How Important Is Likability in Characters?

009Borrrrnnnn Freeeeee!

Yes, Jackson has discovered the Great Outdoors. And it is Good.

We watched an interesting movie last night, Tanner Hall. It’s a mediocre movie from 2009 with nobody particularly compelling in it. The ending however, is very nearly incandescent. And yes – you really have to watch the whole movie to get the ending. It truly arises out of the story in a way I didn’t expect.

It explored a theme I don’t see treated directly in stories very often. About forgiveness and likability. It’s about knowing someone has behaved badly and… letting it go.

There’s this old saw that we dislike in other people those things that we dislike in ourselves. I don’t know how true this is – or if there are any psychological studies to support it. I’ve experienced bosses who suspected me of cheating on things like time-reporting in the ways that I *knew* they did. I also know that I dislike in other people qualities that I’ve worked hard to eradicate in myself, such as narrow-mindedness, intolerance, lack of compassion.

I suspect that, in real life, our reasons for not liking some people are usually not well-examined and probably don’t have good foundations. A lot of the time jealousy plays in. Or that the person doesn’t do things the way we want them to. Or just plain irritation. The cases where we don’t like a person because they’ve actually done us an injury are probably in the minority.

But this is not true in fiction, right?

In the world of fiction, we feel very free not to like characters. In fact, we’re encouraged to outright hate the “villains” in a way that we’re simply not socially allowed to in real life. We also get to dislike the heroes and heroines of the stories.

This is something that comes up in romance All The Time. Whether or not the heroine is “likable” can be the key to whether or not the reader enjoys the whole story. I see debates all the time about whether heroines are likable for this or that reason. Now, typically the readers are female and the heroine functions as an avatar of sorts for them in the story. So, if the heroine behaves in a way that they judge to be wrong, it annoys them.

One romance writer who gets this reaction a lot is Victoria Dahl. I enjoy her books because her heroines feel so real – like a contemporary woman who might be my friend. And, like real women, they have flaws. They annoy their families. They have sexual histories. In one of my favorites, Talk Me Down (you might have to scroll down the page to find it – I have SPOKEN to Ms. Dahl about this), the heroine acted out sexually when she was younger.

And, boy, how the readers judged her for that.

It’s a funny thing about romance – somehow we all still see ourselves as these virtuous virgin feminine ideals. Even though, in real life, we’d never agree to that ideal.

Watching that movie last night made me think of my grandfather. He was an admirable man in many ways – raised himself up out of nothing, educated himself, became a wealthy man, then lost it all again. Alcoholism played a role in that. And hubris. He was unfaithful to my grandmother – a woman who’d first been his mistress – and ultimately left her for another long-time mistress. My mother and my aunts carry a lot of bitterness and anger for how he affected their lives. I remember him for giving me my copy of Omar Khayyam, teaching me to draw and for long walks after dinner when we talked about Interesting Things.

Is he likable? Probably not. In some ways, maybe, but if we reduced his life to a scorecard, he’d probably end up in the negative column. At the end of his story, though, I find that none of that matters to me.

I love and forgive him, anyway.

Maybe that’s what we mean, when we talk about redeeming a character. Good characters, like real people, have flaws. There’s no story if they don’t have something to overcome.

I suppose that’s true for us all.

Why Everybody Advises Newbie Writers to Be Persistent

waiting for mouseThis is our master bathroom – and Jackson waiting for a mouse.

All night and all day.

See, the bathroom cabinet there has a space in that overhang at the bottom. I can just fit about half of my hand in there, before the pinch stops me. I know this because I’ve tried. Just a few days after we moved in, I dropped the lid to a little sparkly beaded box from India that I store my belly-button jewelry in. The lid hit the floor, bounced exactly right (what are the odds?) and went up and into that space under the cabinet.

Gone forever, unless I want to tear out the cabinet.

See, the inside of the cabinet is all solid-state – even if you pull out the drawers, etc., there’s no access to the space beneath. That bottom panel is firmly affixed. Short of using a crowbar, I’m not budging it.

This also makes it a perfect escape hatch for mice being hunted by the cats.

The kitties diligently stalk and capture any mice so foolish as to steal into our garage to nibble on our valuable stuff, which is great. They then bring their prizes into the house, possibly as tributes for us, but more likely to extend the very fun game of mousehunt, which is less great. Jackson, in particular *loves* to let them go, so he can chase the mouse again. Sometimes they escape.
And this is where my point comes in.
Jackson is the most persistent cat I’ve ever known. It’s amazing to me that cats can have such different personalities – and all cats are patient hunters – but Jackson’s primary trait is persistence.
If he wants to be on my lap, he will jump on my lap, over and over again, no matter how many times I scoot him off, until he wears me down.
He fully believes he should be able to walk on the kitchen counters. He’ll sit there and cringe, hating that we squirt him with the spray bottle, but refusing to move. If we physically move him, he’s back there again as soon as we turn our backs.
I woke up in the middle of the night to visit the facilities, as one does, and found both kitties in there, watching the cabinet. In the morning, Isabel had gotten bored and was napping, but not Jackson. He remained fixated and alert. Not one to miss breakfast, he took a quick break and returned to the bathroom where he remained all day. He napped sometimes, but lightly, ears up to catch the slightest sound. He never gives up.
And he always catches his mouse.
This is what we mean, all of us writers, when we are asked what advice we have for newbies, when we say “be persistent.”
I know that this likely seems like empty advice. After all, pretty much everyone says it. It sounds like we’re saying “Yeah, you’ll get rejected fifty-thousand times and it will be like the pain of diving into a swimming pool full of razor blades, but suck it up and quit whining – you might get lucky some day.”
It sounds like that because there’s some truth to it. We all know that pain.
But, in truth, what we’re trying to tell you is: that goddam mouse has to come out at some point. If you’re not there to catch it, then no mouse for you. Doesn’t mean you won’t get other opportunities to catch mice – there’s always more opportunities. What it means is, if you have a mouse cornered, stay on it. It’s right there.
Yours for the taking, if you don’t wander off.
Never surrender!

