November 18th, 2016

Ask the Story Genius: What Does ‘Likeable’ Really Mean?

Lisa Cron

We are so proud and humbled that the Lisa Cron, the author of Wired for Story, and Story Genius has agreed to blog with us on a regular basis! In case you haven’t yet seen her TED Talk, you can watch it here. Later. After you read her first installment of ‘Ask the Story Genius’. 

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Hello! It’s thrilling to be here to answer your story questions. I’ll be doing so every other month from here on out, but since I don’t have any of your question on tap just yet, I thought I’d kick it off with a question I’m often not asked by writers – until it’s too late.  Here’s how that process usually looks:

I’m reading a manuscript and the protagonist – let’s call her Betty – never gets mad, she always takes the feelings of others into account, she’s always polite, on time, and she never takes an extra cookie, even when no one is looking. In other words, Betty couldn’t be less interesting. After a while, “something bad” happens. Let’s say that Betty’s co-worker Ramona stole her hard-won research and is taking credit for it. Ah, I think as I read forward, now it’s going to get good! But Betty, understanding that Ramona had a hard childhood, takes a couple of deep cleansing breaths and decides that Ramona needs the promotion more than she does, so she ignores the whole thing and spends the evening making calls for Amnesty International.

By this time, I’m not only not on Betty’s side, I’m wondering two things: why Betty is such a wimp, and what is Betty’s behavior actually a front for – like maybe she’s so insufferably nice in order to keep anyone from asking who she’s got locked up the basement.

Here’s the kicker: When I ask the writer what’s going on – like, “Hey, why didn’t Betty get mad and, at the very least, tell Ramona off?” — the writer will invariably answer: “Because I wanted Betty to be likeable, otherwise, the reader won’t care about her.”

Perfect example: Melanie Wilkes from GWTW

Perfect example: Melanie Wilkes from GWTW

And there you have it: The whole “likeable” question. Writers know that we have to care about the protagonist in order to read forward. Thus, it follows, the protagonist has to be likeable. And by likeable the writer means . . . kind of perfect. As in someone you’d definitely want to invite over for dinner. Someone so safe that you know they’d never say a thing to offend your right wing Grandpa, or incite crazy Aunt Harriet who has a bunker in the basement, or expose the fact that your millennial cousin is playing video games on the phone in his lap, or utter a regrettable word in front of your five-year-old niece Natasha who repeats everything she hears. Nor would you have to worry that when your back is turned they’d pocket the silverware.

In the name of making sure their protagonists are “likeable,” writers prevent their characters from doing a whole host of forbidden things: they can’t shoplift, even once as a child, unless it’s bread and their little sister is hungry; they can’t swear, even when they stub their toe; they can’t be mean to anyone, ever, especially children or pets. Nor, it often follows, can they stand up for themselves or what they believe in, unless it couldn’t possibly offend anyone.

In other words, “likeable” often means sanitized. And while “likeable” people don’t offend anyone, neither do they genuinely appeal to anyone, either. In fact the sanitized, the “picture perfect,” often arouses not benign interest, but suspicion. Because we humans know that nothing – and no one – is perfect. How do we know this? Because we aren’t perfect – at least not by those sanitized never-make-a-mistake definitions. After all, we know that the reason they tell us to “Never let ‘em see you sweat,” is precisely because we’re always sweating buckets about the right thing to do. 

So, here’s the scoop: what “likeable” really means is relatable. The reader needs to be able to relate to the protagonist, and to do that the protagonist must be vulnerable, flawed – in other words, decidedly not perfect and definitely not a surface, sanitized version of “a good person.” Otherwise, what do they have to sweat over?

There’s another reason this is so important. In a nutshell: stories are about how someone changes internally over the course of the novel — leading to an “aha” moment — which is what then allows them to solve the external plot problem. So if they enter the problem already perfect, why would they need to change? They don’t, which is why when you have a perfect protagonist, you have no story.

The truth is that it’s the baggage they carry – the places where they’re making mistakes – that make the protagonist human. We like the protagonist because of their supposed flaws, not in spite of them.

