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:
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.
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.
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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