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.
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:
- Should Your Main Character Be Likable? by Margaret Dilloway (Writer Unboxed)
- Are We Too Concerned That Characters Be ‘Likable’? by Mohsin Hamid (New York Times)