I am not one of those writers who believes that my characters have to be likable. If you focus too much on likability you can lose out on creating an interesting character arc. I want my characters to be flawed, unpredictable, sometimes weak and sometimes cowardly, because eventually I want them to rise above all these flaws to become something greater. If I’m always asking myself if a character is likable I hobble myself as a writer.
Granted, not every reader wants to read about deeply flawed individuals. Some readers prefer fairly bland characters who almost always do the right thing, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. But if you want to write about a kid just getting out of juvie for setting his girlfriend’s car on fire, I say go for it. If you write this kid’s story well enough, the reader will still end up rooting for him to get his act together and stop being such a tool.
Readers will invest their time in a story about a troubled character if you give him a reason for his problems. An arsonist probably isn’t going to come from a loving home, for example. Maybe his mother abandoned him to the care of a drug-addicted father. Maybe his feelings about his girlfriend are confused with his rage at his mother. Maybe he never really meant for the car to go up in flames; he just threw a lit cigarette on the floor in a fit of anger and walked away, never imagining it could lead where it did.
As the story unfolds around this difficult-to-love character, sympathy for him should develop too, especially if he is on a mission to redeem himself in some way. If he realizes, maybe at the beginning of the story or maybe halfway through, that even if burning the car was an accident he’s still responsible and he needs to take a look at his problem with anger or his life will never get on track again.
I believe the kids with impulse control issues, the kids with pent up rage, the kids who have been abandoned and rejected all deserve to read stories about people like themselves. They deserve to see a character rising above their terrible circumstances to grasp at something greater. If we only tell stories about ‘likable’ kids doing noble things, how many rough and tumble kids will give up on reading and, worse, fail to recognize their own good hearts? If you feel the pull to write a story about a troubled kid don’t worry about likability. Worry about making him and his difficult journey real. Your story might not speak to everybody but it might speak to someone who really needs it.
Amy Kathleen Ryan’s author website: www.amykathleenryan.com
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