Years ago, an actor performing in an early play of mine told me that I never seemed to write likeable characters. Being an insecure early-career playwright, I asked if that was a bad thing. “Not really,” he said, “I think it’s just the way you write.”
Initially that stuck with me. Maybe it was a shortcoming in my work. Maybe I had to try harder to write characters my audience could like and connect to. Maybe that was the key to cracking the code of whatever success was.
But I didn’t dwell on it. My writing changed and improved and developed, but I never really arrived at a place where I knew how to or even cared much about writing ‘likeable’ characters. Of all the questions I’ve asked beta readers about my work – did this surprise you, did you see this coming, were you engaged – I don’t think I’ve ever asked whether they liked a certain character. The question I’d be more inclined to go with, and the question I’m more interested in the answer to, is ‘what did you think of that character?’
It probably seems like a small distinction, but it’s important. We were taught a lot about likeability at film school but I always kind of tuned it out. I think I knew why back then even if I didn’t yet have the language to explain it. Likeability was just never a factor in any of the characters I found most compelling. Is Don Draper likeable? Is Walter White? Hannibal Lecter? Lisbeth Salander?
You might respond to a couple of those names with a resounding yes, to which my answer is, cool! But I’d also argue that for many people, likeability is the last word they’d associate with those characters. They divide opinion and to me, that is why they are great characters. We all know people who are roundly likeable, but it’s very, very rare that anyone is liked by everyone. People aren’t Marvel heroes – funny and charming and self-deprecating enough to feel ‘real’, but ultimately always heroic. People are a lot more complicated than that and in the cases of the people you care about, really care about, it’s not because of their likeability. People can be likeable but still cowardly, shallow, ignorant, whatever. Likewise, many people of great integrity and honesty would be considered ‘unlikeable’ by any Hollywood focus group.
I think people have become less comfortable with ambiguity. I’m sure there are plenty of social factors for this, but it does seem like we’ve seen a shift away from a willingness to sit in unanswerable grey areas. In a weird way I think that Game of Thrones provides a unique case study of this. In the early seasons, ambiguity was what made it so compelling. The traditionally heroic characters didn’t last. Seemingly irredeemable characters looked very different once you came to understand them.
Then certain characters became favourites and became increasingly one note as the show gradually lost ambiguity to the point where the ending, which tried (not very well) to restore some moral uncertainty was roundly rejected due to seeming so at odds with what had come before. I still argue that all the seeds for Daenarys’ turn are in those early years, but the later seasons dropped the ball so terribly that people forgot this was supposed to be a show without heroes or villains and fell into comfortable binaries.
One of the most fascinating recent case studies of widespread discomfort with ambiguity was the character of Cliff Booth in One Upon a Time in Hollywood. Cliff is a washed up stuntman played by Brad Pitt at his most easily charming. He also, potentially, killed his wife in cold blood. The film never directly confirms this (although the novel version does) and it is, at least on screen, treated as a minor aspect of his character.
When the film came out there was a lot of peal-clutching about this. Review after review seemed to cry “how are we supposed to like him?” and in the process missed the point that at no stage in the film does Tarantino suggest you are supposed to like him. The reason Cliff Booth is a great character is that his toughness, bravery and charm go hand in hand with a blithe disregard for human life. The book, for my money, does a better job of making clear how intentional this is; Cliff in the book is far more troubling than he is on the screen, partly because there’s no Brad Pitt charisma to mask his less savoury traits. But that doesn’t mean Tarantino is positioning him as a villain or someone ‘unlikeable’. I don’t think he’s being positioned as anything other than a character in a story. Like him? Don’t like him? That’s entirely up to you. And it’s shocking to me that commentators somehow struggled with this – when has Quentin Tarantino ever written a character you’re supposed to just like without complications? The Bride in Kill Bill murders a mother in front of her child. The guys in Reservoir Dogs are thugs. The Basterds in Inglourious Basterds are bloodthirsty brutes who shoot a bunch of defenceless dogs to coerce a vet to help them (watch the background of the vet scene, or else read the screenplay if you don’t believe me). And of course they are. The kinds of people who can commit the acts they do are not, by any binary understanding of the concept, good people.
Which in a roundabout way brings me to Maggie. Now, to get this out of the way – clearly I like Maggie. I wouldn’t have written several books and short stories about her if I didn’t. But there’s no part of me that thinks you as the reader have to like her. Skim reviews of The Hunted and The Inheritance for a taste of how she divides people – readers seem to like her more in the second book, but more than a few have come back saying she’s a ‘psychopath’.
Is she? Isn’t she? That’s up to you. She tries to do good and help people where she can. She feels remorse for her mistakes. She’s haunted by guilt and a horrific childhood. She’s also a cold-blooded killer who couldn’t care less about ending the life of somebody who tries to hurt her. Maybe she even enjoys it. She has made deeply selfish choices that got innocent people killed. She feels those choices, hates herself for them, but that didn’t stop her making them.
Just because I wrote her and like her doesn’t mean I think there’s any right or wrong way to feel about her. Likewise Jack Carlin in The Consequence, a violent, ruthless man with a warped code of honour and a wicked sense of humour. Or Nelson in The True Colour of a Little White Lie, a bumbling, awkward, well-meaning kid who still selfishly lies to two girls to save himself from having to make a choice.
None of this is to suggest that I like every protagonist I’ve ever written. I usually have some level of empathy for them, because, well, I have to, but there are plenty who I didn’t particularly care about. But the one thing they all had in common is that, on one level or another, something about them interested me. That might just have been down to a choice they had to make, as in a lot of my plays. Or it might have gone further, in the case of Maggie or Boone Shepard, where I kept writing about them because I knew there were depths I wanted to fully explore. But the one thing I’ve never cared about was whether they came across as likeable. In a weird way, I think that fixating on likeability, for a writer, can be dangerous. And, often, cheap. Employing screenwriting manual mandated techniques to make the audience like a character early robs them of the chance to come to that conclusion themselves.
For me there is nothing in a story quite as exhilarating as slowly realising that I like a character or that I was wrong about my initial assumptions of them. One of the best examples is Steve Harrington in Stranger Things – the reason people are so connected to that character is that we weren’t positioned to like him at the start and slowly grew to as we got to know him. Almost like how we make friends in real life. Contrast this with a clip I saw from a recent episode of Doctor Who that introduces a new companion by having him say ‘what’s the point of being alive if you don’t make other people happy?’ Which even a child could tell is the writer smashing you over the head with the fact that you’re supposed to like this guy. It's infantilising and annoying.
There are audiences who will quickly check out if they don’t have a reason to like a character. But I would also argue that far more important than liking a character is empathising with them. Which many people assume is the same thing but it’s absolutely not. Somebody once described books as ‘empathy machines’ and for good reason. Stories allow us the chance to explore the minds of people who are nothing like us. Bad people, complicated people, different people. But all people. Stories can make us view the world differently simply by presenting the perspective of somebody who doesn’t think the same way as you, in the process forcing you to consider the divide and therefore giving you something to think about. The moment we start insisting that the most important thing is that our characters are likeable, or ‘good role models’ or whatever, we lose what makes stories special.
Writing words about writing words.