January 16, 2013

Writing Club Wednesdays: On Likeable MCs

One of the biggest issues I hear about writers having - and which I have with books I read - is the dreaded "unlikeable main character (MC)." It's a challenging hurdle to get over, because liking someone is by definition subjective, so, you might ask yourself, is it really my problem, or any writer's, to make the MC someone you'd want to hang out with?

Well, look at it this way - when you're trying to decide if you want to hang out with someone, how much time do you want to spend with someone who's unpleasant, or spineless, or - gasp - boring? Because that's what reading is - it's hanging out with the characters - and if no one wants to spend time with yours, guess what they won't be doing?

That's right: reading your book.

Of course, you can't make anyone like everyone, but what you can do is avoid the major pitfall I see plaguing unlikeable MCs over and over again.

You know why you like Anna Oliphant, and Samantha King, and Frankie Landau-Banks, and Taylor Markham, and Jessica Darling?

Because they like themselves. And because while yes, they all have their romances, they're not defined by the boys in their lives. When I think Anna, I think movies and a specific personal style. When I think Taylor, I think about her upbringing and leadership qualities and yearning for family. When I think Frankie, I think anything but someone who doubts her own intelligence and lives for a guy.

The point is, they have the kinds of traits we look for in people we choose to befriend: Passion. Fearlessness. Humor. Intelligence. Curiosity.  And, yes, a certain amount of confidence.

Enough of female MCs and their "I'm not good/thin/pretty enough." How are we supposed to root for people who don't root for themselves? And why should we? Sure, we hold the hands of our friends and tell them "You're great! You're beautiful! You will succeed!" But these characters aren't our friends... yet. We don't really know them... yet.  Who wants to do that for a total stranger? (Except on Twitter, obviously.)

And frankly, if your girl is going to espouse on why she'd never get the guy, guess what that's going to render unbelievable... THAT SHE WOULD EVER GET THE GUY. Your MC is our window in, whether a reliable narrator or not. If she's telling us she sucks, whether explicitly or implicitly (usually through her being an obviously terrible friend, and NOT as a conscious choice by the author), why and how are we supposed to feel otherwise?

I know what you're thinking. "But, Dahlia! You've said on numerous occasions that CRACKED UP TO BE is one of your favorite YA books ever! How can that be when Parker Fadley is the epitome of an unlikeable MC?"

Well, she is and she isn't. Do I want to be friends with Parker? I'm not sure, as she totally terrifies me. But do I enjoy her? Definitely. The difference between Parker and a lot of the MCs in similar "I beat myself up because everything is my fault situations" is that Parker is angry at herself; she doesn't fundamentally think she's a person unworthy of admiration. Could a girl with zero self-esteem seriously utter the words “How does it feel to know that even at my worst, you're still not good enough?” No, because while Parker's not a nice girl, she's a girl who knows she's got value, that there's something in there worth holding onto. And it makes me want to hold on too.

(And, as it happens, Courtney Summers herself recently wrote a great post on writing Parker and other "unlikeable" MCs that's definitely worth checking out: http://courtneysummers.ca/2012/12/if-youre-never-sorry-2/)

So keep that in mind the next time you're writing someone who beats herself up, pushes everyone away, locks herself up in her room to poke at herself in the mirror, or waxes rhapsodical about how she'll never compare to her best friend or sister's hotness. If your MC isn't worthy of her own time, how are you going to make her worthy of ours?

What makes you like or dislike a main character? Who are your favorites and least favorites?


Jill Haugh said...

All I could think about while reading this was "Scarlett O'Hara". Does anybody read "GWTW" anymore? Talk about a conflicted character. Scarlett is a completely irratating, selfish brat yet undeniable likable. She is unapologetically herself. But we root for her to change, to grow, to become more of a human and less of a snarky self-possessed beeyatch, because we understand her motivation and where she comes from. Mitchell does a tremendous job explaining why Scarlett is the way she is, and when Scarlett is taken out of her usual element, we somehow, miraculously root for her to succeed. And in the end--she really doesn't, though Rhett does. Yet we still like her.
I think it's because she's stronger than dirt.
My .02.
~Just Jill

Dahlia Adler said...

