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Likeable vs Intriguing Characters

On the blog chain this round, Michelle chose the topic, and Kate will follow me. Michelle asked

In your reading and writing, which do you prefer – a main character that is intriguing, or one that is likeable? Who are the characters that you love the most? And who are the ones that you love to hate?

This is easy.  Give me intriguing.

As a general rule, I adore villains, and I adore antiheroes.  The very same characters many people find unlikeable.

Unless they're one-dimensional and cliched, of course.  And one-dimensional and cliched are far too common.  You know these villains--they're brilliant but twisted and completely unsympathetic. And each one could stand in for the next. Dean Koontz kicks these guys out at an impressive rate; so do most other thriller writers.  (Dan Brown's albino monk, anyone?)  Don't get me wrong, they can carry the story forward, but they're just filler.  They're not intriguing.

No, I like multidimensional villains--the kind that make you squirm because you can totally see why they're doing what they're doing.  Berg Katse, the villain in an old anime called Gatchaman, is one of my all-time favorite villains.  Sometimes he's smooth, sometimes he's savage, and sometimes he's played for laughs, but he's always interesting.  And he just gets more interesting as you learn more about him, until the quest to understand him is actually pulling the entire show along.

I also like heroes who have a dark side. Who make awful mistakes, have ugly urges, and who might, under the right circumstances, be the villains themselves. 

I'm in love with Supernatural, which definitely fits that bill. The show is about a pair of brothers who hunt supernatural monsters.  They kill off ghouls, save people from vampires, lay uneasy spirits to rest, and all around kick ass.  Both of the brothers are heroic, but they also have dark sides. Serious dark sides.  From time to time one or the other comes dangerously close to being as wicked as the monsters they hunt.  That always leaves the brother still on the straight and narrow with an awful predicament.  What do you do when the person you love most is also your worst enemy?  (If it's Supernatural, you try to save him, even if that means killing him.  At least he'll die human...  I find that kind of dilemma fascinating.)

In an ideal story, for me, both the villains and the heroes are charismatic, intriguing, and compelling. They're like real people, with good and bad sides.  You don't have to love my characters, but if they keep you reading, I've done a good job. Me...I usually love them all -- even the ones my readers love to hate!

So dear would you answer the question?


  1. Anonymous said...
    Great post! I love complex and intriguing characters!!! Especially the dark ones.
    Michelle McLean said...
    ooo excellent post :) the intriguing ones are definitely more fun to read. And I've never watched Supernatural...I might have to start :D
    Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...
    Sometimes the line between hero and villian can be very thin indeed.
    Unknown said...
    I write children’s stories, but I still love my main character to be real as well as likeable. The main character I’m working on at the moment isn’t always likeable. Although she’s only eight, she’s devious and cunning, and usually finds ways to get revenge on her enemies without getting caught.

    I love to hate the two villains in WIP. One in particular is mean, witty and nasty, but she’s also funny. The other one is a greedy larrikin who’s sometimes mean to animals. This brings out the anger in my MC, causing her to seek justice and revenge. To some, she’s a hero and to others, she’s a big pain in the butt.

    Some villains in movies I love are: Zod in Superman, Superman when he turned mean, Lex Luthor, Hannibal Lector, The MC in Misery, (Cathy Bates) and of course Dexter.

    Heroes I love are: Sean Connery’s 007, George Clooney’s character in O Brother, Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, America’s Greatest Hero, Wonder Woman, The MC in First Wives Club and Roald Dahl’s Matilda.

    Thanks, Michelle, for posting this question. I’m wondering now, who are the heroes and villains I love the most? I’ll think about that when I’m writing in the future. Great post, Michelle.
    Unknown said...
    This is such a great topic. I struggled with this question quite a bit when writing my last novel. I've always gravitated to heroes that fall somewhere between grumpy and dark - and I'm always worrying that the readers will hate them. But after reading a great article in Writer's Digest (can't remember the title), about how some of the best characters in literature have been unlikable (Heathcliff, anyone?), it dawned on me that being sympathetic isn't anywhere near as important as being interesting.
    Unknown said...
    Love this question! I think it's good to have both characters, but not necessarily the *same* character. I think I'm with you in leaning toward intriguing.
    Kate Karyus Quinn said...
    Oooh, I agree both villains and heroes are best when they are not one-dimensional.

    Sigh this post also really makes me wish I watched Supernatural. One of these days when I have time to spare I'll have to rent the DVD's and have a marathon.
    Annie Louden said...
    Nice post, Carolyn! I agree with you on Dean Koontz cranking out the stereotypical villains. I still used to love his books, though.

    If a character is too perfect, I can't relate, and then I'm not intrigued. I think every character should have a dark side, and that will bring all the conflict.
    Kathryn Hupp-Harris said...
    The depth of the character -- villains and heroes -- is definitely the deciding factor for me.

    This post made me think of that Mel Gibson move "Payback." I'm not sure what to make of his character in that flick.

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