There are many factors that come into play in how we decide whether or not we enjoy a book. Most are medium to low level issues that we tend to not agree with, or simply dislike. Unless those issues add up to the point they cannot be ignored, they normally don’t ruin the story. There are a few main factors that decide the fate of our approval. A book needs a good plot, or what is the point? Genre plays on our personal opinions; I know I am not going to enjoy a harlequin romance. And there has to be a quality to the characters.
A book needs interesting characters that we can empathize with on some level. There needs to be an arc or general growth as we read, developing our intrigue. It is vital that there is something we like about a character, even if it is how much of an unlikable person they are. If we are missing these all important pieces we might as well read a story about a rock.
There once was a rock that sat by the ocean. Everyday the tide would roll over it and the rock would get wet. Then, it would dry off in the bright warm sunlight. One day the rock was picked off the ground, and thrown over the water. Falling to the bottom of the ocean, the rock now, is always wet.
The point is, we read stories to fall into the journey. Travelling with, or as, a character with goals and obstacles. We look for supporting casts that remind us of people in our lives. Characters that make us laugh or cry; can get us excited or discouraged; evoke our emotions good or bad. A protagonist to cheer for, an antagonist to detest.
Recently I finished a fantasy novel (review forthcoming) that had great plot, brilliant setting and captivating prose. There were well established characters, however, I could not stand the main protagonist. He had attributes and personality that ruined the entire book for me. Disliking the hero, I could not sympathize, reading his scenes became annoying and a chore. I was interested in discovering what put me off, and it went deeper than disliking the personality.
There are a couple tools I use when I am trying to analyze a character. I often take a look at the relationships in fiction. Not just the dialogue, which can be misleading, but how they feel and see one another. Looking at how another player thinks about the other can give me clues as to how the author wants me to feel towards them. Also, how a character acts towards another, if it differs from how they treat others there is surely a reason for this. There is typically a purpose for an author to make a character unlikable, which has to play a part when analyzing my opinion. There can often be a character that if I do not sympathize enough with they will come off as whiny, when this may be unintentional. The biggest thing to learn from relationships is what a character puts value on, and what they respect.
The other tool I use in dissecting characters is to compare them to those similar, and more familiar. In my personal studies I have put much research into archetypes. An archetype when referring to characters is the recurrent representation of certain qualities, beliefs and motives. An example; Superman is the protector, who has intense emotion for those he loves; quick to react harshly in their defence with his body instead of his mind. These are reminiscent traits of other literature heroes Zorro or Romeo of Romeo and Juliet. When I can decipher which archetype I am reading it gives me a deeper insight to the character. Comparing that same character to one of the same archetype I can foresee certain values, beliefs, relationships and predict the overall character arc. If a character does not fit into, at most three, archetypes they are going to be strongly unique or a catastrophic mess.
For great reference and understanding archetypes, I recommend the book, 45 Master Characters by Victoria Schmidt .
The other method to compare characters is a trick I learned about understanding characters from the podcast, Writing Excuses. Essentially, there are three qualities on sliding scales; sympathy, competency, and proactivity. A character that has a full sympathy scale but is not very competent or proactive would be a Samwise Gamgee type. Alternatively, someone who has high competency and are quite proactive with little to no sympathy would represent a great villain, such as the Joker. One who lacks competency would be an Alice, and on and on. When looking at the different levels and combinations it becomes easy to find characters that fit the molds. It is also important that these scales are moving up and down through a story. Rick Grimes of The Walking Dead has a sympathy scale that is continuously moving all over the bar. Using these scales helps to decipher what is working or not working with a character.
Authors, editors and publishers put great stock in characters. They work hard at creating unique and balanced individuals. In the end it is up to us, as the consumers, that decide what works for characters. There will inevitably be ones that are meant to be lovable or enjoyable that come out as flat or unlikable. We all have our favorite and least favorite characters, we need to understand what it is about them that we put value on. Knowledge of what our preferences are will help us define and articulate our opinions.
Thanks booknerds, I appreciate that you enjoy my character enough to read this far.