As Joachim from the prominent video-game Shadow Hearts puts it ‘no one likes a perfect superhero’. We often hear in our daily lives that humans are imperfect, and we respond, and relate better to fictional beings of the same nature. It seems an obvious point to make, but characterisation takes a lot more than just adding a quick unlikable quirk, and calling it a day. While writing you have to be constantly aware that any protagonist has to act and behave as a real person would, and be received by others in the same way. Think about the people you know, the characters in your world who you both adore and dislike. Chances are you’re not the only person who feels this way about them, however, it also stands to reason that there are others who feel quite differently about them. This is because we as people respond individually to aspects of behaviour.
Personality is a subjective substance. While you may enjoy confidant and out-spoken characters, your best-friend may prefer to be around people who are quieter and happy-go-lucky. Characterisation is not about making up personalities you think your audience are always going to be receptive to, it’s about creating realistic beings they can believe in. Many writers believe the best way to do this is to give their protagonist a bad-temper, or a tendency not to speak their minds, and using this to formulate all the obstacles they will meet. For example, they give Susan a self-serving nature, and when Susan is given the choice to either escape on her own, or help Matthew and possibly get caught again, she has to fight her natural instincts and do what is right. This happens over and over, until eventually she learns her valuable life lesson, but other than that there’s nothing to her. All she is, is self-serving. Real people do not work like this.
I’ll bet there are aspects of your person you do not like. Perhaps you are called bossy, and in everyday situations your friends don’t like to hear how they could be more efficient if they used a large bowl to mix the batter rather than a small one, or being told bluntly to move the chair to this table. However perhaps during a crises your bossy nature merges with your leadership qualities, and you are able to take charge where others simply crumble and panic. In this way, sometimes your personality trait works to hinder your relationships with others, and at others it acts as a boon. Characters in fiction need to do the same. Yes, perhaps Jilly is good at planning ahead, but in moments when she needs to act quickly and make decisions with no time to think ahead, she falters, and fails. People are a combination of their life-experiences, conditioning, DNA and environments, so one individual will have a multitude of personality traits. All personality traits must work to both hinder and advance characters throughout your fiction.
At the same time remember that characters will get angry, upset, nervous and happy about different circumstances, and sometimes getting nervous about a letter threatening your protagonist with poison in their meals will aid them and sometimes it must hinder them; these too are aspects of their personality. Let’s use the above example. If Simon gets nervous that the evil Dr Poison will make good on his threat and poison him when he least expects it, he won’t eat, and he’ll be spared death because he doesn’t eat. However, after a week of no meals he is too weak with hunger to fend off the pack of wolves attacking his home. Ensuring characters have unique responses to plot-events based on their personalities is fundamental to good characterisation, and creating characters your audience will find dynamic and real. If you get this right it doesn’t even matter if they’re likable or not.
In Ian Banks’ The Wasp Factory the protagonist is someone many would struggle to like, but he is fascinating, and despite the exaggerated storyline, un-arguably convincing. Readers arn’t supposed to agree with him, but they are able to understand him, because of his personal reasonings and the environment which surrounds him. Think about stories where villians have enaged your attention, where characters of questionable morals have earned your trust. Readers will stay intersted if they can relate to the human aspects of fiction creations, and keeping good character traits is, in this author’s opinion, the only way to accomplish that.