Category Archives: rincewind

Does the Reader Need to Like Your Main Character?



Of course not. How could you possibly write a character everyone would like? No one likes everyone they meet, and the fact a given person doesn’t like another person isn’t even necessarily a commentary on that second person’s character. It’s just that some personalities are incompatible. It boils down to personal preference. 

I saw this question debated in a fantasy writing forum, spawned off a conversation I had on Twitter following a #writetip I posted. I was sad to see most of the writers who commented did so on the basis of their own personal experiences, characters they did and did not like, and how that impacted their liking of the book, instead of taking a more objective and analytical view.

I suggest this is the wrong question. The right question is ‘does your character need to be likeable?’.
How do we distinguish a likeable character from one we like?

Liking someone (including a character) comes down to your own personal preferences of qualities and characteristics you find desirable in a person. Essentially you are asking would this character be your friend, if they were real. Likeable, on the other hand, means capable of evoking empathy or sympathy.

One commentator on the forum observed they didn’t like Frodo. I can’t say as I especially like Frodo either. If I listed my all-time favourite characters, Frodo wouldn’t be on that list. Does that mean he’s not ‘likeable’?

I don’t think it does. Frodo’s character isn’t repellent, disagreeable, nasty, or otherwise have elements which would make a reader actively dislike him. In general, his character has the potential to be liked. Whether you do or don’t like him comes down to your personal preferences. Given the definition of likeable I’ve mentioned above, to avoid confusion it may even be better to say ‘relatable’.

When we rephrase the question ‘Is Frodo relatable’ I think the answer is a resounding yes. He’s a little guy, bowed down by the weight of the world’s problems, venturing out from the only safe home he has known, to do battle with demons he can’t comprehend. You can easily take the fantasy out of the context by making the demons and the problems figurative instead of literal. Who can’t relate to that? To some degree, nearly all of us will have some sympathy for his plight – even if we don’t like him, personally.

Why is it important to make your character relatable?

Bearing in mind I am only talking about genre fiction here (literary fiction being a different kettle of fish), your character should be relatable because they are driving the action. In many cases, the reader keeps reading because they want to see what the character does next, how they solve their problems, how they overcome conflict, how their decisions make things better or worse.  If we don’t have empathy or sympathy for the character, if we don’t care at some level what happens to them, if we aren’t invested in that character, then why would we keep reading to learn any of these things?

The short answer is, for most, they wouldn’t. Once upon a time, I probably did, and I learned I wasn’t the standard, but nowadays my time is too precious. If I don’t care, I won’t bother to find out.
The problem is exacerbated if the main character is actively unlikeable, pathetic, whiny, or any one of a number of undesirable qualities, because really, who likes to spend any amount of time in the company of someone like that?

A few case studies to consider:

  • Dexter – basically a serial killer, but we like him, or empathise with him, why? Because he has ‘The Code’. He only kills people who deserve it. Vigilante justice, but ‘good’ resonates more with us than ‘lawful’ in many cases. What he’s doing may not be strictly right, but we understand it, we relate to it, and, secretly, we probably applaud it;
  • Rincewind from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld – a pathetic, useless and cowardly wizard who can’t perform magic or, for that matter, even spell the word ‘wizard’. Why do we like him? His cowardice is brutally pragmatic, and when you listen to him, he starts to make you question the intelligence of all those ‘heroes’ who rushed in against insurmountable odds to rescue the princess. Not only is Rincewind often right, but he’s funny – his insights are clever, and entertaining. Everyone likes the funny guy – even if often Rincewind is the butt of the joke;
  • Riddick in Pitch Black – this one is a little less obvious, and harder to explain. Riddick is very much a ‘dark hero’. Why do we relate to him? A little bit, because we understand where he’s come from, and the tough circumstances he’s had to survive. A little bit, because he could have killed the other survivors at any time – and he didn’t. Surely he would have had a better chance without them, so why did he ever saddle himself with the burden of saving their lives? We have to ask the question, and suspect an answer. Even at the end, when he did make a break for it, and looked out for himself, he couldn’t go through with it. It’s that part of him, the good buried deep inside, that we relate to, and we follow the story to find out which side of him wins out.

As well as being relatable, no character should be irredeemable. Would Riddick work if we believed he was a bad apple all the way through, if he had abandoned everyone to die? No, of course not. Would Rincewind work so well if he didn’t save the world? Though he may be dragged to it, and forced against his will, at the end Rincewind accepts his fate with weary resignation and does what he can, little though it may be. If neither character showed any compassion or concern for others, they would fail completely.

You don’t need to like a character. But I do believe you need to understand and relate to characters in genre fiction, and most especially the protagonist. 



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Top Five Major Discworld Characters


I love the Discworld books. Always a good rollicking romp, and sometimes a welcome relief from the intensity of ‘the world is ending’ in other fantasy. I like to read Discworld between The Wheel of Time and The Sword of Truth and all the other books filled with intense heroics and life-changing events.

Which is not to say the Discworld books don’t tackle serious issues, because they do, but in a comedic way that allows them to get away with it, and in a way that is nevertheless entertaining. So here are my top five major Discworld characters.

5. Vetinari

Is this an odd choice? And if it is, do I like Vetinari because I’m like Vetinari? Or at least, so say the Discworld quizzes which tell you the characters you are most like, and if there is any truth to it, perhaps I should be afraid… On the other hand, Vetinari is, as dictators go, a most benevolent dictator, and I should like to think I would be, too. Benevolent, I mean. I can do the dictator part standing on my head.

