Unless you’ve been doing a ‘Sleeping Beauty’ for the last ten years you probably know that the web is awash with writing advice. Some of it is brilliant and some of it will make you want to murder the writer as energetically as I destroy my inner critic. One of the perennials is ‘your characters ought to be likeable.’ I really wonder about this one, but I fear it is becoming true as more editors pick up this kind of nonsense along with other prescriptive notions of what a book should be. I don’t think it is true but it leaves me in a bit of a quandry – how do you write likeable characters?
Like many writers I was not the most popular girl in the school, the one with the perfect teeth, the flicky hair and the knack of somehow setting the social agenda. I despised David Cassidy and Donny Osmand and had a healthy dislike of The Bay City Rollers, I could go on, but let’s just say I didn’t get it and was too stupid to refrain from saying so. Not wise. I’ll skim over my other social faux pas and summarise: I possess none of the attributes of the popular girl. Time has taught me to keep my mouth shut, but it is not a lesson I have fully absorbed even now. This is relevant to writing because I find it very hard to construct credible ‘popular girls.’ I am comfortable with loners, weirdos, girls who become foxes or boys, boys who become wolves or bears, but a straight forward popular girl has thus far eluded me. I can’t cheat either. I can’t make a character seem popular by obliging everyone else in the book to like her: characters who wander into my books tend to have borrowed some of my more undesirable traits and are often judgmental and outspoken. I can’t shut them up, only write them out of the story which limits my cast options. I am really interested in how other writers do this.
For most personality traits it is easy enough to find something in yourself and magnify it or produce the desired effect by observation, but likability is tough. I loathed Bella of ‘Twilight’ fame and look how popular she turned out to be ( David Cassidy didn’t do badly back in the day either) and of course my favourite Harry Potter character is Hermione because she’s an annoying goody good swot with whom I feel some distant affinity. I did try to write a likeable young woman in my last book. My daughter, who though she has escaped my worst characteristics has not escaped my tendency towards inconvenient honesty, pointed out that my heroine just wasn’t that nice or likeable or indeed worth spending a whole book with. (Thanks, love!) I have put this book on hold for a time and decided to write one about monsters instead as I have more of a handle on them. If you have any compassion, you nice people out there, please drop me a few hints!