And here’s the irony – in real life we don’t like “perfect” people. We all know that person – the one at the office who always talks about their spouse so nicely and they’ve got pictures of their kids on the desk, and their always clothes are always neat and pressed, and they always have their work done on time, and they always remember everyone’s birthday (even before Facebook). Do you like that person? Of course not! They’re really annoying because they seem to wear their “perfection” on their sleeve – as if they never Ask wake up cranky or get road rage or snap at the cashier at Trader Joe’s for being too damn friendly. What they make you think is: Okay since nobody’s that perfect, I wonder what he’s really up to? We don’t like that person because we don’t trust them.

And just in case you’re still not sure – the truth is we are often captivated by characters who are decidedly unlikeable, despicable even. As writer Elizabeth George says, “Characters with the most edge tend to be the most interesting to write and to read about.” She went on to say, “I just read all four Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels in a row, and one of the two main characters is not likable at all. I found myself wondering how anybody could remain friends with her because she’s so foul. But as a character she is fascinating and unforgettable.”

She needs no introduction, does she?

She needs no introduction, does she?

Are you breathing a sigh of relief about now? It’s liberating to think that your protagonist can be a real person – who makes the kind of mistakes that we all do, but are always trying to keep other people from seeing. It’s like taking off those tight jeans at the end of the day and finally being able to let it all hang out and breathe. And nothing feels better than that!

“Now that I’ve answered a question that I posed, I’m open for your questions. They can be about any aspect of story – something you’re struggling with now, or would like a little feedback on, or are just curious about. Post them below, and I’ll dive in and answer as many questions as I can. Can’t wait! Till then, onward and upward my friends.”

    *     *     *    *

410g9fwwswl-_sy346_Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius. Her video tutorial Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story can be found at Lynda.com, and her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity.

Lisa has worked in publishing at W.W. Norton, as an agent at the Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency, as a producer on shows for Showtime and Court TV, and as a story consultant for Warner Brothers and the William Morris Agency. Since 2006, she’s been an instructor in the UCLA Extension
Writers’ Program, and she is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts MFA program in Visual Narrative in New York City. In her work as a story coach, Lisa helps writers, nonprofits, educators, and journalists wrangle the story they’re telling onto the page. She can be reached at wiredforstory.com

53 comments to Ask the Story Genius: What Does ‘Likeable’ Really Mean?

  • Hi Lisa, welcome to WITS, from a fellow guest contributor! This is a wonderfully engaged community of writers and I’m sure they’ll get much from interacting with you here. Since I just heard you speak to this crucial point at the Writer UnBoxed UnConference, and since I know everyone here would benefit from hearing about this, I was wondering if at some point you would address when is the best time to introduce backstory in your novel. Thanks, and as you know, I adore your books!

    • Hi Kathryn! Here we are, colleagues again in such a warm, welcoming community — what a pleasure. Yes, I’m going to copy out your comment here, and put it on at the head of the list of questions I’ll answer next time. I can’t wait!

  • Elena

    Lisa, before I was in the Story Genius course, I was very much mislead by the books that said the character must be likeable. I didn’t want mine to be likeable, but I felt she had to be. I was very much liberated with your advice and my character is so much stronger/interesting, right from page 1. So glad you are discussing this “likeable” issue. It prevents writers from doing their best work.

  • So excited to have your wisdom here on WITS, Lisa!

    I have been known to throw a ‘Melanie heroine’ book across the room. Give me Scarlett any day. Maybe because I’ve always been a Scarlett (without the great wardrobe and the drawl).

    But I have to admit, I have a hard time writing a really challenging character. I’m writing ‘relatable’ all over my white board.

    You wouldn’t believe the number of post-it flags I have in your Story Genius book…and I’ll never start another book without reading over at least the first four or five chapters.

    Love Kathryn’s request for back story info. I’d also like to know how to write a totally (I’ve been driven to adverbs, forgive me) unseen – to the reader – twist or killer ending.

    • Fae Rowen

      Give me a break, Laura. Your characters are so relatable!

