One of the worst things you can do for your characters is try to make them “likeable.” Lots of peer-reviewers will encourage you to do just that. Resist them, even if you’re like me and not a successful writer yet. Having a character that’s a good person or loveable is fine, but you cannot soften a character’s edges to give them mass appeal if you’re aiming for massive appeal.
I’ll defend my point with an example from my own life. There’s a preacher that visits college campuses, goes by the name of Brother Jed. I’ve seen him live a couple of times. Brother Jed endorses some terrible, offensive beliefs. He dedicated his life to standing in the squares of colleges all over the country so he can tell everyone they’re going to hell. The girls are going to hell for dressing like sluts. The boys are going to hell for letting the politically correct “Mouslem” empire run all over their country. And Jed only avoids hell because he gave up his Grateful Dead records to preach to colleges. Every time he visits, the boys make fun of him and the girls make out with other girls to protest in front of him.
Jed’s a vile, angry, potentially dangerous man. He’s also my friend on Facebook.
Brother Jed doesn’t have a page to like like I do… Facebook’s not the forte of an old man such as he. So if I want to see his daily journal rants, I must forever justify my actions to the women, people of color, people of non-traditional sexualities, and people of other faiths that Jed constantly spits on. I’ll apologize to those people in my life, but I will not lie. I have to know what Jed’s going to do next. Some people slow down to see car accidents; I’ll sit right next to one and take notes for an article about how car wax mixes with blood. How will Jed gnash his teeth at the next gay rights victory? Will he sing his sex-education song again? One of the best parts of a Trump defeat, for me, will be visiting Brother Jed’s account and drinking in his delicious tears as he screams, wails, and blubbers about how his political savior let him down and how everyone (notice a theme?) is going to hell. Seriously, fuck Brother Jed.
You hear that? The fact that I can say, “fuck Brother Jed” means that I have a stronger emotional reaction to him than I do towards most of the people on my Facebook. That’s why I keep in touch with Jed more so than my high school acquaintances or college connections. It’s bile fascination, I admit. But all those worthless Facebook friends of mine (those friends are not worthless in my life, just in my leisure time) got added to my profile because they’re “likeable.” I met them, laughed with them, exchanged kind words with them, added them on Facebook, and then forgot they ever existed. I’m not forgetting Brother Jed anytime soon.
I’ll take the excessive whining of C-3PO and the uselessness of Boba Fett any day over the blandness of prequel characters played by great actors like Liam Neeson and Natalie Portman. I bet you, likeable reader, know plenty of likeable people in your life. Why don’t you spend time with them instead of meticulously following the presidential campaigns of two people overflowing with thinkpieces about why they have “likeability problems”? Because you want to see where they go next. Readers don’t care about characters that like dogs or escort old ladies across the street. They may like them, but it will not be for those reasons. No one sells a book on those points. No one said, “You gotta read this book with Hannibal Lecter in it, Lecter’s so cool because he’s really polite!” Ignatius J. Reilly isn’t lauded as an iconic comedic character for the few moments where he’s nice, is what I’m saying. People say they want likeable characters. People want characters that interest them, that beckon them to follow you into the darkest ends of the universe and the strangest corners of the mind. In other words, characters that bring readers something that the co-worker who brought donuts to your office can’t give you. People like Dorothy Gale or Harry Potter are likable characters that people tolerate because they’re our vessel on a magical journey to new worlds. No one followed Jesus because he gave people discounts on the chairs he crafted.
A lot of this desire to make “likeable” characters stems from a writer’s fear that their excessive characters will be mocked. Good! Let them be mocked! I follow Brother Jed’s career because it’s so much fun to mock him. Memorable characters open themselves to be imitated, emulated, and constantly eviscerated. Commissioner Gordon is a much nicer character than The Joker, but which of these two provide a buttload of iconic material for fans to impersonate? Hell, that applies to Batman too. We all make fun of Batman for funneling money into bat-cosplay instead of charity, or for being a Mary Sue, or for ruining someone’s ice cream. Guess what? Batman has endured as a character for those exact reasons. Don’t soften your edges to bore a reader into tolerating you. Write your crazy characters with faith, and the people who like your creations will like them with religious fervor.
A lot has been said about how readers want to have a protagonist that matches their own ideas and desires. This is true. So don’t insult your readers by assuming they’ll find empathy in someone who is polite to waiters and give a buck to the homeless bum on their way from work. If your audience is in the story in a not-so-indirect way, give them a ride! Have them experience some illicit personality trait thrills that they can’t get in real life. If you’re daring, use your story to shock your audience into liking someone! “I wrote a protagonist for my audience. He’s a secret agent that relaxes after each world-saving mission by watching porn for an hour. He sells short stories in his spare time that reveal every nasty secret his parents had in no uncertain, or anonymous, terms. THIS PERSON IS YOU.” At worst, you’ll end up with one of those over-saturated anti-heroes that lead successful TV shows like House of Cards. At best, Freud will name a complex after your character.
All my writing advice depends on what you want to write. Don’t let me stop you from making decent, loveable characters. Just don’t depend on that to draw in an audience. Unlikeable characteristics won’t save your heroine’s personality, but focusing only on likeable ones is sure to kill her. Ask yourself— if this blog post didn’t have the words “fuck” and “rant” in it, and was instead titled something non-confrontational like “How To Make Characters Dynamic,” would you still have read it? And if I admitted that Brother Jed gave up his entire life to become a much-hated man, and that I wish that I could commit to something in such complete terms such as he did, and that Jed inspires me to never sacrifice my dream to the fear of mockery and the appeal of sloth, and to be excessive with the things I love… I sound despicable, don’t I? How many, after that confession, are less interested in what’s happening in my life?
You can say some awful things, but give your audience a good hook, and they’ll make note of every breath you take…