Characters we don’t love to hate

We have been editing a book in which the author has taken great pains to give the hero a sense of humor. Unfortunately, the things he finds funny are so shocking that every time we read one of them, we have to stop and ask ourselves, “This is the hero of this book? Are we supposed to like him?” The truth is, given his predicament and other things he says, we want to like him, so it is a shock every time he comes out with something mean.

The character is meant to be tough and rough spoken so the author’s challenge is to square that with his likeability. This – character likeability – is a challenge lots of writers have judging from many published books we have read. Yet, it is asking a lot of readers to spend an entire book with characters who are impossible to like. (We are not including characters that are meant to be despicable such as the mother in the movie, “The Fighter,” who we relished hating.)

Authors need to take a good step backwards and scrutinize their characters, or get someone else to read the material for character likeability.Below is a list of character traits that might be screened for. They come from the blog of Sangu Mandanna, a young adult fiction writer.

“These things turn me off instantly:

“1. Selfish characters. A certain amount of selfishness doesn't bother me. Especially not if the character realizes they've been selfish and starts to grow and evolve into something better. But when a character is consistently self-absorbed and selfish and refuses to see this or change, that drives me crazy. For me, it's not about a character I'm supposed to dislike. It just feels like the author's done a shoddy job making me like this person.

“Example: I recently read a book in which the heroine, a dying teenager, is completely irresponsible, selfish and downright inconsiderate of everyone else's feelings: it's as if she feels entitled to everything because she's been unlucky enough to have cancer. The last 30 pages of the novel were amazing; the rest just made me grit my teeth and think 'stop being such a selfish ****, I honestly don't care that you're dying!'

“Which, you know. Isn't what you should be feeling about your heroine/narrator.

“2. Stupid characters. I've mentioned this before, but I will again. It's not about characters who are handicapped, or silly, or not very intelligent; it's characters who are mind-numbingly stupid. I.e. Page Ten: Character Two tells Stupid Main Character not to do something and tells him why doing that something would be very, very bad (and it's an excellent reason, by the way). Page Twelve: Stupid Main Character does the thing he was told not to.


“(Note: in most circumstances, this wouldn't actually be an unlikeable character. Just an annoying and painfully frustrating one. But it might be enough to turn you off reading the rest of the book, as it has done for me in the past, so I thought it worth mentioning.)

“3. Perfect characters. You know the ones I mean. The ones whose virtues are constantly being pointed to: 'Richard is so kind', 'Richard only wants what's best for the people', 'Richard is handsome', 'Richard makes me laugh', 'Richard never puts a foot wrong'. And even when Richard makes a colossal mistake because he's actually a bit of a dolt, it turns out well, so Richard's still a brilliant hero.

“These are characters you just want to smack in the face. It's impossible to admire them, because virtues mean nothing if there aren't any flaws to contrast them with. It's impossible to sympathize with them, because we, the readers, aren't perfect. It's downright hard to like them.”

We would add meanness to this list and you probably have your own pet character peeves. We would love to hear what they are.