Is it enough to create well-rounded characters for your novel?

How important is it as a writer that you create likeable characters as protagonists for your novel? Is it better to create well-rounded characters who may not be very likeable, or is it better to create likeable stereotypes?

The only true-life hero I ever knew broke down the door of a burning building, raced inside and rescued the two occupants, both of whom were overcome by smoke inhalation. It was an incredibly brave thing to do, and it saved their lives.

This same man bashed his wife—frequently—and followed her around the country for ten years after she left him, making her life an absolute misery. No matter how far she ran, he always found her.

To people who didn’t know him well he was witty and good looking; a real charmer. Not to mention, a hero.

To those of us who did know him, he scared the hell out of us. I know I wasn’t the only one who genuinely wished him harm and there were days when I seriously contemplated doing something about it myself.

Had this man been in a book he would have been considered a ‘well-rounded’ character.

I recently finished Sara Douglass’ Hade’s Daughter, the first in the four-book Troy Game series. This is an excellent book. Well written and engaging, and I love the idea underpinning the story. However, as the Publisher’s Weekly blurb says on the back cover of my copy:

“Dazzling … full of seriously flawed characters both abhorrently evil and appallingly empathetic.”

Publishers Weekly

The thing about Hade’s Daughter is that it was a really good book, but I’m not going to race out and read the next three books in the series right away. I may do in future, I’m not sure. I need time away first, because sometimes the main characters were really not nice. Publisher’s Weekly really described them well.

For me, personally, no matter how good a book is, if I can’t like the characters I have trouble staying the whole book.

So does this mean that I prefer books with likeable stereotypical heroes rather than a truly good book with a truly flawed character? Obviously, it depends on the flaws, and one person’s idea of fatal flaws is not necessarily another’s. Some people will love Brutus, for example, in Hade’s Daughter.

I can definitely say that if you gave me a choice between:

  • A Pulitzer-quality novel about a charming, but flawed hero (who just happens to beat his wife) who investigates the arson of a house where he rescues the occupants, and
  • A lighthearted whodunnit about a (nicer) man who investigates the arson of a house where he rescues the occupants

I know which novel I am going to read, and it’s not the quality one.

In an ideal world, of course, the character would be rounded, flawed, and still likeable. That’s the type of book we all strive for.

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