In my upcoming YA novel, Perdition, the main character, Michaela Reilly, is dealing with the death of her step-father, an emotionally absent mother, and essentially raising her two younger siblings, Lucas and Chloe. On top of all of this, her family has just moved from Miami to a tiny speck of a town in the middle of nowhere, Georgia where she’ll be starting over completely new her senior year.
Needless to say, Michaela is not in the happiest of places. She makes mistakes and thinks she’s in the right. She doesn’t always think of others’ feelings. She’s angry, and tired, and grieving. And therein lies all of the worries I had when creating her character.
You see, there’s a problem with female characters in books, movies, and television shows. Many times, when they are complicated and dealing with complex emotions that don’t always lead them down the “right” path, it leaves that character with the dreaded “unlikable” label. Why female characters more so than male? That’s a subject for another day. For now, I’ll just focus on the word unlikable.
Were I personally to be called unlikable (which I’m sure, since I am not a constant delight, I have been at points in time), my thoughts would be somewhere in the vein of “Oooh, so someone doesn’t like me. Big deal?” I’m a real person, though. Some people just don’t mesh, and that’s okay. The problem with slapping the label on fictional characters however, I somehow find more troubling. Because when someone identifies with a character others deem unlikable, it can leave them with the feeling that they are unlikable as well.
There were many instances growing up where I would relate with a character in a book or onscreen because of the not so great things about her demeanor. Maybe she was a little selfish, or rude, or rushed headfirst into things without thinking her actions through. But hey! I was like that! I wasn’t the only one and that somehow made everything seem a little bit better.
And then others would chime in with their opinion.
Oh, so-and-so is such a brat.
Yeah, her character was alright, but she’s kind of a bitch.
I really just didn’t like her at all. I mean, she was so selfish!
And then I thought maybe there was something wrong with me. I related to this character. The things that we had in common made me love her. Was everyone else seeing the same things in me that they saw in her? Were they saying those awful things behind my back?
It took me some time (longer than I’d like) to realize that all of those “unlikable” characteristics? They weren’t the be-all, end-all. It wasn’t the end of the world if my first instinct at someone’s over zealous enthusiasm was to roll my eyes. Jealousy, while sometimes problematic, didn’t make me into a horrible wretch of a person. And there were worse things that sometimes slipping into an, admittedly annoying, know-it-all frame of mind.
These are not terrible things. These things do not make you, or a character a bad person. These are things that make you a person. Human nature is not always pretty and, for some reason, we’ve been taught to pick it apart in fictional characters until we only find the bad bits. We don’t realize that we’re also picking apart each other and ourselves in the process. (This is, of course, not to say that some human nature is despicable. And some characters are not meant to be liked, but I think we all know these are not the ones I’m referring to here.)
What I’m getting at is that it’s okay to relate to, or *gasp* even like a character who isn’t perfect. And let’s not be so hard on the ones who are really just trying their damnedest. After all, that’s all anyone can do.
It also helps to keep in mind that unlikable and unrelatable are two very different things. I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind about certain characters that they despise, or make you feel like your opinion is wrong in any way. I just feel it makes us better readers (and writers) to look deeper into these opinions. Look more closely at the reasons we dislike certain aspects of a character’s personality.
Besides, perfect characters would make for pretty boring stories, right?
So, Michaela is coming your way soon in all of her fantastic and flawed glory. Be kind to her if you can. She’s doing her best.