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Hello, writers. I remember my sister quoting this fiction formula to me some years ago:

A likable character overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds in order to achieve a worthwhile result.
I think she said it came from Marion Zimmer Bradley.

Obviously that doesn't describe all fiction. It may only have been a description of what Ms. Bradley (who was, among many other things, the editor to whom my sister made her first sale) liked.

If you sit back and think, it'll probably take you about forty-five seconds, max, to come up with an example of a book about an unlikable character who fails to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, and/or achieves an unworthwhile result.

I'm thinking, for example, of a novel about a guy who dislikes his wife and daughter but loves his son, and is so afraid of anything happening to the child that he kills him in order to prevent such a calamity. But, you know, yech. I still regret having read that book.

So my guess is Ms. Bradley's dictum (if it is hers) is true of an awful lot of fiction, including an awful lot of what I like to read. Anyway, to take the first part of the her trio: it can be very hard to get readers to stay with a protagonist all the way through a book if they don't like him/her. And even if they do stay, they won't be rooting for your protag. And they probably won't treasure the reading experience in their hearts and press the book on their friends.

So what makes a character likable?

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

Here's my list of some things a character needs in order for me to like him/her:

1. Flaws.
This is definitely #1 on my list and probably pretty high on other people's. And there doesn't seem to be a limit to how many flaws we'll tolerate, either: see Snape, Severus. (No, I know he's not the protagonist-- except in several thousand works of fanfic. But admit it-- didn't you perk up whenever he slunk onto the page?)

    Leave out the flaws and you've got a Mary Sue.

2. Moral choices
When push comes to shove, the character either makes the right choice, or else makes the wrong one, feels bad about it, and tries to repair the damage later on.

3. Kindness
It was actually my brother who pointed this out to me: It can be hilarious to read a novel in which everyone treats everyone else badly. But after a few chapters it can leave you feeling cold and slightly ill, as if you were living in Mad Magazine. The protagonist needs to be kind at least once in a while, especially when it costs him or her something.

4. Getting knocked about a bit
Because that's what happens to us in real life. People aren't always kind, nor do they necessarily notice when we're bleeding, nor do they drop everything and come a-runnin' when they do notice. So when we see the same thing happening to a character, we identify, and when we identify, we generally like.

Tonight's challenge:

Rewrite and/or continue this passage, making the main character more likable.

It was 3:04 a.m. when Detective Angela Gonzales arrived on the crime scene. The responding officers stepped aside respectfully, gazing in admiration at her wavy black hair with purplish undertones, her deep, starry eyes, and her perfect figure. She slipped protective covers over her handmade shoes and stepped gracefully through the wreckage of the Startled Duck.

“It's my opinion the victim was pecked to death by ducks, ma'am,” said Officer Twirly, leaning forward eagerly.

“Grebes, Twiggly,” said Gonzales, looking at the tell-tale webbed tracks through the spilled mead and blood. “Least grebes. They always hunt in pairs. You'll find two of them, probably headed for the Endless Swamp, and smelling slightly of stale peppermints and burnt sugar. Oh, and they may be whistling a medley of Mozart favorites. Better get a move on.”

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Comment Preferences

  •  You know looking over that thing (19+ / 0-)

    I'm not entirely sure I didn't steal the pecked-to-death-by-grebes bit from someone. If so, humblest apologies.

    Weird internet connection issues. If I disappear tonight, that's why. (Hopefully, anyway.)

    -9.0, -8.3 "Remember, a writer writes. Always." --Throw Momma from the Train

    by SensibleShoes on Thu Jul 11, 2013 at 12:30:44 PM PDT

  •  As a writer, I completely (8+ / 0-)

    agree with all this. As a businessperson, I dunno.

    The majority of book buyers seem to prefer Jack Reacher and Harry Potter (I know I'll get pushback on that one, but at least in the books I read his only flaws were job-interview-flaws: I'm too curious, I'm care too much.) and Bella Swan and Katniss Everdeen and Jason Bourne.

