Middle Grade Characters: beyond Likability
Advice on character creation often talks about likability. Many writers find that agents and editors will both comment on the likability of a character. By and large, this is because a character who is likable is often engaging, holding a reader in the story, and keeping them turning pages to learn what will happen with this character. That engagement is essential, because readers need to care.
When readers don’t care about your middle grade characters, interest wanes, and the vast array of other distractions the world offers can lure the reader away from the book. We try never to let that happen. The unfortunate problem with feeling that we must always create a likable character is that we can be inclined to create someone who is too perfect or too meek to do the work of the story in an engaging way. We must not let the “rule” of likability become a barrier to good characterization.
Certainly, a character we can like will tend to be engaging, but likability isn’t everything. We can like a nice person even if we don’t really want to spend time with that person. In fact, we can end up feeling guilty when we find ourselves avoiding perfectly likable people in real life because they’re boring. Likable doesn’t always mean interesting. And interesting is every bit as essential to an engaging character as likability.
Sometimes we can find a character interesting, compelling, and engaging even if they are not completely likable. For example, a funny character is often engaging, even if the character has some strongly negative traits. Equally, an admirable character can be very engaging, even if the character contains unlikable traits. So let’s look at the complex middle grade characters who aren’t really likable, and how they can play a part in grabbing the reader and holding on.
Humor, The Most Requested Trait in Middle Grade Characters
Any children’s librarian in the country can tell you that readers love humor. One of the most heard questions when a librarian suggests a book is often “Is it funny?” That means that a funny main character is automatically engaging even when he isn’t altogether likable. Sometimes it’s the character’s unlikable traits that help make him funny. This is especially true when you have a book series where lots of terrible things happen to the main character for the sake of humor such as in the case of Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Timmy Failure. When the main character is going to be roughed up a bit by the plot, it can help if we don’t relate too much to the character or feel terrible for him. It’s not funny if it provokes too much sympathy.
This is why main characters in humor books are often a little bit unlikable, or at least seriously flawed. The flaws make them interesting and usually lead to the mishaps that drive the humor. These middle grade characters are usually more than a little self-absorbed and sometimes (as with Timmy Failure) comically lacking in self-awareness. If you simply listed traits for these characters, they certainly wouldn’t seem likable. As we follow them through book after book, sometimes there is some transformation to make them more likable, more relatable, but that gap in true likability is often necessary to make the books work, and doesn’t keep the books from being a hit.
Are They Admirable?
Another element that can make middle grade characters interesting and compelling is if you make them admirable. This is often true of anti-heroes like Artemis Fowl. He is a deeply flawed character (though he grows and changes over the course of the series) and isn’t meant to be likable. Still, he is smart and brave and young readers admire those things in him. He is given an interesting and compelling plot, and he works in it, despite begin difficult to like, because he is easy to admire when he faces difficult situations with courage, cleverness, and determination.
Are They Relatable?
Every kid with any level of self-awareness knows that sometimes he isn’t being very likable. In fact, sometimes the character traits that make us who we are also generate those unlikable moments or throw us into trouble.
When readers recognize these traits in a character, the character becomes someone readers can relate to. And that makes them engaging, even if their actions are making them hard to like (at least in the moment). The character may be impulsive, for instance, which can lead to some of the perils of the plot but also offers a point of connection. An impulsive character may say things they regret, blurting out hurtful comments without thought. Hurting others is an unlikable action, but when the thing that generates that negative experience is so relatable, the connection and engagement between reader and character stands.
So as you create the middle grade characters that will carry your story, don’t worry too much about likability. Readers will like a story when you make the main character driving it compelling and engaging. So ask yourself:
- Is this character funny?
- Is the character admirable?
- Is the character relatable?
- What about this person will keep the reader wanting to know what will happen to the character and how the character will react?
If you have created someone who keeps things interesting, likability will take care of itself.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.