How Having Your Book Rejected Makes You a Better Person

Our first snow fell on Sunday – also Jackson’s first-ever snow. He lasted about two minutes before dashing back inside to furiously clean between his toes.

When I was in my early twenties, I used to argue that everyone needed to have their heart broken at least once. Not only was this a great way to soothe a friend who’d just had his or her heart broken – hey! this will make you a stronger person! – but I also believe it to be very true.

Falling in love is a fabulous, giddy and wonderful thing. Loving relationships are what sustain us through life. Most of us want to find that special someone (or someones) and find our own happily ever after. But that quest can be a trial. With each busted relationship, we lose not only that person, but also the dream of what could have been.

I’ve been there – the sense of failure, the certainty that I would never love again and would be alone for the rest of my life.

Simply awful.

But, over time, your heart begins to heal and you discover that you learned some things. Thinking about a new relationship changes – it’s no longer a laundry list of “wants.” After a shattering break-up, you get a a really good idea of what you do NOT want. The new Dealbreakers List is usually short, but it’s backed by experience. It provides you with a much better compass for knowing what is likely to work for you.

Heartbreak also teaches the very valuable lesson that nothing is easy. Even if the falling in love part was, the maintaining of it can be damn hard work. If you take the relationship for granted, fail to nourish it, it can fall apart in the blink of an eye.

Finally, that rejection, the sense of failure – from those things grows resolve to do better. To be better. Hope grounded on this kind of foundation is a powerful force.

Then, when you love again – you’re better at it. Wiser. More careful with what you’ve been handed.

I think career-heartbreak can be just like this.

A friend of mine recently had her option book rejected. In most contracts with publishers, they say they’ll publish two or three books in a series and then have right of first refusal to see the next book in the series. This means you have to show it to them first, before you try to sell it to someone else. The rub, however, is that very few publishers want to buy the third or fourth book in a series. To them the series has been done already. So, when her option book was refused, she knows that’s the end of those characters and that world.

(And yes – she can self-publish more books in the series, and she might, but that’s a different kind of effort.)

This kind of thing happens All The Time. Of my three crit partners, all three have had their option books refused after the first two in a series. They grieved, wailed and gnashed their teeth – and moved on.

While I see my friend going through the stages of grief over this, I also see her wrestling with the heartbreak and healing from it. She now knows what she does not want in a new publisher, a new book contract. She was lucky to begin with – a Cinderella story of many offers and a very nice deal. The courtship was great but working under contract was crushing. She knows now what she needs to maintain a creative and productive writing pattern.

Best of all, when we discuss her options – like self-publishing – she shows an increased resolve. She’s working on a new story and she’s going to focus on that. She’s stronger and wiser now.

It’s funny to me, that in my 20s the conversations were about busted relationships and now, in my 40s, they’re about busted careers.

We know now what we learned then – there’s always another one, just around the corner.

When Your Writing Schedule Gets Decimated

There’s lots of stuff out there about how writers and cats go together.

It’s true – the two creatures have similar natures and habits. A lot of that has to do with quiet and contemplation.

You might also notice that this is always about cats and never kittens.

This is our New Kitten, officially named Jackson.

I finally managed to get this photo, when he ran out of energy and got a little sleepy. I have requests for video. So far, this is the best I’ve managed:

Jackson 2

It gives you an idea of the eternally moving target I’m dealing with here. Is he a good desk companion? Oh yes! Every inch of my desk, all the time. Keyboards are for walking on. My face is right there for loving on. He goes for my tea. I move it to the other side. He follows. I move it back. He follows. Persistence, thy name is Kitten.

So, yeah – my even, pleasant rituals are shot all to hell. If I’m not trying to see through a tail, I’m mediating conflicts with Isabel, who is decidedly cranky about the whole thing. Here was her statement from last night.

Hint: look at the end of the near canale. Yes, we got her down. She’s been up on the roof before, but we had to get out the extension ladder last night. Just so I would know that she is DISPLEASED.

So, now I’m trying to get my schedule back into place – knowing full well I’ll lose it again, because I’m headed to Rom Con on Thursday. (Hey, if you’re coming, or are in the Denver area, stop and say hi!) I’m trying to be Zen about it all. My life is overall pretty even and peaceful – like I said yesterday, I don’t know how you people with little kids do it – and this kind of disruption doesn’t happen often.

I think that’s part of the staying the course with writing: knowing that sometimes different parts of life get in the way. And that’s it’s all good. All part of being a connected human being.

Just like getting back to my exercise routine after the holidays, to extend my recent analogy. Starting off slow and easy.

Working my way back up to full intensity.

(With only a little whining.)