    I actually think that with the rise of fanfic and ebooks and ebooks-to-realbooks, we're seeing a newer embrace of Mary Sue, too.

    I think that a Mary Sue who gets knocked around, then shows kindness and struggles a bit before making the right moral choice is the sweet spot.

    "Gussie, a glutton for punishment, stared at himself in the mirror."

    by GussieFN on Thu Jul 11, 2013 at 05:30:09 PM PDT

  •  Hi (10+ / 0-)

    It will take me a while to try this, but I will be back.

    I agree that I really need to like some of the characters at least.  I also like it when the main character figures out some of his faults and works on them...usually in a series.

    Best wishes for staying with us!

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Thu Jul 11, 2013 at 05:31:12 PM PDT

  •  mine (9+ / 0-)
    It was 3:04 a.m. when Detective Angela Gonzales arrived on the crime scene. The responding officers stepped aside respectfully, and not one smiled at her disarray.

    "They wanted fast," she said, "so they got fast."  Her hair was pulled back in a pony tail and was still wet from the quick shower.  Her face had a bit of powder and a slash of lipstick, and she had slipped her feet into fake Krocs.

    “It's my opinion the victim was pecked to death by ducks, ma'am,” said Officer Twirly, leaning forward eagerly.

    Gonzales looked at the tracks and pursed her lips.  "Let's save the opinions for now," she said.  "I trust you to follow the feet wherever they lead you.  I will meet you at the Fiddler's Rest to share what we find after I check out the swamp for least grebe bandits."

    "But, ma'am," Officer Twirly said, "That swamp is a bad place in the middle of the night.  Who knows what is lurking there and the pub is dangerous for a lady."

    "When have I ever been a lady?" Gonzales said and punched him on the arm lightly.  "I will take care that no one sneaks up on me in the swamp.  I was born there, you know.  As to the pub, I know it is your favorite and we can be comfortable there.  If you find me swinging from the chandeliers as I knock out a few baddies, you can say you told me so."

    Twirly smiled at that image and then stopped.  Who knows what this lady might do?

     

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Thu Jul 11, 2013 at 05:46:02 PM PDT

  •  I wouldn't say that the flaws should be first. (8+ / 0-)

    It all depends, of course.

    A hero who has no flaws is not going to have any doubts, any problems, any real humanity. But the flaws have to be carefully chosen.

    A tendency to drink too much to handle emotional pain, for example, would be almost a matter more of a good point than a flaw. People with no humanity don't feel emotional pain. Anger, rage, contempt, yes, but not pain. So the drinking is proof of empathy or sadness, perhaps.

    Or a heroine who cares so much that she's impatient of any delay to the point where it's a problem. Or a hero who has an explosive temper he's trying desperately to control.

    Freedom has two enemies: Those who want to control everyone around them...and those who feel no need to control themselves.

    by Sirenus on Thu Jul 11, 2013 at 05:47:58 PM PDT

  •  Gee, Officer Twirly (9+ / 0-)

    Okay, so who did you say was supposed to be the protagonist again?

    It was 3:04 a.m. when Detective Angela Gonzales arrived on the crime scene.  Silently, Twirly cursed.  He'd hoped to have another minute or two to organize his findings before he had to give his report.  And he'd hoped there'd be a different detective on duty that night.

    The other responding officers stepped aside respectfully.  Gonzales had that effect on people.  Half the force had the hots for her, and everyone was intimidated by her.  It wasn't her beautiful wavy black hair with purplish undertones, her deep, starry eyes, or even her perfect figure; it was her unassailable aura of flawless competence.  She slipped protective covers over her handmade shoes -- no, it wouldn't do for her ensamble to be marred by a filthy crime scene -- and stepped gracefully through the wreckage of the Startled Duck.

    "What do you have for me, Twiggly?"  she said in her cool, professional tone.

