What Makes a Character “Likable”?

I recently finished reading The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian, which has gotten some mixed reviews so I was interested in seeing what readers did and didn’t like about it. The protagonist in the story is an alcoholic, promiscuous flight attendant who (not surprisingly) has a history of bad decisions, broken promises and outright lies. Not exactly the sort of person I’d describe as “likable,” and yet I was drawn to this deeply flawed character and eager to find out what would happen to her.

Front Cover of The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian

I then started thinking about why I tend to like stories involving characters I probably wouldn’t want to spend time with in person. What is it about them that makes me keep reading? Why do I care about what happens in their lives?

And what if Mr. B had decided to downplay his flight attendant’s seedier side, or allowed her to make smarter decisions—would I still have been as interested in her story?

The challenge for any writer who is struggling to portray a flawed character without alienating too many readers is to figure out how to show a genuine human experience that rings true but also leaves room for empathy. On the flip side, the challenge for writers portraying a virtuous character is to balance the “good” with glimpses of the “bad.” That may sound like Writing 101 advice, but when the person you’re writing about is yourself, achieving an effective balance can be hard to do.

I once worked with a memoir writer who was reluctant to go deep and reveal her less admirable side. (I don’t mean to single her out here: who doesn’t strive to keep their imperfections covered up most of the time?) This particular writer was a warm and courageous woman who had overcome some difficult challenges, but the sanitized Pollyanna version of herself showing up on her pages was too perfect to seem real, too idealized to be interesting. Her story was falling flat and didn’t feel credible.

When I pushed her to show not only what she did well but also where she had struggled, where she had failed, what she had to overcome to succeed, she asked me, “How honest do I need to be?”

How honest do I need to be?

She wasn’t asking if she should lie—if she had, my answer would have been an emphatic “no”—but she did want to know if she could choose to omit thoughts and feelings that embarrassed her or made her uncomfortable. Why would anyone want to read about unpleasant things? she wondered. Couldn’t she just leave some stuff out and still have a good story?

“How honest should I be?” is a tough question but it’s one we ask ourselves all the time. Behind the question is the fear of not being liked. If you show your full self, or the full character in your story (or memoir), will people decide this is someone they don’t want to know?

They might. When I looked up reviews of The Flight Attendant, I noticed that among the various criticisms were complaints about the main character not being likable, and for some people that was enough reason to stop reading.

For me, though, the flight attendant in Bohjalian’s story still managed to be appealing because (in my opinion) he’d found a way to put readers inside her head and didn’t hold anything back. He showed the bad and the ugly, sure, but he also showed the good in her. He gave me an opportunity to see for myself that this character was basically kind (well, kind to animals and other people, not to herself) and well-meaning. She wanted to do the right thing but couldn’t seem to get out of her own way. Though she kept making the worst decisions, she was (as one reviewer described her) “a lovable hot mess.” I think that’s why I cheered her on, rooting for her to turn things around.

When a memoir writer tries to keep her “flaws” to herself, she prevents readers from getting to know who she really is, which makes it hard to care about what happened in her life. A character who is too perfect to seem real is too perfect to be likable or relatable. By taking a chance on being more honest, sharing her inner life more fully, the writer I worked with was able to tell a compelling story. She showed her readers why events mattered to her, why she struggled, and how she had been transformed by her experiences. By being honest and acknowledging her vulnerabilities, she became easy to love, both on the page and off.

For more on the topic of likable characters (because there’s SO much more to be written about it—I’ve only scratched the surface), check out:

Write for the Job?

When I first began my job as a book coach, I thought for certain I wouldn’t be able to succeed without having first written and published a book of my own. How could I help someone do something I hadn’t done myself? Maybe I should finish writing the book I’d been drafting and thinking about for a very long time, and then try to get it published.

I began dividing my time between writing and coaching. My plan was to write a memoir about the years I’d spent homeschooling my kids, because I could certainly claim to be an expert on that topic. I even hired a book coach to help me. I thought, If I could just finish this book, and perhaps make a name for myself with it, then I’d be better qualified to coach other writers.

There was a flaw in my logic, but I didn’t see it yet. First, I needed to remember a few things I’d forgotten.

Experts Aren’t Experts in Everything

When I was an undergraduate, one of the requirements for my major was an introductory physics course. I hoped to learn a lot from the professor, who was greatly admired as an expert in his field. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this professor loved research, not teaching. He’d never been taught how to teach, and he didn’t seem particularly motivated to become a better teacher. His lectures were incoherent, his cryptic answers to student questions less than helpful. When large numbers of students failed his exams, he appeared confused and angry.

Why were all of his students so stupid?

