As part of The Very Pink Notebook Feature Week, I Sent You a Letter author, Lucy Dawson, guest posts on the need, or not, for likeable characters in novels.
I’m wrestling with a character at the moment. She’s the lead in my next book and I’ve deliberately made her not entirely likeable. Sally has moments where she’s nice, and (I hope) the reader feels sympathy for her, and moments where she’s frankly, a bit of a cow. I did this because something happens to her in the book that I felt would have more power, if the reader felt Sally at least slightly deserved it. Plus, it makes her more interesting to write. But, and it’s a big but: are readers more likely to be swept along by the tale of someone they really like – or really hate – rather than someone who is just ‘normal’ and realistically flawed?
It’s certainly true that as a reader you’ve got to care about what happens to the characters in a book. No one is going to invest their time in the story of people they feel nothing for. It’s also less of a risk as a writer to make a character sympathetic, someone your reader can empathise with, and so imagines the events happening to them. In my current book You Sent Me A Letter, Sophie – the lead – is a kind girl who has made a terrible mistake. That turned out to be a fun challenge; creating someone readers identified with, even though she’d done something very unlikable indeed. That’s still different to having a character who is just… not very pleasant, however. Of course, behaving badly didn’t seem to do Amy Dunne any harm, and Hugh Laurie’s Richard Roper in the BBC’s The Night Manager is completely mesmeric. You really can believe that he is ‘the worst man in the world’ – but equally, do you want to know what he does next? Absolutely.
Perhaps that means lead characters only really work when they sit definably at either end of the scale. So what do I do with poor Sally? Take the safe option and make her softer, less prone to snappy and arsey comments? Make the reader have no choice but to feel sorry for her? Or do I tough it, and her, out? Some writers would argue that having a likeable character shouldn’t be a conscious consideration at all. The Sunday Times yesterday quoted Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter of Adaption, Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as saying “I’m trying to explore a character and maybe, in that process make the character understandable. That’s the goal of dramatic writing. Not to make people likeable. Maybe it doesn’t serve the box office. I don’t know. I can’t think of things that way, so I don’t choose to. It feels like pandering.”
In an ideal world, maybe he’s right. But I think perhaps I am going to have to soap Sally’s mouth out a little, because in the world of fiction at least, the nice girls don’t finish last.