    • Here’s an admission: I kind of love adverbs. Like totally. And . . . here’s an even more revealing (read: mortifying) admission — when I was fourteen and saw GWTW for the first time, I wanted to BE Melanie. (Which is odd, because I was decidedly more like Scarlet.) Go figure! On the serious side, I think part of what makes it hard to write a really challenging character is because we’re taught to get along, and that the goal is always to avoid (or quell) conflict. And, to hide what we’re really thinking, as in “never let ’em see you sweat.” Stories are about sweating. In other words, writers have to fight the natural inclination to smooth things over. Love your question — I’ve copied it out.

  • Betty Bolte

    Welcome, Lisa! I devoured Wired for Story and will keep that on hand forever to read again and again. Endings. I’m struggling with powerful, moving endings for my stories. Any hints? Thanks so much!

  • bewarne

    Just a typo I thought I ‘d point out before all the other people read the post:
    You say,
    “But Betty, understanding that Ramona had a hard childhood, takes a couple of deep cleansing breaths and decides that Betty ***(you mean Ramona here, I think) ***needs the promotion more than she does, so she ignores the whole thing and spends the evening making calls for Amnesty International.

  • Always up for more Lisa Cron!

    I work in Christian publishing where the books are filled with Melanies. The favorite flaw, when heroines have one, is that she has trust issues because of something someone else did TO her. Very rarely do I work on a book where the protagonist DID something bad or despicable, and even then the behavior is usually quickly justified. And so many of these books never really ask hard questions about life and relationships. They skate on the surface.

    There are rare exceptions, and those are always the books I truly enjoy working on — the ones that are utterly honest about the human condition but can still offer hope.

  • Good stuff, Lisa! I, too, am scribbling ‘relatable’ on everything in sight.

    While I don’t often comment, I’m a faithful reader of WITS. Always learning something or soaking up the encouragement. A great community of writers, for sure. I look forward to pondering your perspective on any/all the questions you address down the road.

    Thanks again for sharing this post…methinks I definitely need to get your books. 🙂

  • I know the type. Perfect people. I remember watching an old movie, Pollyanna, where she was so positive it was sickening. In fact, Pollyanna has passed into the language to describe anyone who is too positive, and doesn’t see reality. It’s good to have a positive attitude about things, but not at the expense of reality. The best way to use the too-positive person is subtext. For example, Ben plays a practical joke on Mark, who is one of these Pollyannas. Mark responds by doing nothing, just being the same positive person he always is. Mark even goes out of his way to be nice to Ben. Ben gets suspicious of Mark’s motives. Ben starts to think that everything Mark does to him is some sort of revenge. Mark keeps going on about his life. Ben eventually snaps, he can’t trust anything or anyone. He accuses Mark of doing this to him. Mark’s response is, “I don’t know where he got that. I didn’t do anything to him.” Mark then gets an evil grin on his face as he turns away. This is exactly what he wanted. As the old saying goes, “Revenge is a dish that is best served cold.”

  • crbwriter

    My copy of Story Genius arrived a couple of days before my crit group agreed that my WIP’s Chapter 2 was missing an aha moment. The scene cards are helping so much! I found my third rail (I hope) and am working through the entire manuscript. I will have questions! Thanks for joining the WITS group.

    • Thank YOU! It’s such an honor to be here, there is nothing I love more than being in a room full of writers — whether analog or digital (the upside to digital being there is no limit to the number of writers in the room, and we can all be in our PJs with bed head and no one will know. Uh oh. Think I just gave it away! ;- )

  • Hi LIsa! Lordy, lordy, gonna need my smelling salts! So thrilled to have you joining the wonderful WITS crew (I contribute every other month), and for the chance to learn more from you! I send anyone with writing questions and challenges straight to your books and I can’t tell you how they’ve helped me, as well. Today’s post is a fabulous example of your no-nonsense approach. Likeable really means relatable! #teamscarlett

  • No question for you just yet, but lots of praise—I loved STORY GENIUS so much I bought a print copy for easier reference after I’d read the e-book.I’ve recommended it to every other writer I know. There are two writers who’s how-to advice has really resonated with me, and made me a better writer—Robert McKee and Lisa Cron. Lovely to find you’re now a guest contributor to Writers In The Storm! Looking forward to more great posts.