YES. I actually used Scarlett/GWTW as a little running theme in another ms, because I find her fascinating. Some of the things she does are absolutely terrible, and the people she does them TO are horrifying, but she's fighting against such an impossible life and odds that you can't not root for her to succeed because she's working for HERSELF so hard. That's exactly the sort of thing I mean - no matter how terrible a person your MC may seem, if she wants herself to succeed, I probably will too!

Lydia Sharp said...

It's all in the presentation of it. For me it's about how the MC views herself, how she treats other people, and how she handles the situation the story puts her in. For example, Sam, the MC in Before I Fall, was extremely unlikeable at the beginning of the novel, to the point of me wanting to slap her, but she had this essence to her (that I have trouble describing) that showed she had a likeable side to her, somewhere, and the story was presented in a way that made me believe I'd see that better side of her at some point. And I did. Her actions at the end of the novel are about as selfless as you can get.

Dahlia Adler said...

I read BEFORE I FALL immediately after reading a book with the most infuriatingly spineless and personality-less MC, so though I knew Sam was technically unlikeable in the beginning, I was just so relieved to see a main character with a personality that I didn't even mind. But yes, you said it exactly - no matter how you feel about her at the beginning, you know she's gonna be a different person at the end, one who's definitely learned and grown, and you actually watch it happen. I think it's one of my favorite examples of a solid character arc in YA, now that I think about it.

Corrie said...

I feel like these cliche MCs also represent a sad misunderstanding of what people who truly live in those feelings are going through. Do they really think they're worthless and ugly and will never compare to all the better people in their lives? Maybe sometimes yes. But most of the time I think it's because they know those things are not true. They know they've got something to offer the world but the world is holding them back. They're waiting for their chance to fly. And every moment that drags them further away from that freedom is another moment a small part of them withers and chokes out.

Dana Elmendorf said...

I think unlikable characters that stand out as successes, are because they are the extreme and the story involved them changing to someone likeable (or someone less unlikeable.) I think it's the characters who are right in the middle kind of characters that seem to blend into the scenery and things just happen around them that turn people off (or simply bore people to death. You know the books, that you just put down and never pick up again. Yeah, those characters are forgettable.

Rachel said...

Hehe. You know I LOVE unlikeable characters ;-) I actually read BEFORE I FALL as an ARC and cried the entire book through. (I seem to do this a lot. I need to stop.) It was extremely instrumental in the way I built Jenna in my head and in my book. (novel, whatever) I think unlikeable characters are way more interesting than the every girl. (I actually categorise Anna from FRENCH KISS as 'every girl' but...digression) I mean, don't get me wrong- I am an 'every girl' in real life and certainly like my life, lol! But I'm not sure I'd want to read about it all the time. I love that there are books that change up our view of what a protagonist should look/act like. :-)

Maggie Hall said...

Interesting! That's a good way to think about it--if the MC likes themselves, we'll like them too. For me, while it's definitely true I can't get on board with whiners, there are definitely some other types I can't deal with, either. Annoying characters (like ones that are sarcastic all the time for no good reason), super entitled ones with no redeeming qualities...

I guess I like reading about people I would like to hang out with in real life. :) I'd rather read about a character who's a little too perfect than one I don't like.

Carrie-Anne said...

For me, Scarlett O'Hara and the thematically similar Amber St. Clare are the quintessential protagonists who aren't very likable or sympathetic on paper. But once you get to know them and learn what drives them, how strong they are to have survived so many awful things, you really start to root for them and want them to succeed.

Rachel O'Laughlin said...

I love this topic, Dahlia. MCs really do not have to be loveable people.

I do have to agree with Maggie; sometimes a character is just too entitled or sarcastic for me to put up with, even if they are dedicated to their own cause. On the other hand, sometimes I'm willing to put up with someone who doesn't believe in themeselves for the first half of the book. I will hang in there and hope that they change, as long as by their actions they are still picking themselves up out of the dirt.

I like that someone brought up Scarlett O'Hara. I've probably read that book way too many times, but it's true-- we love her because she's strong. She is a terrible person, yet because she carries on and always has that power to keep doing, she is fascinating, and we just can't stop reading.

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