Misunderstood writing advice part 1: “You don’t have to like a character”

I’ve been doing some more critiquing of other people’s writing recently and it’s been an eye-opening experience. The quality of writing I’ve looked at has varied from publishable literary fiction quality down to buttock-clenchingly piss poor trash. I’m not going to name or quote anyone because that would be shitty behaviour and also against the rules for the platform I use to do this. But it got me thinking.

There are a lot of posts, articles, earnest lectures, Youtube videos and so on about bad or misunderstood writing advice. Writers who think they’re the first to realise that “said is dead” might not be the best advice descend upon their fellows like they’re Jesus issuing holy writ(ing):

“You have heard it ejaculated: said is dead. But I say unto you: write no synonym for said, ever….”

So I’m not going to bother with the stuff that we got wrongly taught at school. That’s been covered by the Jesuses. I want to talk about the advice writers give each other without understanding it. There’s a lot of this, and often it’s thrown around in writing advice groups, and quite often it’s not so much advice as the kind of self-justification that holds writers back from awareness and improvement. I want to write about a few of these, as and when they become an issue in the writing I’m critiquing. (The actual work I’m looking at will not make it into these posts in any form.)

Here’s one that gets thrown around a lot. “You don’t have to like a character.”

It’s often given as a justification when a writer’s characters are spectacularly unlikeable right from the first page. Writers who are well aware that we should not write Mary Sues (characters with no negative traits) nonetheless have no compunction about writing characters who are staggeringly unsympathetic. They have nothing likeable about them. When challenged with: “your character is a total scumbag, dude,” they say: “You don’t have to like a character.”

This shows a lot of misguided thinking. There are lots of things that writing advice is not. It is not holy writ. It is not the shackles of political correctness closing around my God-given FREEDOM to write whatever the hell I want, and to hell with you snowflakes who want to crush the freedom of speech of others around me! I WILL NOT BE SILENCED BY YOU SJW COWARDS! J. D. SALINGER ALSO SHOCKED PEOPLE IN HIS TIME, AND HE WAS A GENIUS!(1)

And it’s not a handy justification for writing poorly, when others point it out. Writing advice is guidance. It’s something you should be aware of, it’s something you should think about and take seriously. So. Do readers need to like your characters? Well…

Yes and no. Your readers don’t need to like your characters in the sense that they’d want to be their friend, or go to the pub with them. But they do have to want to read about them, which means that on some level they need to be rooting for them. When a beta or a critique partner says “I don’t like this character” what they often mean is “I can’t root for this character at all. I don’t care about their struggles, and I don’t give a damn if they succeed.” While the first statement isn’t a problem, the second statement is huge. If your readers don’t care about the characters, it doesn’t matter how beautiful your writing is. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a great story. Your readers will not stick around long enough to appreciate either. More than once, I’ve picked up a book where the writing was beautiful, but the opening pages included a protagonist whose behaviour was so repugnant that I said “Well, I already hate this person so much I don’t want them to succeed in any way” and I never got past Chapter 1. 

So let’s look at some unlikeable characters. 

An obvious one is Dr House. Admittedly this is a television show, but he perfectly illustrates what I’m saying. He’s a pretty unlikeable guy: a rude, abrasive, petty, unreliable bully. He only has one friend, and even that guy often wonders why he bothers. House is a thinly veiled, exaggerated version of Sherlock Holmes, who could also be seen in this light. A House is not a Holmes, because Holmes (the original one, anyway) is not as unlikeable.

Would I want to be friends with House? No. Can I root for him? Of course. Everyone wants him to have his epiphany, solve the case, and send the patient on their way with some meds that will bring them from death’s door to perfect health in three days. That’s why the show is compelling.

A really unlikeable character is Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. This guy isn’t just morally ambiguous. He is completely morally bankrupt. He has no conscience or remorse. He cares about nobody but himself, in a way that is utterly spine-chilling. But because Highsmith starts out with a Ripley who is merely talented and charming, a relatively poor person surrounded by privileged and vacuous idiots, she builds up sympathy. When Ripley starts to reveal just what a monster he is, we’ve already begun to root for him. As he gets worse and worse, the intrigue pulls you forward: how the hell is Ripley going to get out of this one? And you want him to get out of it. It’s really spectacular character writing.

What about Humbert Humbert? We don’t want him to succeed. I hope you don’t want him to succeed. Well, Lolita was and is a very controversial and misunderstood book(2). The fact that Dolores is so often presented and perceived as Humbert saw her, a little pint-sized temptress, shows how far we have to go as a culture. What’s going on here? Well, the first thing to remember is that you are not Nabokov. You almost certainly can’t write a book like this and make it work. I know I couldn’t. Secondly, Humbert may be the narrator, but he is not the protagonist. Lolita is written from the POV of a completely unreliable narrator who is the antagonistic force within the novel. You see how he deliberately misrepresents everything that Dolores does, and you root for Dolores. She is the sympathetic character, finding the strength to live with this monster, and you want her to break free – which she eventually does.

It’s hard to pull this off. Like, really hard.

Your characters don’t have to be likeable overall. But please give me something to like(3) and a reason to care whether or not they succeed. Understand the difference between morally ambiguous and morally bankrupt. It’s bizarre that many writers have absorbed the message that the reader needs to have some sympathy for the motivation of the antagonist, but they’re still writing protagonists who are just unmitigated assholes.

And most importantly of all: if readers consistently tell you that they don’t like your characters, don’t identify with them, or don’t care about them, recognise this as the major problem it is. Don’t dismiss it with “you don’t have to like them” or call them “oversensitive” or drivel on about how you write what you want, they’ve just misunderstood what you’re doing something something snowflakes vs freedom.

  1. Writers of one nation in particular often make this argument. I won’t say which nation, because you already know which one.
  2. Fun fact: Nabokov specifically asked that none of the cover art for Lolita should feature a young girl. The cover should be unsettling: the shadowy monster of Humbert looming. There have been a million editions of Lolita, and almost every single one of them has had a cover with a young girl in some sexually suggestive pose. Like I say, we have a long way to go.
  3. Hence the cliche of the mob boss who is fiercely protective and loving towards one person – usually his mum.

3 thoughts on “Misunderstood writing advice part 1: “You don’t have to like a character”

  1. Interesting post, and it makes sense to me. But I would like to add that for me personally, as a reader, a vile story cannot be saved by the quality of writing or complexity of the characters. I find Lolita absolutely abhorrent. It makes me feel like I’m covered in blood, puss and excrement so bad, a bath won’t be enough – I need to shed my skin. And I did not get past the first 80 pages. Undoubtedly a book this strong makes Nabokov a genius, but one I want to have nothing to do with. It’s exactly the same reaction as I had for The Game of Thrones of which I watched may be 3 episodes: it’s a vile story and I don’t want to hear it.

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  2. Oddly enough, I had a similar reaction to GoT. I can’t get along with GRRM’s writing style at all, and the rapiness of the whole thing was very disturbing to me. I didn’t get past the first episode of the TV show.

    A lot of people have the same reaction to Lolita that you do, and I respect that. I read Lolita when I was a teenager myself – probably about 17. Now that I’m 40, I feel more protective towards children than I did at that age (although I don’t have any kids of my own). So it’s entirely possible that if I were to read it again now I’d have a different reaction to it.

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    1. I tried Lolita several times, the first time was way too early – around 13. I did not get past the first 30 pages or so – the book scared me. Then I tried reading it again in my late 20s, and just hated it, didn’t get through it. It felt like rape on several levels. I came across several other acclaimed classical books that provoked the same reaction, but I managed to forget them.

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