First off, for any educators who are near Bethel, Connecticut, this Friday evening, June 7th, I and Alan Katz, author of many funny books for kids, will be hobnobbing with educators at Byrd’s Books. Details here on the website. I’d love to see you!
On February 27, 2019, Raina wrote, I need some help brainstorming! What are some traits that make a character sympathetic/likable to you, that go beyond just being a good person? (For example, do you like characters who are clever? Brave? Ruthless? Confident?)
And on a different note, what makes you dislike a character? I’m not talking about antiheroes or intentionally “unlikable or antihero characters, but rather things that make you dislike a character because they’re not written well.
Also, how do you have a character grow and overcome their flaws without having those flaws annoy the reader at the beginning? People aren’t perfect and usually change and learn/overcome their flaws throughout life, but I’ve noticed that people often get annoyed and stop reading before that can happen.
And finally, on a much more general note, has anyone else noticed that characters in YA get a *lot* more scrutiny and criticism than those in other age categories? Be too snarky, and you’re “annoying.” Feel hesitation or ambivalence or change your mind about a situation (as any normal person would) and you’re “wishy-washy.” Be too perfect/special in any way and you’re a Mary Sue, make too many mistakes and you’re TSTL (too stupid to live). I have rarely, if ever, seen any reviews of MG books talk about characters like that. (Flat or ineffective characterization, yes, but nothing like this.) Do MG books just happen to have better-written characterizations than YA books, on average? Is this a matter of audience? (I’ve found that a lot of YA reviewers tend to be older teens or young adults (20-30), while MG reviewers tend to be parents reading with their kids or MG-aged kids themselves.) Or are we just holding fictional children and tweens to a different standard than teens?
You responded with a bunch of ideas:
Sarah: I think YA books in the Chick Lit category often portray teenage characters as full of angst, which is difficult to accomplish without making readers roll their eyes. There seems to be a big market for teenage girls who read for the “feels” instead of enriching their minds. Plus, so many YA books set up their characters in a way that allows for a steamy romance by giving them malleable morals or making them clueless to the situations they find themselves in. Though many books like that exist, they do not make up the whole population of YA books. Perhaps people roll up their sleeves when analyzing all YA books now and expect to find artificial motivations behind the characters’ behaviour. If I myself wrote a decent YA novel, I would rather that people give me a chance.
You may be right that we hold teens to a different standard. I think that’s because stories about teens deal with more controversial aspects of society and ethics than books about the lives of children do. If readers disagree with the treatment of these aspects in some YA novels, this may bring them to the conclusion that the characters are designed to be unrealistic to help further a “false” message.
Unfortunately, I have not read a large number of YA novels that exist today, so I may be way off.
Sara (no h): For the question about characters overcoming flaws, what I try to do is make the character realize their flaw and want to overcome it, but fail initially. Good intentions should probably make them sympathetic. And, if they know they have this flaw, they might joke about it in a slightly self-deprecating way, and that self-awareness should also make them less annoying. It’s like Jo in Little Women, who is definitely aware of how bad her temper is, and she wants desperately to change it, but for a while she can’t.
Chrisite V Powell: KM Weiland talks about each character having a Lie, a Want, a ghost, and a Need. The Lie is something that the character believes about the world, and all character flaws are symptoms of it. So, in my current WIP, my character’s Lie is that trusting others is a weakness. Her flaws include hiding emotions, keeping distant from others, running away when she’s uncomfortable, and avoiding new experiences. Her Want is to find a home, both physically and socially. Her ghost is the reason she has her Lie: what past experiences caused her to form her lie. In this case, bullying by her cousins for showing weakness, and a betrayal by her father. The ghost makes her Lie relatable, and her Lie makes her flaws relatable. Her Need is the same as her truth–it’s what she discovers through the story that counteracts the Lie and allows for growth. My character Keita’s Need is that trusting others can be a great strength that empowers her to find her Want.
So, the main way that characters change (still summarizing Weiland) is through rewards and consequences. In the beginning, when you see the character in their normal world, they are rewarded for their lie. However, once the plot gets going, acting on their lie gets punishments and acting on the truth gets rewards. They discover the Truth in the middle of the story and wrestle between the two until the climactic end.
Melissa Mead: Sense of humor is a biggie for me. Not so much snark, but witty or dry humor.
