By Bruce L. Cook
A fiction writer has the power to create characters who are likable, despicable, or something in between. For me, sometimes, the pitiable characters grab my full attention.
But, the fiction writer is reminded, a successful story must satisfy the reader, not the creator. And, if fully guided by this principle, the writer needs help in deciding how to portray characters. That is, the Gallup organization would sample 1,000 representative readers and publish the results so authors would know what readers prefer. (I don’t fully agree with this, but I would still like to see a Gallup poll on character likability, zero to 100 percent.)
Thinking of a writer I won’t name, the protagonists are a married couple who never endure real disagreement, and whose invincibility is unquestioned. They are charitable but ruthless when on a seemingly unreachable quest to right whatever wrongs they encounter.
My question for this writer – does such a perfect couple satisfy readers 100%? Or does it frustrate them because it presents an impossible scenario? Maybe it just bothers writers who read the story, because they feel pity for the author? Only Gallup could know.
As one example, Gallup couldn’t find Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment 100% likable because his personality is imperfect. Statistically, readers who dwell on competition might view him at 50%, while empathetic readers rate him at 100%. So he might be 80.2% likable.
Should a fiction writer hone characters in the hope of satisfying readers at 100% likability? Or should writers who do that deserve the contempt of writers whose view on life may be more like the adage “It is what it is”?
Then, just to complicate matters, consider that opinion surveys offer more than one Likert scale. A survey may well rate a character as to likability, believability, empathy, integrity, durability, foolishness, etc.
Better yet, in today’s digital world, perhaps someone will develop a writer’s “app” that assigns ratings to a story’s characters and (without feeling) admonishes writers to include an optimal “mix,“ reminding one of the romance novel formula.
While I would reject any such app, I do try to see goodness in everything. In this case, that might mean that publishers would become objective in considering works by lesser known writers. Publishers could even abandon worn-out ideas and give more attention to new ideas.
In fact, if it ever could come to that, I could find this survey idea more likable after all.
- Bruce L. Cook