What makes a readable and relatable character?

Look at the cute kitten

Not everyone loves kittens, even when they are this cute.

Character is one of the biggest things—if not the biggest thing, depending on who you talk to—that will influence whether or not a reader likes a book (or story, or essay, etc.). Plot (that dirty word!) is probably the other, followed by language. But what makes one character better than another? What is it that  separates a likable fictional creation from an unlikable one?

For me, the answer to this question usually has to do with character motivation. Do I  believe the character would act as he or she does? This means getting to know a character’s background, history, culture, social motivations, emotional responses, opinions, and a whole slew of other things, of course. But I’ve noticed an interesting trend lately in that there is a whole group of readers out there who dislike characters for acting in ways the reader can’t imagine acting in his or her own life.

Some examples:

  • Clare Abshire from The Time Traveler’s Wife
  • Any of the five Lisbon daughters in The Virgin Suicides
  • Edna Pontellier in The Awakening
  • Faile Bashere or Perrin Aybara (and many others) in The Wheel of Time
  • Anna Karenina from Anna Karenina
  • Nora Helmer from A Doll’s House

Gender issues aside (since I’ve already covered this over at Bark), I think, as I said above, the commonality here is that these characters all make choices that the reader feels he or she wouldn’t make if put in the same place and so, somehow, this is an unrelatable, unlikeable character.

I too have fallen into this in the past, but that just makes me more sure that, when this happens, it is usually the fault of the reader rather than the author. Not, of course, that that means the author bears no burden for making well-rounded and believable characters, but the question is who is the character supposed to be believable to?

A few months ago someone told me she hoped I wasn’t writing a book with sex or profanity,  because she refuses to read books with those elements. Well, I am. There’s both sex AND profanity. And my main character is angry and often lashes out at people. But these elements aren’t included because I want to shock, or because I somehow feel cooler for including them: They come from the characters.

But then other people tell me they don’t want to read books that feature these types of characters. They ask, “There’s enough of that in the world already so why do you have to write about it?” I can’t speak for all writers, but I know why I do.

Because I’m interested in these characters.

I’m interested in pulling away the layers to get at the rawness that exists in all people: The lies told, the contradictions inherent in every day, the cruel thoughts and, sometimes, actions. But I also like the way these dark things jut up against brighter things: the moments where people act for each other, when they breakthrough to a new piece of honesty. To have one or the other—the struggling homeless man who never steals, attends mass every Sunday, and has an all-around cheery outlook on life, or the cruel rich man who cheats on his taxes and his wife, treats anyone lower than him with disdain and scorn, and hates kittens—this is not believable! Not even in genre—even Darth Vadar had that whole pesky I-sort-of-don’t-want-to-kill-my-son thing.

In the end, I feel it’s my job as a fiction writer, when I see something ugly or shameful, to not look away, to not try to ignore it, but to instead look a bit closer.

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