by Lisa Lickel
We’ve all read books where we just couldn’t get “into” the characters. Either we didn’t relate to what they were going through, we didn’t like how they acted or what they said. They did things we never would do or can't believe. Sometimes we authors or know-it-all readers will say things like the characters were “undeveloped,” as we’re prompted by Amazon reviews.
What did you do? Put down the book? Berate yourself because you didn’t read the back? Snarl at the ad or person who recommended the book? What is it with Jodi Picoult, anyway?
There is a purpose for unlikeable, unrelateable, unformed characters. Creating these fictional people has nothing to do with our maturity as writers. Their “appeal factor” is partly marketing and partly creating a circle of influence in the story via setting and scenario around the characters that is relateable to our audience.
Character-driven Fiction vs. Plot-driven Fiction
When theme of a book is a situation that makes our readers uncomfortable before they even pick up a book, there’s going to be trouble. This is what my first agent tried to get me to understand years ago when that agent suggested intelligent women don’t read issue-laden fiction. While the Best-Seller list patently disagrees, it is true that genre-based serial fiction sells better than one-offs. The lesson I eventually learned, nine years and three agents later, was that when an author sets up a situation that polarizes the audience, no character is going to come out clean.
Here’s a test: Writing a novel thriller that features the president of the United States is not a character-driven novel, because in fiction, the fictional president has a persona that can be anyone. No one can really relate to that character. It’s the situation in which the president is placed—the plot—that drives the story. In this case, the character can be disturbingly unlikeable and still get away with audience votes. The flipside is creating a character with a problem who has choices only part of your audience agrees with. These choices (not decision) drive the story. This no-win, can’t-please-everybody syndrome may work if you create enough audience tension. On the other hand, I stopped reading Ms Picoult after Handle With Care, a story about an emotionless woman who gave birth to a child with brittle bone syndrome then sued the doctor, her best friend, ruining her life. I’d read a few of Picoult's other books, and didn’t find a character I liked. I am obviously in the minority.
I mentioned above an experience with my first agent. The particular manuscript we’d been discussing is a book with life-size issues and characters who make choices some people can’t relate to. To be fair, I did pose the question of how you’d react in the situation I was writing about on Facebook and other places, and personally knew two people who felt and acted that same way my character did. The poll results were very mixed regarding how a person might respond. The problem? Recurrent cancer and a treatment that may have been worse than a potential cure. The choice? Pummel an already weakened family by making them watch her die, or retain her dignity by leaving and dying peacefully. See? Even my explanation is biased.
A book club recently featured the story and invited me. I like to do these things, even though it can be a field day of gleeful torture. Readers buy you, they own you. But it’s always enlightening. I admit surprise at the passionate, and yes, oh-come-on responses. I never saw it coming that someone felt strongly the dying woman shouldn’t have chosen to be a parent. Other comments were varying degrees of when and who should keep secrets. One person felt all the characters were too over the top and dismissed the story. I like to think of book clubs as microcosms of readers. It’s good to learn what they think.
Ultimately, unlikeable characters have a place in story. They don’t always have to be the villain, but they have to have a purpose that lets readers into their wounded worlds. They can stink, say all the wrong things, have really evil emotions, make poor decisions, wear cool clothes and be food snobs, but if they have a battle to win, readers will take sides. They inhabit the conflict that propels the story.
Unrelateable characters are in the eye of the beholder. For every reader who refuses to accept your character’s choices, another will passionately defend or open a discussion on alternatives. Characters may feel unformed because your audience doesn't identify with them. Not everyone likes a princess, and some people are fascinated by Hannibal Lecter.
And that’s really our goal as authors—to incite passion, conversation, and further exploration.
Which characters in fiction do you like and identify with, or have trouble accepting?
Photos courtesy of morguefile.com