  • Humbert Humbert? Not sure that I would want to find him “relatable” but he is a brilliant and fascinating narrator.

  • Linda Lee

    If an author wants the reader to care about a character, the character must experience growth and change by the end of the story–a moral imparted or a lesson learned. Without flaws, a character has no chance for self-improvement.

    Informative post, Lisa. Pinned & shared.

  • christopherlentzauthor

    What a right time/right place blog for me! Thank you. I wrestling with a plus-size protagonist in the late 1950s in my WIP. To use your word (and now MY word, I so appreciate the mind shift today) “relatable,” I want her to click with readers, but not be the fat-girl cliche. I want her to walk on the beach in a swim suit or eat a piece of chocolate cake at the diner’s counter without overwhelming fear and self-image issues. Sure, she knows she’s big. She just doesn’t like FEELING big. But it’s the ’50s. Do you think she’ll still be relatable to a reader in 2017 if she’s a misfit among misfits…an outwardly confident woman who won’t settle for being the wallflower, who still has some crap banging around in her head…like we all do?

  • I love WITS… So much excellent inspiration. And how wonderful to have you, Lisa Cron. Welcome! ‘Cept, quit dissin’ “the Melanies” y’all. You’re making my left eyelid twitch every time I see my name. (I kid! I kid!) I’m currently querying a mss with a very flawed mc. My WIP, however, features a 30 something who is so cautious about living that she’s not living. She could sorta be described as a Melanie until a series of events knock her down and some revelations give her a kick in the pants. She learns to say “Ef it,” and embrace her imperfections. I need to make sure readers will cheer her on…

  • Terri Benson

    Glad to hear that if a character isn’t always nice to pets, it’s not the kiss of death. I have my heroine trip over her dog and yell at it, but she makes up later. I was worried that something that trivial might get me in trouble. She also swears (but no more than I can make myself do), is grumpy in the morning and snarky on occasion. Thanks for the heads up not to take away all her personality in order to make her “nice”.

  • Love this discussion, as I’ve been struggling to give voice to deeply flawed main characters in my new wip, all of whom are practiced at deception, both of others and themselves. They have their reasons, of course, and for two those reasons are rooted in traumatic circumstances. What’s more, they exhibit genuine anger in certain instances – oh no!

    Early on it was clear their inherent flaws are essential to their journeys. So my focus has been to ensure they, and their evolutions, remain compelling. They are not evil characters, but they are deeply flawed and have made grave mistakes. Will they be “likeable”? The verdict is out on that, but I do hope they’ll be memorable.

    So, at any rate, it’s nice to hear advice reinforcing my decisions.

    Incidentally, did you know actress Olivia de Havilland – Melanie in GWTW – later played off her nicey nice image in the movie Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte? In the latter, she arrives as a distant relative of the title character, portrayed by Bette Davis, appearing as a pure Melanie twin until the depths of her conniving nature are unveiled as the story’s climax. Great stuff, and a good example of your point today.

  • Orly Konig Lopez

    Lisa!!!!!!!!!! This post made me happy. In so many ways. 🙂
    I never write a character with the thought that she has to be likable. I want my characters to be like the people I’d look to invite to a dinner party and gossip with (and about) while hiding in the kitchen passing a wine bottle between us.

    So excited to have you joining WITS!!!

  • This is a great post. ‘Perfect’ characters can ruin a book for me. And always competent ones who’d never accidently delete an email or jam the photocopier.

    I do have a question – how do you manage ‘extra’ characters so that they don’t get confusing for the reader?

    My WIP is set in a high school. My protagonist has brief interactions with several characters but they’re not central or even secondary characters, however they do help move the story along.

    I hope that makes sense. 🙂

  • Fae Rowen

    After the first, second, and, uh, third readings, my partners here at WITS always tell me my female lead is not likable. It’s definitely NOT because she’s perfect, because she isn’t. She’s usually very angry, though, and there hasn’t been time to sprinkle in the backstory so the reader understands why she acts as she does. How can you be true to your character’s actions and reactions early on? Oh, and thank-you so much for sharing your insight with us all!

