Story Stuff: L Is For Likable vs. Livable

Today in our series, we’re stepping away from editing stuff and back into story creation – specifically, we’re spending time with our characters because we like them.

L

Or maybe it’s because we tolerate living with them for the course of a story, as long as everything else in the story makes it worthwhile.

Sometimes I hear gripes from critique partners or beta readers that one of my characters isn’t likable (I won’t say which characters because I don’t want to poison the well, in case any of you want to read my stuff). After making sure I haven’t created an unnecessary asshole, I ask myself this question – does the character have to be likable? Or just livable?

The author of this post suggests the main character has to be likable. I agree for the most part, but no character is going to be perfect (in fact, inadvertently writing perfect characters is common warning for new writers). Imperfections can be a delicious source of conflict in our narrative worlds. So what happens if the imperfections tip the scales away from “likable”?

Have you ever had an obnoxious coworker? Not one who made your life a living hell, but one who just grated at your nerves. Maybe they played bad music or laughed loudly at everything or reheated fish in the community microwave. You might have even casually discussed hanging out sometime, but of course you don’t try to make that happen.

That coworker would be categorized as “livable.” You’re certainly not going out of your way to spend time with him, but positive elements of the job – probably other, more likable coworkers – make putting up with his annoying habits possible.

Jurassic World came out a couple of years ago, and while I enjoyed the movie overall, there was one protagonist that irritated the hell out of me.

claire

Credit: imdb.com

Hey, Claire – your arms go inside the sleeves.

I found Claire to be ridiculous for the entire movie. For someone who ran a dinosaur island, she was super dumb (that’s like regular dumb only there’s a cape – maybe that’s what she was doing with the jacket up there) about dinosaurs and nature and would have died a few times if not for Owen.

I can’t say that would have broken my heart.

So why did I stick with the movie until the end? I didn’t see it until it was out on blu-ray, so I could have simply turned it off.

It came down to the rest of the movie – Chris Pratt was great, the dinosaurs were well-created, and I didn’t really want the kids to die (as they were far less ridiculous than their Aunt Claire). I tolerated Claire because the good stuff carried her through. I just had to live with her for a couple of hours.

So maybe our protags don’t always have to be likable, just livable – as long as the story and other characters can pick up the slack.

What do you think? Do you have an example like my Jurassic World one? 

15 thoughts on “Story Stuff: L Is For Likable vs. Livable

  1. I love to love a good badguy, but I have to like my good guys even if I don’t love them. I feel for your Jurassic example (Claire annoyed me too) but I think I can do one better:

    Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

    One of the few movies I’ve watched in which I’ve cheered on the badguy and am genuinely sad every time Alan Rickman is defeated by Kevin Costner. Maybe I’m being unfair, because it’s not a character problem, it’s an actor problem. Costner just couldn’t hold an English accent. The directors maybe were a little to blame, too (riding from Dover to Nottingham in under a day? Noooo!) Unlikable main characters are a huge immersion-killer for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My son adores Jurassic World and he’s at the age where he likes to watch movies over and over. So I tolerate it by pretending Claire doesn’t exist. LOL. I watch Chris Pratt’s muscles flex. I try to think about the relationships, the plot line, the bits of dialogue that make me laugh. And I find a reason to leave the couch when I know Claire is about to be particularly cringe worthy.
    I wonder if readers are becoming less welcoming to the livable character though. All my betas seem quite concerned that one of my minor characters irritates them. He is written that way on purpose of course. But the response makes me wonder if maybe readers palates have been flattened? No pepper for them thanks. Thoughts?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmmm. That’s an interesting point. Maybe we have been conditioned to think any discomfort is bad. It would explain the general distaste for an unhappy ending too, even when writing a happy ending would require great literary gymnastics.

      Thanks for the image of Chris Pratt’s muscles. LOL 😎

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I LOVE your example. I would say the main protagonist should maintain a degree of likeability. Claire ruined Jurassic World for me. I hated it.

    I have nothing against Bryce Dallas Howard. Not only did she run around in stilettos throughout the entire movie, she did a fabulous job with the role she was given. The role itself was garbage.

    It made me think about all the years women were excluded from the workforce, and when they were included, always underpaid. Claire epitomizes every idiotic fear of the men in those times. While perfectly coiffed, she is emotional, irrational, flighty, and cold. Yes, she is Jurassic World’s Operation’s Manager, (great job for a woman, go girl-power) BUT her life decisions and dedication to her career are often patronized, her opinions are usually trivialized, and she is constantly interrupted by the male “experts” surrounding her. Ultimately, her shortsightedness leads to the death of countless characters, and it isn’t until she opens her heart to a man that she sees the error of her ways.