Photo Credit: Peter Alfred Hess

Unfortunately, being proficient in a particular discipline, and being able to help someone else become proficient, are not the same thing.

The best experts sometimes make the worst educators.

Adam Grant, “Those Who Can Do, Can’t Teach

In the New York Times article quoted above, Grant writes, “Before you seek out an expert as your teacher or coach, remember that it’s not just about what they know; it’s about how recently and easily they learned it, and how clearly and enthusiastically they communicate it.”

My physics teacher had been immersed in the concepts for so long that he’d forgotten how it feels to be a beginner. He’d lost the ability to communicate his knowledge in a way that would make sense to someone who didn’t know what he knew.

I managed to get through the class, thanks to help from the teaching assistants, but it wasn’t a fun experience. (And if you’re thinking it’s unreasonable to expect physics to be fun, take a look at Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry or Larry Gonnick’s Cartoon Guide to Physics or—for a whole course—Richard Wolfson’s Physics in Your Life.)

Blindsided by What You Know

Many years after my experience in that physics classroom, I had another opportunity to see the difference between knowing and teaching when I naively offered to help a small group of teenagers who wanted to make themselves Renaissance costumes. (Bear with me, I promise this has something to do with writing!) Some of them had never used a pattern or sewing machine before, so it was an ambitious first project, but they were highly motivated and I’d been sewing for most of my life.

I could show them what to do, right?

Turns out I’d been sewing for so long that I’d forgotten all sorts of things, such as how hard it can be to control the sewing speed (luckily, no fingers were punctured) or how easily a thread can get tangled. I hadn’t thought to show them how to insert the pins horizontally on the pattern when they were pinning it to the fabric, or how to pivot their scissors so the cuts would be accurate. All of those skills had become automatic to me after decades of practice. It didn’t occur to me to mention them.

When the kids became frustrated, I was tempted to take over and do the work for them. It would have been faster, easier. I could see what needed to be done, and I was better at it. But sewing wasn’t my top priority. I hadn’t been asked to be a seamstress. I’d been asked to help them succeed, and (lucky for me) they were still willing to keep trying.

So, we persevered. I offered suggestions and answered questions. I demonstrated basic techniques and helped them think through what they wanted to do. Through a process of trial and error, they learned how to sew a costume, and I re-learned how it feels to be a beginner.

A Writer Writes, a Coach Guides

When you’re writing a book, you’re in charge of deciding what goes into it. You may want helpful pointers from someone knowledgable, but you don’t want anyone else to write the book for you (well, maybe there are moments when you do!). Ultimately, you want the book to be a product of your own design, your own words, your own effort.

I believe that working on a book of my own, with a coach of my own, helped me to become a better coach, but not for the reasons you might think. It wasn’t writing a book that helped; it was learning how it feels to submit pages and get feedback and feel embarrassed by what I’d missed. I experienced Author Accelerator’s Story Genius and Blueprint for a Book workshops from a writer’s perspective, which helped me to appreciate how hard those weekly exercises can be. I tried and discarded reams of ideas for defining and structuring the story I thought I wanted to write. I realized I still had much to learn about being a writer of full-length books, but was that really what I wanted to be?

The more time I spent on writing a book, the less time I had to develop my coaching skills. After a year, I’d reached the point of diminishing returns: the additional writing time stopped being useful to me as a coach. I was learning more from actually being a coach, studying the art and business of writing books, than I was from writing on the side. Eventually, I had to face an uncomfortable truth: coaching writers was more interesting and rewarding to me than writing a book.

Of course, I don’t mean to say everyone ought to choose between writing and coaching! Many people who write and publish books also coach writers. I’ve just stopped believing that one is a prerequisite for the other.

And so, if you’re in the market for a book coach, I hope you’ll consider not only the number of books a coach has written but also how recently and easily they’ve learned the craft of writing, and how clearly and enthusiastically they communicate it. Otherwise, you may end up with a coach who is more interested in writing than teaching, or better at writing your words for you than helping you to write them yourself.

Seeing What’s Missing

Do you know someone who seems to have an eye for what isn’t there? Someone who can look at a jigsaw puzzle and see where a piece will fit, examine a room and notice where something is out of place, listen to you and discern what you’re not saying?

Perhaps this person comes across as a pessimist, someone who sees the glass as half full, solutions as incomplete, themselves as a work in progress. Or they might seem excessively curious, always asking a lot of questions, as if they were seeking to fill the gaps in their own minds.

If you know such a person—or if you are one—you know that having an eye for what isn’t there can be annoying. When you can’t help noticing what’s missing, you may have to work a little harder to avoid driving yourself and everyone else crazy.

