Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Mean Characters

When most authors begin a book, they like the characters they create. I'm no different - I love all of the major characters I've written onto the page...or do I? For Awaken the Senses I had to write Spencer Ashton, a mean, mean man who is a borderline sociopath and an unashamed narcissist. I didn't like Spencer as a person, but boy was he fun to write.

That's a writer's point of view but what about as a reader? Should an author always make sure that a book contains a protagonist that the reader can identify with, someone they'll like? I used to think so but I'm not so sure any longer. For example, I really don't like Scarlett O'Hara, and I know others who don't. And yet, Gone With The Wind is a book most readers can't put down.

I also recently read a very good thriller but the main detective was hardly a character I warmed to at the start - in fact, it took a good chunk of the book for me to like this guy. When I thought about it, there wasn't a single character in that book whom I liked from the get-go. But that didn't stop me from continuing the thriller, because the underlying story was excellent and it needed these characters to make it work.

So it looks like not all books need a likeable protagonist. However, I think the rules are different for romance novels. Because romances are all about two characters fighting through obstacles to find each other, we as readers, need to like them enough to cheer them on. If we don't engage with the character, we're not going to care whether they find true love or not. (In my opinion, Gone With The Wind isn't a romance but part of the wider 'love story' genre). Villains and secondary characters can be unlikeable in a romance, but the two main protagonists must be redeemable.

That leads me to another point - one unlikeable main romantic lead is actually worse than two. Why? With two of them, you can just say they deserve each other. But, for example, if the hero is a great guy and the heroine is a completely unlikeable character, then the romance becomes impossible to believe in. I've often found myself hating a book because I kept asking - what could possibly attract him to her? (Or vice versa of course).

Anyone else, readers and writers, care to weigh in on this topic?


tortured artist said...

hmm... good question.

For me getting to really know a character and understanding them is how I come to care for them. Although it is not a book the best example of this, that I have found, is the TV series "Firefly". Although it was not widely known, it does have the most intriguing characters. You don't necessarily like the characters, but you do get to know them. In the pilot episode I only liked the preacher and the pilot. By the last episode I was quoting every one of them and laughing at every joke.
By the time I saw the movie a few weeks ago, I almost cried because I had come to care for them almost like real people. (yes I know I'm a freak)

If a character is truly written well then it no longer matters how much you do or do not like them. When you truly know someone, and they are truly understood, it is very hard not to like them on at least some level. (note: there are probably some exceptions, but I haven't met any. . . yet)

Nalini Singh said...

I definitely see your point, tortured artist, but do you think it's easier to have 'interesting' as opposed to 'likeable' characters in genres outside romance?

Re Firefly - I've heard so much about this show that I'm absolutely dying to see it now!

Laine Morgan said...

As a writer, I think its important for both the hero and the heroine in a romance to be likeable. Maybe not so much in other genres, but in romances, if you have a stupid heroine who is too dumb to live, and a wonderful hero, you can't help but also think the hero is a nitwit for falling for such a woman. I think its possible to create characters that are both interesting and likeable, although for some authors it seems difficult.
Just my two cents...interesting topic!

Nalini Singh said...

Welcome to my blog, Laine. What you said about the hero being a nitwit for falling for a TSTL heroine *really* hit a chord with me. I gave up on a book for that very reason a while back.

I've also seen the problem in reverse with heroes who are so severely alpha that it gets to the point that they're jerks. (And I love alpha heroes!). In that case, I start to doubt the heroine's ability to look after her own emotional health.