    On the other hand, I hate Frank Underwood on House of Cards, but love the show. Maybe because of that Claire, haha. She’s bad ass.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, you made so many great points about the flaws in Claire’s character. Those…let’s call them micro-sexist acts are so ingrained into our experience that we don’t see them as that. Except for the heels. I mean, really. 🙄

      Liked by 1 person

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  5. There’s a difference between a character we don’t like and one that we DON’T LIKE.

    You don’t like Darth Vader. You’re not supposed to like him. He’s the villain.

    This Claire is a character who is irritating; she un-immerses you from the story to the point where you don’t want to continue on with the story, or at least you are considering not continuing on.

    I think stories are great if they have Darth Vader’s, they’re not great if they have Claires.

    Case in point, Jurassic World. I turned it off. I found it unwatchable. I like Chris Pratt just fine, but he’s not “all that.” For me, he’s not enough to put up with the other nonsense happening in the movie. (And let’s face it, when you come out with your fourth movie of the series, if it’s not better than the first one, you are just doing it for the money. That means basically you are a whore. So I’m not really walking in the door with high expectations or a high tolerance for pain on this one.)

    Additionally, I thought the subplot with the kids wasn’t great and I thought the computer graphic stuff look really fake.

    But more than likely this movie was not targeted at me. It was targeted at kids who want to watch an adventure about dinosaurs. That’s all fine. My daughter won’t watch it yet because it’s too scary for her, but if she did she would probably not mind that half of the movie looks like I well-drawn cartoon. I do.

    But back to your point, characters that are unlikable.

    I have several characters who my critique partners were sending me notes halfway through the story saying, “I really hate this character!”

    That’s good. They are good bad guys.

    As in, there really bad and they’re doing what they’re supposed to do.

    I have also had beta readers who did not like my main character because they disagreed in principle with what his story arc was. They felt that a character who was unfaithful to his wife was not worthy of being a main character even though without sin there is no redemption. The story is one of redemption. They disliked that enough that they weren’t happy with the main character and they said so.

    The goal in that kind of story would be, make sure the people who pick up the book are aware that this what this guy does, so they don’t write nasty horrible awful reviews; they can just decide not to pick up the book or they can decide to put the book back down. Those who enter into the story with that warning are probably going to be fine. They have accepted and become willing accomplice is on a journey where a man strayed.

    The fact that it’s over the top hilarious and has some of the most memorable characters in literature is more than likely what would carry the reader through to the end even if they didn’t like the main character.

    So, the bottom line is this: as long as you finish the movie or finish the book, I’m good. I have to realize I cannot please every person 100% of the time. But in my stories, I please the vast majority of readers the vast majority of the time. I think that’s the best we can hope for. Even some of my favorites like The Godfather have things in them I don’t like, and in The Shining, I thought Scatman Crothers was a bad choice for the elderly caretaker that sets the family up in the hotel.

    A lot of other people disagreed.

    That’s okay. The rest of the story was enough to get me to the finish line – and love the story.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Right – we’re not supposed to like the bad guys. The problem is when we’re supposed to like the good guys and we don’t (like Claire). There’s a difference between a flawed MC (like yours in a redemption story) and one that is just stupid. You never want your MC to come across as dumb and always needing to be rescued. Anything else is pretty much forgivable.

      My almost 9-year-old loves Jurassic World. He loves all of those movies, actually, even the third one with the woman screaming all the way through it. That one I can’t watch.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m not much for sequels.

        Jurassic Park, the original one, the ONLY one, is amazing. I can watch it probably 10 times back to back, needing nothing but a break for popcorn and maybe the restroom.

        So what we are really talking about is characters that are not audience friendly and also probably not what the author intended.

        That’s just bad writing.

        Jar Jar Binks springs to mind. Bad writing. Not what Lucas intended.

        Not something I ever want to see on the screen again in this life or the next.

        One of my characters in one of my stories is supposed to be irritating.

        If that is what I want and he delivers it, that’s a good thing

        Unfortunately, as you said: most of the time the main character is not supposed to be irritating. One of the main characters really should not be.

        Nope.

        Nope nope nope nope nope.

        Liked by 1 person

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