Or, you can find an occupation where these natural tendencies, tempered by compassion, work in your favor.

A good book coach needs to be able to see what a writer has missed. Not so much missing commas (that will come later, during the proofreading stage), but missing information, the kind of stuff readers need to know to make sense of the story. What’s not on the page? Where are there holes in the logic? What has the writer skipped over or left out, because they’ve been unconsciously filling in the blanks with their own knowledge? Where could they add a piece to form a complete picture?

By asking insightful questions, a good coach can help a writer strengthen the story they’re telling. But there’s a trick to it. If, as a book coach, I only point out the holes, the negative spaces, the problems to be solved, I’m missing what matters most: the writer. When I’m faced with a set of pages to be reviewed, I need to remind myself there’s a person behind them.

When I was new to book coaching, preparing my first round of feedback on an early draft of a manuscript, I wasn’t sure how much would be enough. I could see errors in writing mechanics, confusing jumps in the story, places where the meaning wasn’t clear. I wanted to be thorough, so . . . I marked everything, filling the pages with edits and comments. The writer, of course, was overwhelmed by so much feedback, most of it negative. She felt like I’d put her through a shredder, and I had, though it hadn’t been intentional.

Fortunately, she knew I was a beginner and was willing to be patient with me. She accepted my profuse apologies and endured my mistakes as I tried to figure out how to tailor my weekly feedback so it would be more humane and more helpful. What did it matter if I was “right,” if what I was telling her wasn’t helping her to move forward?

It’s not especially hard to see areas in need of improvement when you’re looking at an early draft of someone else’s manuscript, but that’s nothing to feel smug about. I’ve received feedback from a coach on my own writing (thanks, Sarahlyn!), and I understand how easy (and embarrassing!) it can be to overlook what seems obvious in hindsight. A book coach who feels superior about being able to see what their writers have missed is in the wrong business.

An effective coach doesn’t use her insights to target weaknesses, as if she were launching an attack. Our role is to facilitate the act of creation, building up instead of tearing down. That’s what makes us coaches instead of critics. If we cannot feel compassion for the writers we work with, sense when they are in need of encouragement or a few kind words, we cannot do our jobs well.

Birthing a Story

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou writes, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” As difficult as it is to get a story out of the mind and fully developed on the page, it can feel even worse to keep that story locked inside. Like a baby waiting to be born, a story waiting to be told won’t let you forget it’s there.

Being a book coach has helped me to appreciate exactly how much work is involved in writing, revising, publishing and marketing a book. It’s incredibly time-consuming (leaving you with less time for anything else) and emotionally taxing. You have to take risks, confront your fears, deal with discomfort, and battle with self-doubt.

Though it was many years ago, I still remember how it felt to be in the late stages of labor with my youngest child. I had limited access to pain medications because I’d opted for a natural home birth, and my midwife was coaxing me to get on the birthing stool so I could push more effectively.

I curled into myself and shook my head back and forth, muttering “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.” Birthing my child, which had seemed like a reasonable and obvious thing to do only hours before, felt absolutely impossible now. It didn’t matter that I was already an experienced mother, having given birth to two other children prior to this. Maybe I had forgotten what those births had been like, or maybe it was because this time I was at home and not in a hospital. Whatever the reason, this time felt too hard, too painful, too damn overwhelming. I was scared and hurting and fighting what, deep down, I knew had to happen.

My midwife wasn’t persuaded by my refusal to proceed. She’d attended hundreds of births, and a laboring mother’s fear and mounting panic were nothing new to her. Her solution was a tough love approach. She planted herself in front of me, gently took my face in her hands, and said, “Look at me. Look. At. Me.” Her voice was firm but not harsh. I went from looking for an exit to looking into her eyes and willing myself to follow her lead.

“You can do this,” she said. “Just breathe.” I did as she instructed and was able to calm down slightly. She helped me move to the birthing stool, then focused my attention on the baby’s head, which was already crowning. I hadn’t realized how close I was to holding my child in my arms. All I needed was one more push.

A few minutes later, I gave birth to a healthy, nine-and-a-half pound baby boy, my first and only son. I wept with relief and joy. Though my midwife gave me all the credit for a successful delivery, I felt I could not have done it without her.

My newborn baby

No wonder writers refer to their manuscripts as their “babies.” As a coach, I sometimes feel like a midwife, coaxing a writer to stay on track, offering “tough love” feedback and encouragement as needed.

If you’ve ever wondered why anyone would put themselves through so much pain and suffering just to tell a story, here’s one possible explanation: when you’ve finished with all that hard work, and you’re finally holding your creation in your arms, there’s no better feeling in the world.