Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Character: Hero or Rogue?

What kind of a person is your main character?

I’ve been thinking about this lately, about the kinds of main characters I usually write. I tend to create them with dramatic character arcs, meaning they aren’t necessarily “nice” people in the beginning of the book, but they grow to be something admirable by the end.

However! This doesn’t seem to translate well into something desirable or marketable. Beta readers, critique partners, agents and editors (and readers?)—for the most part, all seem to prefer a character that doesn’t have off-putting traits. So I find myself cleaning up my MCs so they are more palatable and likable throughout. They still change by the end, but not as much.

Relatability and Likability
It seems like the most popular characters are the ones who have hearts of gold, even though they make mistakes. They have good intentions. They’re heroes or heroines by the book’s end. They muster up courage in the face of adversity. If they offend or cause harm to someone, it’s accidental—or at least minor or forced upon them. Think Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen. They are role models, people we often wish we were, people we like because they give us hope or show us how to be brave.

I have a suspicion that more abrasive, less “nice” main characters are found in paranormal or dystopian novels. These books have grittier scenarios, which produce grittier MCs.

People don’t tend to like whiny characters. Or spiteful characters. Or rude-to-their-mother characters. Or narrow-minded characters. But these kinds of people exist in the real world. Are we restricting ourselves too much when we only focus on the “nicer” people, the “good” main characters—or should we stick to what’s more widely marketable?

Personally, I love to read about characters who are complex, not always “good,” and who are different from the usual. I enjoy a wide-swinging character arc, like in the movie Groundhog’s Day; he’s totally obnoxious in the beginning, but his gradual change into someone kind-hearted is awesome.

It’s all fascinating food for thought. I suppose we can’t paint too broad of strokes—because there are always exceptions—but it’s good to ponder these things once in a while.

What kind of main character do you enjoy reading about?
Can you enjoy reading about a character who is mean or snarky to other characters?
What are your favorite characters, and why?—are they the “heart of gold” kind?
Do you think paranormal and dystopian genres have more abrasive or less “nice” kinds of main characters?


  1. I ran into that in my first couple of novels. The MC wasn't all that likable right from the start. I learned that if a reader is going to invest themselves in the book, they want to take a ride with someone they like. So I've given them traits that are a little off, but they are the kind of character I admire etc.

  2. Likeable/relatable can be tricky, because in some genres, readers expect a kind of larger than life, or verging on Mary Sue protagonist. The trick seems to be having a character whose flaws aren't too offputting, as you say, or having the character aware of a deeper flaw and actively seeking change, even if there are plenty of bumps in the road. The toughest kind of character to sell is the Greek type, who struggle with hubris and has to be knocked down to become more genuine. The movie Cars has this kind of hero in Lightning McQueen.

  3. My female chars could all be called the B word. My male chars, jerks and chauvinists, but a little naive and well-intentioned.

  4. I think the trick in creating a likeable unlikeable character is to give them some admirable traits or put them in a situation where their flaws become strengths.

  5. I personally like snarky characters, but I write urban fantasy so that's probably why :) But there's a difference between snarky and mean. And I do like my characters to be good at heart.

  6. For MCs, I prefer the heart-of-gold types, or at least someone who's difficult because of some trauma or challenge thrust on them that they didn't want. I also like humorously clueless characters. For the really snarky, mean characters, I usually like them as part of the supporting cast.

  7. I like all types of characters and definitely even the ones that are bad, mean, grouchy, etc. but you see some redeeming quality in them. I think that's why the stories that do have those characters do well because it's not the norm and not the norm for their personality but there's a little something good there that can be brought out.

  8. I agree; it's so much fun to read about flawed, realistic characters, especially if they grow well throughout the book. Though there are definitely limits; I once tried to watch a movie where the supposed heroine killed a kitten. There was no way I could forgive the protagonist for that one!

  9. I enjoy flawed characters with good intentions and personalities on the nicer side. I haven't noticed too much of a difference between genres. Sometimes I do go for unlikable characters, American Psycho being an example--the story has to be extremely entertaining if the character is unlikable.

  10. I think that sometimes people put too much emphasis on "marketability" and forget that for every "nice" character, there is a best seller about a "not nice" character as well.

    I believe that whiny, spiteful or whatever else characters can be pulled off as long as the point is made to make the reader understand where it comes from. Or alternatively, by balancing those traits out with emotions and perceptions that everyone would have.

    It can be done. (And honestly I think that people trying to quell character personalities when they should be critiquing or editing aren't really doing their jobs. They should be finding ways to make those personalities work.)

  11. I do love a well layered character. They are harder to write (and maintain in the rewriting) but well worth it.

  12. I love complex characters, but I find that mean or awful characters are better as secondary characters. You can still see their growth and follow a hero.

  13. It's interesting that you mention how the most popular/socially acceptable reader characters are those with hearts of gold and flaws. I believe those characteristics make a character multi-dimensional and that is the reason they are so likable. Of course, there are a ton of variations here, variations that are our job as writers to explore. Really rough characters at the onset of a story tend to rub readers the wrong way. I know my first MC was a very angry teen, and for good reason. But I quickly learned that I couldn't make her too angry at the beginning because no reader was invested enough in her yet to find out why she was angry. Her abrasiveness was merely a turn-off.


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