    "Twirly, ma'am."  He felt his face redden as Gonzales turned her critical gaze upon him.  Damn.  Why did he say that?  Back to business.  "It's my opinion the victim was pecked to death by ducks, ma'am."

    “Grebes, Twiggly,” said Gonzales, looking at the tell-tale webbed tracks through the spilled mead and blood. “Least grebes. They always hunt in pairs. You'll find two of them, probably headed for the Endless Swamp, and smelling slightly of stale peppermints and burnt sugar. Oh, and they may be whistling a medley of Mozart favorites. Better get a move on.”

    That was it.  He'd been dismissed.  Well, at least that ordeal was over.  Twirly wondered, not for the first time, what it would be like to talk to her as a civilian over drinks and not as a subordinate.  No, she'd probably still eat him alive.   He hesitated before leaving.

    "Yes...?"  Gonzales said looking up from measuring the grebe tracks".

    Twirly swallowed hard.  "There was one more thing, ma'am.  "Witnesses say they saw a car driving away from the scene.  The driver was a talking dog.  And there was a sousaphone in the back."

    "A sousaphone?"  Gonzales set down her measuring tape, smudging her immaculate kid-skin gloves in the process.  "Why didn't you tell me that in the first place?"

    And while I'm here, let me plug my urban fantasy tale Dark Redemption.  This week, Strephon begins his investigation.  No grebes show up this week, but you never know; that may change.

    "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

    by quarkstomper on Thu Jul 11, 2013 at 06:00:18 PM PDT

  •  I've started experimenting with unlikable (10+ / 0-)

    characters. I don't think I'll ever have something with a protag unlikable. But I find I have a hard time making the antagonist 'real', so, hence challenging myself.

    Ya'nno, it's almost cheating when you set the scene at ungodly hours of the night. It's so easy to bring out the worst in good people when they are only half awake or way over-tired:

        “Gonzales! Thirty minutes later. .” the officer stood in her way, staring more at her chest than her face while he smirked.
        “Fucking three in the morning,” she squinted at his badge, “Twirly.  Rolled out of bed for this one.”
        “Just so you can tell us the guy got pecked to death by ducks, right?”
        She shouldered him aside, “Once I see, I can tell you.”
        A hand hit her in the chest as she reached the door of the Startled Duck. She looked down, realizing the gaping hole made by mismatch buttoning revealing uncontained cleavage. No wonder it had been stared at. Went great with the bedhead.
        The hand held shoe protectors.
        “Mornin’ Angela. Got extra coffee?” whispered a slim woman with a badge labeling her Analyst Renae.
        “Ren- thanks. In my car if you want it.”
        “All suited. Can’t leave. Why- why must they die at o’shit o’clock?? Gwad, don’t ya wanna kick Twitly?”
        “Too early for exercise. Why ducks?” Angela followed Renae, stepping in her footsteps. Renae shone a light on the floor. Fluorescent light lit up the pools and spatters of blood among the spilled mead and nibbling type food. Webbed tracks danced through all of it.
        “Not ducks,” Angela mused as she looked it over. Ren handed her the light so she could follow the tracks weird pattern.
        “I gotta get back to the body. And yes, duck bites all over.”
        “Grebe. Were is Twit- Twirly?”
        “Behind you,” he snorted, “Ducks don’t-“
        “Look, new-boy,” Renae snapped, “I’ve had to id too many bodies from a serial killer duck. Anglea’s the one that nailed him.”
        Literally, Angela shuddered at the memory.
        Renae stalked back to the body not far away.
        “This is grebes and there’s a chance we can still get them. Lesser grebes.”
        “Them?” Twirly grunted, pulling out a pad, clearly smarting from Renae’s tongue lashing.
        “Grebes work in pairs. Cultural. Swamp dwellers and the closest is the Endless-“
        “Only one route there,” Twirly nodded. Angela felt an internal sigh of relief as he shifted to a more professional tone. He wasn’t a complete idiot then.
        “I see a lot of peppermints on the ground. Burnt sugar packages. And grebes have a sweet tooth. Ought be able to smell them breath.”
        “What about all the tracks they made?” Twirly had been watching her trace the two paths.
        “Looks like they were waltzing. Might still be whistling Mozart.”
        “Like some kind of ritual?” Not stupid at all, even if he was a dick.
        “Yeah. So if you can’t get them tonight, we’ll probably see this again.”
        Twirly shut his notebook with a curse that could peel paint, if he’d had a magical talent. With a wave at two other officers, he hurried out.
         Angela resumed examining the scene. What the hell had disturbed the secretive birds to leave the safeguards of their swamp?

