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Friday, September 23, 2011

The Likability Factor

Let’s get one thing out of the way: I’m addicted to Dexter.

I thought you should know that because a) it’s an awesome show and b) it’ll help you understand where I’m coming from with this post. I wanted to talk about likable and unlikable characters. And who better to illustrate that with than a serial killer, right?

I’ll just say it … I love Dexter. Not just the show, but the guy. Sure, he kills someone almost every episode. Sure, he does it by hacking them to pieces. And, yeah, he has no remorse. But it’s hard not to love the guy.

The writers on the show really got the whole “make your character likable” thing, an especially hard task when he’s doing something as unpleasant as murdering people. So even if your character doesn’t get warm and fuzzy when he thinks about taking a saw to some stranger’s neck,* there’s something you can learn from Dex. (Yeah, I like to think we’re on a nickname basis by now.)

So, here are some things I’ve learned about creating likable characters from Dexter:

Give him a heart
Dexter may tell us that he’s heartless and incapable of emotion, but he’s only kidding himself. That’s because his actions—the way he cares for Rita and his children, the way he protects his sister—show us that he’s not empty inside. He may tell us he can’t love, but we see the way he loves them. And that makes us love him even more.

Add humor
For a crime drama, Dexter has an awful lot of laugh-out-loud moments. Because Dexter’s a bit, um, off, his comments about the people around him and the world in general are hysterical. His unique outlook on his surrounding, friends and family are funny to those of us who aren’t psychologically damaged. Don’t be afraid to let your character use his view of the world to make us laugh. We’ll like them better, even if they’re about to beat up a nerd or spill red Gatorade on the new girl’s white shirt.

Give him a hobby
Okay, I’ll admit Dexter’s hobby is a bit … unsavory. But, really, his attention to detail as both a forensic specialist and serial killer is admirable. He’s the best at what he does in both fields. Sure, we don’t exactly want to pat him on the back for being such an awesome serial killer, but you have to admit: A character who has a passion, follows it, and works hard at perfecting it is commendable.

Make us agree
The major reason everyone who watches Dexter loves him is that he’s doing a job that, deep down, we all want him to do. We see the other serial killers brutally murder innocent people and even though we know it’s wrong, we can’t help thinking, Dexter, please take care of this guy so Miami can be safe again. And, well, when the latest serial killer’s on the chopping block, it’s hard not to think that in a tiny way Dex is doing some good. Find some way we can identify with your character and we’ll love him, too. Give him a cause we believe in, one that we’ll get behind despite actions we don’t agree with.

Speaking of likability, a few months ago I read GettingRevenge on Lauren Wood, which is about a girl, Helen, who returns to her old high school to destroy the girl who publicly humiliated her in middle school. This book walked the fine line between a likeble protagonist who we could identify with and one who we wanted to slap silly.

Truthfully, I think it hit the right balance, especially thanks to the humor. Still, I did have the nagging urge to push Helen down steep hill at some points. (Does that make me as bad as Helen, who would like to push Lauren Wood out of a speeding dump truck? Don’t answer that.)

What about you guys? Have you read anything with an unlikable character that was particularly well done? What made you like the character?

Also, a giant CONGRATULATIONS!!!!!!! to writers Katherine Owens and Lydia Kang, who both announced on Wednesday that they’ve found agents. You ladies rock!

*Too graphic? Sorry to the squeamish.

 Also, I think I've hit an all-time high for the number of knives in one post...

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