  • Thanks for the great post, Lisa!! I, too, have been whipped for my main characters not being likeable. I don’t write likeable characters. But I sure hope they are relatable! Anytime I get feedback that a a critique partner didn’t find my main character likeable, I always go back and ask, but…could you relate to them? When that answer is no, I know I’ve got some major work to do!

    So excited we get to see more of you on WITS! Can’t wait to cruise with you in 2017 on Cruising Writers!

  • Enjoyed your talk at the NINC conference a few years back. I shall bookmark this for my critique partner tells me my character (usually the heroine) is unlikeable.

  • KathleenBaldwin

    Hi Lisa! It’s so cool to see you on my favorite blog. I’m a total fan girl of yours. Loved Wired for Story. I quote it almost everytime I give a workshop.
    Thank you for speaking out today about ornery but relatable characters. 🙂 You’re a genius. Keep it coming!

  • So excited to have you here, Lisa! STORY GENIUS is on my Christmas list because I adored Wired for Story. Plus, Laura Drake raves about it and she knows what I like. 🙂

    I really like to take characters who are kind of bitchy, but brilliant, and pit them against the nice but kinda-wimpy ones to make everyone grow. I’ll always forgive cranky gruff characters if there is kindness involved somewhere.

  • I’m excited to see you’ve joined the amazing WITS team Lisa! This is a great post and GWTW was the first “adult” novel I read growing up. i was not entralled with Ashley but I did like Melanie and in retrospect I don’t think I would have liked her as much if there was no Scarlett for contrast. I too am loving Story Genuis. The agent I’m working with told me she wanted to see a stronger through line for my protagonist’s motivation and with the help of your exercises, I am finally succeeding in making my novel the best it can be. I’m going to be thinking about questions I have for you so that next time you’re here, I’ll have questions!

    • Cerrissa, If you get Story Genius, you’ll never have that through line problem again. Promise! And I love your comment that Scarlett wouldn’t be as great without Melanie as a contrast. I never thought about that, but you are right! Brilliant.

  • So wonderful to see you here, Lisa! I must admit I actually do sweat when I’m writing a character who’s having a decidedly unlikable thought. And I’m hoping this less-than-perfect thought will make the character more relate-able. Thank you for reminding us how to keep it–our characters–real.

  • I love this blog and I will love reading posts from you Lisa. I’ve read wired and am now reading and working out of Genius. I am a Joe Friday in writing. Just the facts, ma’am.
    I am amazed when I read all that stuff the writer pries out of the protagonist’s head. So how does one write more than two sentences of interior thoughts?

  • I’m so excited to see Lisa will be posting regularly, I’ve read both Wired and Story Genius and they’ve been pivotal in both my fiction writing and my blogging. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Looking forward to reading more!

  • […] Lisa Cron on characterization | Writers In The Storm […]

  • How lucky are we regular readers to hear from one of my favorite craft book authors! Glad to see you here, Lisa. (And eager to meet you on the 2017 Cruising Writers cruise.)

    As for the subject at hand, as a churchgoing woman, I laughed at your description of the Little Miss Perfect. There was a woman at a church I once attended who was just the sweetest woman ever … and she didn’t appeal to me AT ALL. I wondered what was wrong with me — wasn’t the whole point to be a truly good person? — and now I get it. I couldn’t relate! She seemed inhuman somehow. Thankfully, I’m just fine with writing flawed characters, because those are people I understand. Great points here! Thanks.

  • Victoria Marie Lees

    Me too! Wouldn’t that be nice…a writing cruise. Another wonderful post here on WITS. Lisa, I’ve said it before. I can’t thank you enough for sharing your great knowledge about story with writers. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

  • Such an important distinction between likable and relatable. I love to hate characters. And really love it when those characters get what they deserves or turn around and become special because of events in the story. Thanks for the excellent post.

  • […] Donovan shares fiction writing exercises for creating characters; Lisa Cron examines what ‘likeable’ really means; Frankie Y. Bailey, Cindy Brown, Greg Herren, and Linda Rodriguez provide pointers on doing […]

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