For the second question, I do think it comes down to the difference in audience. Middle-grade (MG) kids are easier to please (and don’t write reviews very often) than teenagers and readers in their twenties. Older reviewers may have gotten past the age of snark. Not, I hasten to add, that all or even most teens and twenty-somethings are snarky. This blog, which is a meanness-free zone and on which, I think, many commenters are teens and twenty-somethings, is proof of that.
Many years ago, I volunteered teaching an after-school writing class at the local middle school. One afternoon, I brought a prompt: to write a self-portrait, not just of the writer’s appearance, but also of her inner self (they were all girls). The ten- and eleven-year olds were very uncomfortable and didn’t want to do it, so I told them to write a portrait of a friend, which they were eager to do. Twelve and over loved it. One said it was the best prompt ever.
I took the difference as revealing a distinct borderline between the eight-to-twelve-year-old set and young adults (YA). Seems to me that young adults are more introspective, middle graders more outward-facing and less critical. Do you guys agree?
Also, fault-finding begets more fault-finding as tit one-ups tat. As soon as a chain of criticism begins it takes a while to run itself out. The YA publishing world may be in a cycle of attack that will end eventually.
Onto the first question.
What makes a character likable is the same as what makes a person likable in real life. Being likable isn’t the same as being virtuous, although when I think about it, I do tend to like people I admire. But there are people I admire whom I distinctly do not like.
I go for people and characters who are relatable, vulnerable, and fun to be around. I’m very fond of people who tell stories on themselves, and I’m with Melissa Mead in that a sense of humor has to be in the mix. We can make a list! I’d put kindness on mine. Here are a few more, but this isn’t an exhaustive list:
∙ Intelligence, at least enough to see around a few corners
∙ A tendency to see the best side of things
∙ Calmness, or at the very least, an absence of hysteria
∙ Honesty tempered by empathy
I’m having trouble stopping. Enough!
Your list may be different–in fact, Raina’s short list is mostly different from mine (brave, ruthless, confident). It will be helpful sometimes to have real people in mind when we make the list and when we craft our characters, the likable and the unlikable ones.
A friend once said to me that the way to make a character likable is to have him save someone. I don’t think that’s all there is to it, but that can nudge a reader in the direction of like. Saving someone will arouse our sympathy.
In an MC, whose thoughts the reader will know, the voice of the character matters in creating likablility. And this is a good spot to bring in the traits from our list to reflect them in our MC’s thoughts. This makes me think of flaws–a likable voice can immunize me from a character’s flaws. If I like being in her company, in her mind, I’ll be on her side, and I’ll root for her to overcome her faults. Say she takes the easy way out to avoid arguments even when she should stand up for herself. If she’s self-aware, as Sara says, I’ll want to stay with her and hope for change.
I agree with Christie V Powell that change usually comes about through actions and consequences, and usually the medicine (the bad outcome) has to be delivered more than once.
As for unlikable, I don’t like people who, when I see them coming, I want to run the other way. I don’t like complainers or people who are endlessly needy, even though I like being helpful. Of course I don’t like people who are cruel or manipulative or evil. We can make another list.
In terms of bad writing, I get annoyed if a character behaves out of character and does for plot reasons what he never ever would do. To me, the writer of that character has committed a writing crime worthy of sentencing by a judge in the High Court of Writing Offenses. Another infraction is writing characters who are so vaguely defined they can do anything and don’t have to be consistent–because who are they?
Here are three prompts:
∙ Your main character is the judge in the High Court of Writing Offenses. Frustrated readers haul in characters who haven’t behaved according to their personalities. Attorneys argue their defense. The characters take the stand. There’s examination and cross-examination. Pick a character that has annoyed you by behaving against his or her nature or a character who is ill-defined. Write the courtroom drama.
∙ Your MC is brave, kind, funny–also whiny and self-centered. She’s preparing to face (in any way you decide) the villain of the story, who has taken her family hostage. Write the scene as she gets ready. Include thoughts, dialogue, and action. Reveal her flaws and make her likable at the same time.
∙ Sometimes it’s hard to find the likability sweet spot. Your MC, out of kindness and sympathy, has befriended a newcomer to the neighborhood, who seemed to otherwise be shaping up to be a picked-on loner. But this new friend turns out to be very high maintenance: clingy, jealous, demanding. Still, your MC is aware of the pain she’ll inflict if she dumps him. The reader does not want the MC to be a doormat and also doesn’t want her to be mean. Write her thoughts about the situation and then the scene in which she takes action.
Have fun, and save what you write!