Death’s Excellent Vacation is debuting on the New York Times Bestseller List at #8 for Hardcover Fiction. That’s just awesome, and once again, I have to thank all the people involved in this anthology who thought of including me. It’s a great opportunity, and I just hope they know how much I appreciate it.
So what makes a likable character? What makes an interesting character? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because, more and more, I keep coming across reviews on my work that mention I have a tendency toward unlikable characters. This is a bit of a surprise to me since I tend to like my characters.
I get why some of my characters might be deemed rough around the edges. Earl the vampire of Gil’s All Fright Diner is a grumpy dude who swears like mad, qualities many might find unpalatable. Although he does get happier as the story progresses, and by the end, he’s not nearly as foul-mouthed or obnoxious. Monster from Monster is indeed a jerk with a poor attitude and without an ounce of personal growth throughout his adventure. But that was deliberate, and I expected some negative reaction to him.
But what about the rest?
I like them. Duke of Gil’s is a great guy. I mean that. He’s just a great guy, all the way around. He might not be the most charismatic character, but he’s quiet, thoughtful, powerful, a reliable friend. Never Dead Ned (In the Company of Ogres) is a bit of a sadsack, but he isn’t obnoxious or rude. He’s just adrift. Miriam, Regina, Frank, Ace, and the rest of the cast are all decent sorts. And on and on.
I like to think that my characters are normal people (in the most charitable definition of the word) who are just doing what they can to get by. They might not be the nicest people, although I think they are often unfairly maligned for being frightened and reluctant at times, but at the end of the day, they’re people you can count on.
Nessy (Too Many Curses) and Mack Megaton (The Automatic Detective) are genuinely heroic. Even noble.
So why are they deemed unlikable? Why do they carry the label as uninteresting, more often than I really feel they deserve? I’m not sure, but I have a theory. It’s ludicrous, I’ll admit. Even a bit stupid. But if I was afraid of doing stupid things, I’d have never written a hard-boiled retro-sci-fi detective novel or a story about gods sitting around on the couch. And I think we all agree how awesome those things turned out.
I think it’s because they’re not good-looking.
Is that fair? Is that sensible? No and no. It doesn’t really make sense. It’s ridiculous, I admit. But it’s something that’s worth considering because, at the end of the day, there’s not a lot of stories with unattractive protagonists. There aren’t even that many with average-looking protagonists. And if a story is about an unnattractive person, then it’s the defining element of the story.
When was the last time you saw an overweight protagonist where it wasn’t important to the story that they be so? Why do all the vampire hunting ladies of the urban fantasy genre wear thongs, pose in painted on pants, sporting tramp stamps, looking more like models than monster hunters? There are no chubby monster hunters, no scrawny heroes, no gawky heroines. Not many. Even less if you go by the cover art.
(Kim Harrison describes the protagonist of her The Hollows novels as attractive, but thin and not especially gorgeous. The covers make her look like a bombshell.)
It’s just so damn stupid that I hesitate to even bring it up. I get why people enjoy watching attractive people in visual mediums like movies, TV, comic books. But this notion, if we’ll pretend like it’s true for just a moment, is simply bizarre.
Yet when I look at my characters, I notice that, regardless of personality, they tend not to be traditionally attractive. Most aren’t even human. They’re kobolds, robots, bats, fat guys, fat women, scrawny bald vampires, bodiless voices, serpent gods, trolls, paper gnomes, and (coming soon) moon-devouring tentacle gods. While I like to think of them as a diverse and interesting cast of characters, I wouldn’t call many of them beautiful.
I don’t think their unconventional looks are the only reason they get dismissed as unsympathetic. I’m sure there’s more to it. But I can’t help but think this is part of the problem. It could all be in my head. I could simply be trying to find justification for an inability to connect with a certain section of the audience. So chalk it up to an observation that might have merit or might not.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to do some quick editing on my super-intelligent space squid from Neptune story. Because, apparently, that’s how I roll.
And, yes, the space squid is the hero.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,