I heard author Aaron Michael Ritchey speak in February at the Pikes Peak Writers Write Your Heart Out workshop. During a break, we discussed writing likeable characters. He kindly agreed to take the discussion a step further here.
1. Aaron, some people think characters must be likeable in order to draw in the reader. Others insist that “real” is more important than “likeable”. What’s your own take? How important is it to you that readers like your main characters?
There is one big exception to all rules on writing. All rules can be broken because what works, works. No matter what. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl has characters everyone despises, but no one can stop reading it. If you have the talent and the patience to revise, you can pull off any trick.
Okay, that’s the big huge answer for all people everywhere. For me, personally, I want readers to like my heroes and to root for them. And so, I have a “pet the puppy” scene, early, early on. A pet the puppy scene is where the hero or heroine does something morally good, it’s a concrete action, and what I want is the reader to say, “Wow, that Chuck is a nice guy.” Then I have more leeway to make Chuck real because I’ve established him as a good guy.
I also have a “kick the puppy” scene for the villain ‘cause hey, who likes someone who kicks puppies?
2. I’ve put down books where I haven’t liked the main character enough to stick with them for two hundred odd pages. On the other hand, I’ve devoured books with main characters I despised. (Lolita comes to mind.) What do you think makes the difference?
Some of it is our fascination with evil. More importantly, I think we can relate to sick, broken characters mucking around in life because hey, I’ve done my fair share of being sick, being broken, and mucking. I think if the stakes are right, you can do a lot with characters and stretch people’s acceptance of them. Walter White in Breaking Bad is a good example. We watch him go from a middle-aged guy with a wife, a family, a mortgage to an evil, murderous gangster. But why does he start down that path? Because he has lung cancer, a pregnant wife, and no money. He wants to take care of his family and leave them a legacy. The stakes are high and morally just. Even when he starts doing terrible things, we root for him because we want him to win. And we’re fascinated with his evil and how despicable he can become. That’s part of the fun of the show. But we didn’t start there, right? We started with an average Joe.
Another example of the likeable anti-hero (at least for me) is the protagonist in Notes From Underground. Now there was a scumbag who was just foul. At the same time, the writing made me fall in love with him, empathize with him, because I’ve felt that way – alone and hateful. Again, if you have the talent and the patience, you can do anything. Fyodor did a pretty good job with that one.
3. How do you create a three-dimensional character with flaws and still maintain reader interest? Do you readers want a character who is a “regular guy” or do we want to read about someone who’s better than us, a hero?
It’s the flaws we like as reader. Even the Greeks knew that. They came up with that whole Achilles heel thing, the heroic flaw. Batman is a self-destructive vigilante, and Superman has cryptonnite. Wolverine from the X-Men is such a good character because really, he’s this anti-social alcoholic rebel-without-a-cause type of character. More and more, readers DEMAND three-dimensional characters. Which is why I think the Superman franchise is having a hard time getting off the ground. Superman is too good. He’s too perfect. But Batman, Batman is a rich guy with a death wish—there’s more to work with. Spiderman is a nerdy kid with a camera who sometimes doesn’t get the girl because, hey, nerdy kid with a camera. It’s much more interesting to read about flawed characters. However, the more flawed the character, the harder some people might have with him\her.
However, there are tricks you can use for your more seriously messed up characters. In The Sopranos, Tony Saprano was a narcissistic violent thug prone to anxiety disorders. And yet, when he starts going to therapy, he wants to be a better man. So the flawed hero who wants to be good is a way to garner audience sympathy. Or, again in The Sopranos, Tony’s mother is far more corrupt and ruthless than he is, and so another trick is to have other more flawed characters act as a foil to your unlikeable hero. Quentin Tarantino does that all the time. His heroes are evil, but they go up against villains who are even worse!
4. Lena, your MC in The Never Prayer is not doing particularly likeable things. She’s a drug mule, she’s mean to her aunt, and she wears makeup like armor, but alongside this, we learn her parents have died violently, and she’s responsible for her tiny brother whom she deeply loves. Also it’s clear from the very first sentence that she’s conflicted about dealing drugs and doing it only because she’s been saddled with adult-sized money problems. She grabbed my sympathy despite her prickly outsides, and so I liked her enough to read on. Is that the key to reader engagement with her?