    I am much too liberal to be a Democrat.

    by WiseFerret on Thu Jul 11, 2013 at 06:22:20 PM PDT

  •  Humor! (8+ / 0-)

    Nothing more likeable than a character with a sense of humor!

    It was 3:04 a.m. when Detective Angela Gonzales arrived on the crime scene. The responding officers stepped aside , gazing in admiration at her wavy black hair with purplish undertones, her deep, starry eyes, and her perfect figure and she thought: "eat your heart out, boys!"
    You can leave the rest of the passage pretty much as it is to go with the humor motif
    “It's my opinion the victim was pecked to death by ducks, ma'am,” said Officer Twirly, leaning forward eagerly.

    yeah, Angie thought--Duck #1 probably  caught him feathering the nest with Mrs Duck!

    “Muscovies, Twiggly,” said Angie, looking at the tell-tale webbed tracks through the spilled mead and blood, “Have that slavic smell to their poop. They always hunt in pairs.  Better get a move on, dipshit, they're probably halfway south for the winter now.”

    Happy just to be alive

    by exlrrp on Thu Jul 11, 2013 at 06:32:53 PM PDT

  •  Couldn't think of a moral choice to work in (7+ / 0-)

    but here's my contribution:

    Constable Twirly cordoned off the crime scene, dragooned a couple of local boys to act as perimeter guards, and waited impatiently for Court Detective Angela Gonzales to show up. He had never worked with her before but she had a reputation among the police forces in the province. A reputation for solving difficult cases and a reputation for rarely being on time.

    Constable Twirly didn't think this would be a difficult case. He heard hoofbeats in the distance and spied a small rider on a very large horse. “Is that a Percheron they gave her?” he asked himself. As the horse and rider approached he could make out a white blaze on the horse's face and characteristic white legs. “Damme, they gave her a Clydesdale!”

    Detective Gonzales hauled mightily on the enourmous animal's reins as she rode up to the tavern. “Whoa! Whoa, big fella,” she shouted as the horse slowed to a trot, then a walk and finally stood still in the Startled Duck's courtyard. Detective Gonzales looked down. It was a long way from the horse's back to the ground. Her rumpled riding cloak tangled in the horses tackle as she tried to dismount and she landed unceremoniously sitting on her bruised rump on the ground.

    Constable Twirly suppressed a guffaw and ran over to help her to her feet.  “It's my opinion the victim was pecked to death by ducks, ma'am,” said Officer Twirly, leaning forward eagerly.

    “Ducks, you say?” she replied, brushing the dirt off her clothing. “Ducks. Show me the body, if you please, Constable...”

    “Twirly, ma'am, Constable Dirk Twirly, at your service.”

    “Constable Twirly, at my service,” she mused. “Well, Constable Twirly, I'd like to see the body now.”

    “Oh, of course ma'am, right away.” He led the Detective into the wreckage of the Startled Duck's common room, past the broken furniture and other evidence of mayhem to the corner where the body lay in a pool of blood and mead. Detective Gonzales examined the tell-tale webbed tracks through the spilled mead and blood.  

