in a book. Do i need to 'like' a MC for me to enjoy a book? Hmm, I wouldnt be able to enjoy it if i thought they were completely odious people. For me, the MC needs to be someone i can sympathize/empathize with? Not neccessarily LIKE them. My book TELESA has a lead female MC which a lot of reviewers are getting really annoyed with "She's so annoying I wanted to punch her..." (okaaay, thanks!) but they absolutely ADORE the male romantic lead and most of their complaints about the female MC are because 'she doesnt deserve such a wonderful guy...'

Maybe what matters more than likeability is authenticity. Belieavability. (is there even such a word?!) Is the character 'real' enough that people will believe in the possibility of their existence, and so that they will either HATE them or love them.

Nice blog post.