When I started to write Lena’s story, I knew she was going to be a hard sell. And I knew I needed to have the readers like her immediately, and so I added in the character of Jozey, her little brother. Jozey did two things. The first, he showed how good of a mother Lena was to him, and how much the two loved each other. The second, he raised the stakes. If Lena was caught running drugs, she would lose Jozey, whom she loved. So in the first chapter of the book, I had a classic “pet the puppy” scene, where Lena holds Jozey while he cries for their dead parents. It’s a concrete example of her being good.
Aaron’s second novel, Long Live the Suicide King, was released last week. Click on the photo for the link.
5. Tell me about JD, your main character. On the surface at least he’s not particularly likeable. He’s snarky, whiny and apathetic, and despite his privilege (brains and affluence) he wastes his time doing drugs. How do you help your readers engage with a character like this? Or do you consider it your job as a writer to help your readers engage?
If Lena was a hard sell, JD was impossible! So I pulled out the stops. JD is funny. Humor can go a long way to help people like your character. I introduce other drug addicts that make JD look like a saint in comparison. Like Tony Soprano, JD wants to get better. He wants to get off drugs and be a better human beings while others around him don’t. That dichotomy is important. And I introduced probably my favorite character in the book, Inga Blute, an elderly German woman JD takes care of. Like Jozey, Inga shows that JD is a good guy, deep down. And I love Inga because she is such a great counterbalance to JD.
Because of the subject matter, some people are just not going to like JD, and I don’t expect them to finish the book. In the end, that might be the only rule of writing that has no exceptions. Not everyone is going to like your book.
6. Do you find it more important to make Lena, a female, likeable than it was to making JD, your male MC, likeable?
Now that is a fascinating question. The short answer is no. For me, my characters transcend gender. They are more than their parts. Yes, Lena is far more feminine than JD, and sees the world through the lenses of a young woman, but in the end, who they are is important than their sex.
But the question is good. Women are saddled with a lot of baggage: women are expected to act in a certain way to be, women should be a bastion of morality, and they have to be maternal and sweet. Old-fashioned baggage, stereotypes, yes, but a writer probably should take that into account. I don’t, but a writer should. Interesting that Lisabeth from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was so popular, since she was such a broken character, and yet, her violent past touched a lot of people. But while it’s easy to come up with tons of male anti-heroes, finding anti-heroines is harder. Not impossible, but harder.
Should girls be nice and boys be rough? The rules are changing and I’m glad. Both sides of the battle of the sexes have been wounded long enough.
In the end, I’m there to tell my story, which includes a character arc and a story arc. In my books, I want my characters to grow because of what happens to them, which is the story. But I’ve learned. I can’t start out with my character too broken. I just can’t. So taking a page from Donald Maass, my larger-than-life heroes have flaws, and my flawed characters want to be better, and my normal or readers lose interest.
Donald Maass has some great stuff on character. He argues that total hero-types should have a flaw (like Indiana Jones’s fear of snakes, normal characters should be able to do something really well (Luke Skywalker has a special gift with the force), and anti-heroes should want to be better than they are. Tony Soprano fits there.
Thanks for answering my questions, Aaron.
Thanks! This was fun!
Aaron Michael Ritchey grew up dancing with the demons of despair, but around nineteen he got tired of demons stepping on his toes. So he’s found other things to do like running triathlons, doing house exchanges across the globe with his two rockstar daughters and his movie star wife, and working a day job in medical technologies. He lives in Colorado and writes. A lot. It’s far better than dancing with demons. Each year, the diabolical music gets a little quieter. A little quieter. Long Live the Suicide King is his second novel. Our friends in Amazon would love to hear from you!
For more about Aaron Michael Ritchey, go to his website at www.aaronmritchey.com, friend him on Facebook, or follow him on twitter, @aaronmritchey.