    “These seem to be Grebes, Constable Twirly,” she told him. “Least Grebes. See the webbing, somewhat shorter than a ducks. And there are two of them. Notice the nick on this set of prints, it's not on the other. Grebes hunt in pairs.”

    Constable Twirly's eyes grew wide. She was good. He hadn't noticed any of that. Of course, he wasn't a  tracker, but still, he had ambitions to be more than a mere constable some day.

    “Are you familiar with this tavern, Constable?” she asked. “Other than this...” she waved her hands vaguely at the wreckage, the corpse and the blood, “Other than this do you notice anything unusual, anything at all?”

    He looked around and took a deep breath, trying to sort out his impressions of the scene and his memories of earlier carouses with his mates in that same common room.

    “Perhaps that smell?” she prompted.

    “Ah, yes, that peppermints and burnt sugar smell. That's not normal. They serve beer, mead, wine, fried fish and potatoes. Nothing that smells like this.”

    “Not overly fresh peppermint either, I'll wager,” added Detective Gonzales. “Undoubtedly the Grebes latest meal. Least Grebes like to hide out in swamps. Around here, where would they go?”

    “The Endless Swamp, ma'am,” replied Constable Twirly, “is the only swamp for many leagues around.”

    “All right then,” she said. “You'll find two of them, probably headed for the Endless Swamp, and smelling slightly of stale peppermints and burnt sugar. Oh, and they may be whistling a medley of Mozart favorites.” She winked at him. “They like Mozart. Better get a move on.”

    “Yes ma'am, right away ma'am,” replied the Constable, as he straightened his back and strode toward the door to go round up a posse.

    "The problems of incompetent, corrupt, corporatist government are incompetence, corruption and corporatism, not government." Jerome a Paris

    by Orinoco on Thu Jul 11, 2013 at 06:46:21 PM PDT

  •  Not having read the others yet (7+ / 0-)

    Let's see how unlikeable we can make her.

    It was 3:04 a.m. when Detective Angela Gonzales (she preferred to be addressed by her full name and title) arrived on the crime scene. She elbowed her way past the responding officers, ignoring their attempts to give her important information.   She stopped in front of the mirror to gaze in admiration at her wavy black hair with purplish undertones, her deep, starry eyes, and her perfect figure, recently enhanced by some pricey surgery. She slipped protective covers over her handmade shoes (she'd made them herself after personally tanning the dragon leather) and stepped gracefully through the wreckage of the Startled Duck.

    “It's my opinion the victim was pecked to death by ducks, ma'am,” said Officer Twirly, when he finally managed to get her attention away from the mirror.

    “Grebes, Twiggly,” said Gonzales, looking at the tell-tale webbed tracks through the spilled mead and blood. “Least grebes. They always hunt in pairs."  She spent the next forty minutes lecturing them on the appearance and habits of grebes, then looked at the sundial.  "You're wasting precious time, Twizzly! Better get a move on.”

    She smacked an orphan and stole his lunch money to buy herself a drink at the pub.

    I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his payroll. - Edna St. Vincent Millay

    by Tara the Antisocial Social Worker on Thu Jul 11, 2013 at 07:04:42 PM PDT

  •  You want an example? (8+ / 0-)

    Gru - from Despicable Me. Wonderful story. I just saw Despicable Me 2 and enjoyed that as well.

    In the first movie, he's an enthusiastic super villain, capable of casual acts of meanness - but the movie starts to get you on his side by showing he has a dream, showing scenes from his childhood that explain his motivations AND also by showing you people who are even more despicable with a lot less reason. He's set up to be an underdog with a great dream - which he manages to achieve.

    BUT, by that point in the story he's found it no longer has the meaning for him it once did compared to what he's discovered in the process of achieving it. And it's then that he goes on to achieve redemption.

    Despicable Me 2 works as a sequel because they don't try to take him back to where he was. He'd become a different person and the movie builds on that while telling a good story. He doesn't apologize for who he was, but he hasn't lost that vulnerability and he's trying harder than ever to make something of his life for those he cares for. The ending is a bit over the top, but it's still enjoyable. (And like the first movie, don't walk out when the credits start to roll, or you'll really miss some fun - especially in 3D.)

    "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

    by xaxnar on Thu Jul 11, 2013 at 07:49:46 PM PDT

  •  Something like... (6+ / 0-)
    It was 3:04 a.m. when Detective Angela Gonzales arrived on the crime scene. The responding officers respectfully stepped aside. She ruefully slipped protective covers over her handmade shoes and stepped gracefully through the wreckage of the Startled Duck with practiced deliberation.

    If anyone should have seemed out of place in such a scene of grisly destruction, Gonzales should have been top of the list. Wavy ebon hair with hints of violet, deep, starry eyes, and perfect figure - she rendered the incongruity moot with a practiced command presence that both gave and accepted respect as merited.

    She finished looking over the crime scene and then turned to the senior patrolman with an expectant look.

    “It's my opinion the victim was pecked to death by ducks, ma'am,” said Officer Twirly, leaning forward eagerly.

    “Waterfowl certainly, Twirly,” said Gonzales, looking at the tell-tale webbed tracks through the spilled mead and blood. “I believe we can narrow it down to Least grebes in this case. They always hunt in pairs.

    Based on my unfortunate prior experiences, we'll find two of them probably headed for the Endless Swamp, and smelling slightly of stale peppermints and burnt sugar. Oh, and they may be whistling a medley of Mozart favorites. We'd better get a move on.”

    "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

    by xaxnar on Thu Jul 11, 2013 at 08:30:27 PM PDT

  •  There (4+ / 0-)

    "Mozart," observed Twiggly, "does not lend himself to medleys. He is the most unmedleyable composer ever."

    Angela looked at him.

    "I just threw that in," she said. "You know I always want to seem cultured."  

    "Ghetto trash," said the detective, quite affectionately.

  •  What wonderful fun (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest

    this diary -- and all the comments -- have been tonight.

    Thanks much for the after-work giggles.

    Irony takes a worse beating from Republicans than Wile E. Coyote does from Acme. --Tara the Antisocial Social Worker

    by Youffraita on Thu Jul 11, 2013 at 10:20:09 PM PDT

  •  The not-quite-likeable protag... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest

    .... is a real challenge.  I'm not sure likeable is as necessary as sympathetic.  The protag doesn't have to necessarily be admirable, if the writer can put you into his shoes and mindspace in a way so you UNDERSTAND why he acts the way he does, and what he wants to accomplish. If the writer can get you to buy into the protagonist's mind to that degree.... you're on his side all the way, even when you KNOW he's his own worst enemy sometimes.

    George RR Martin does this with a number of his characters in the Song of Ice and Fire series, in which you bounce around between as many as thirty different point of view characters over the series of novels. There is no one protagonist, but some POV characters are more important and used more often. And they're not all likeable, and sometimes the more admirable ones do things that make you wince, because you KNOW its gonna come back and bite them later.. but you do understand their point of view -- and sometimes you actually feel bad for the nasty ones.  (Except Joffrey. Nobody ever seems to feel sorry for HIM...)

    A friend of mine, writing one of a series of RPG-tie-in novels, inherited the LEAST likeable of the major characters to be her protag -- a self-centered, manipulative, petty, bitter old bastard of a wizard who nobody liked, and who was being sent on a dangerous mission he wasn't sure he was intended to survive.  Without changing a thing about him or how he often treated his subordinates, she took us inside his point of view -- and you began to understand just WHY he was the way he was, and what his internal motivations here, and by the time the book reaches its big climax, you were rooting for him to succeed, or at least SURVIVE.  ( Dark Ages: Tremere by Sarah Roark, published by White Wolf for the Dark Ages: Vampire game line)  Which I am still in awe of, because he WAS such a sleazeball....
     

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