Vetinari is a fascinating character. He is always one step ahead of everyone else – even when you (and everyone else) thinks he isn’t. You can’t fool him, no matter how hard you try. I would hate to play chess against him! Or poker, either, I expect. He rules the city by playing faction against faction and knowing how each will respond – even before they do! He is held in contempt by several Ankh-Morpork factions, but mostly because they fear him, hate him, envy him or are just too plain stupid to realise how cleverly dangerous he is!

It is said Vetinari failed his stealth class at the Assassins’ College, even though he attended every class, because the master never saw him there.
Don’t let me detain you. What a wonderful phrase Vetinari had devised. The jangling double meaning set up undercurrents of uneasiness in the most innocent of minds. The man had found ways of bloodless tyranny that put the rack to shame.”
4. Death

Opposite to Vetinari, he totally doesn’t understand people. But his quest to try and understand us is hilarious, and he has some of the best cameos in the entire series. And I just love the way he talks LIKE THIS.

Death has a daughter (adopted, of course), a white horse called Binky, and a scythe that can slice anything in half. I don’t recommend cutting yourself by accident on that scythe.  
“The Rite of AshkEnte is the most serious ritual eight wizards can undertake. It summons Death…

The wizards stared into the magic octogram, which remained empty. After a while the circle of robed figures began to mutter amongst themselves.

‘We must have done something wrong.’

‘Oook.’

‘Maybe He is out.’

‘Or busy…’

‘Do you think we could give up and go back to bed?’

WHO ARE WE WAITING FOR, EXACTLY?”
3. Mistress Esmerelda (Granny) Weatherwax

Head of her coven of witches in the Ramtop Mountains in the miniscule kingdom of Lancre. Like Vetinari, Granny has a very good grasp of people (although she calls it ‘headology’, or akin to psychology I expect). I’m not sure if they have ever met, but if they did, I expect there would be a certain amount of mutual respect and wariness. 

Like Vetinari, you can never get one over on Granny, even when you think someone has. Unlike Vetinari, though, Granny can’t fall back on being a tyrant – although she can and does fall back upon being a witch – in some parts just as bad or worse than tyranny – and is more or less a law unto herself. What Granny wants, Granny gets. She is, though, always conscious of the risk of ‘turning bad’ and cackling (a sure sign a witch has gone bad). 

Granny likes to always be right (forget admitting she is wrong) and she doesn’t much like losing. Perhaps that’s what I like about her… According to the quiz, there’s a dose of Granny in me as well!
“‘Blessings be upon this house,’ Granny said. It was always a good opening remark for a witch. It concentrated people’s minds on what other things might be upon this house.”
2. Sam Vimes

Once head of the night watch, and more recently risen to Commander of the Watch and Duke of Ankh, Vimes is very different to the three preceding characters. He’s cynical and very much against privilege and wealth and all about the common man, even if the definition of ‘man’ does keep getting shifted to include other species, which he’s not too keen about, and even if he has now been lifted to rank and privilege, which he’s also not too keen about.

Justice is important to Vimes, and legality, as he tries to shake off the spectre of his ancestor who was a regicide. It annoys him quite a bit when ‘Old Stoneface’ is declared a hero, because he believes you can’t just rewrite history and change the facts. The means does not justify the end where Vimes is concerned, but sometimes he is caught between what is right and what is legal.

Vimes is the Sherlock Holmes of the Discworld and he always gets his man. As you progress towards the end of the series, there are whole countries that shake in their boots when they hear Vimes is on the case.

Vimes is most concerned with ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?– who watches the watchers?
“’I’ve been running around looking for damn Clues instead of just thinking for five minutes!’ said Vimes. ‘What is it I’m always telling you?’

‘Never trust anybody, sir?’

‘No, not that.’

‘Everyone’s guilty of something, sir?’

‘Not that, either.’

‘Just because someone’s a member of an ethnic minority doesn’t mean they’re not a nasty, small-minded little jerk, sir?’

‘N- When did I say that?’

‘Last week, sir. After we’d had that visit from the Campaign for Equal Heights, sir.’”

1.  Rincewind

Of all the characters here, Rincewind is the only one completely unlike me, and yet also my absolute favourite. He is either impossibly cowardly or incredibly pragmatic, and yet somehow he still manages to save the world. Over time, this develops into a certain sense of fatalism about how events will unfold.

Technically a graduate of Unseen University, Rincewind is still undeniably a failed wizard and we never see him of his own free will cast a spell. He even has ‘Wizzard’ written on his hat, just so people don’t mistake him for something else. Like magic, spelling clearly is not his forte.

Rincewind provides, in my opinion, some of the funniest moments, along with his luggage… er, Luggage, which carries itself around on hundreds of little legs and has homicidal tendencies. As he staggers from disaster to disaster, accidentally staving off certain death for the world along the way, we just can’t help but laugh… and laugh… and laugh. 
“’But there are causes worth dying for,’ said Butterfly.

‘No, there aren’t! Because you’ve only got one life but you can pick up another five causes on any street corner!’

‘Good grief, how can you live with a philosophy like that?’

Rincewind took a deep breath. ‘Continuously!’

Who are your favourite Discworld characters? Would you list any here, or others? There were plenty of more minor characters I would love to have listed, but then the list would have grown rather unwieldy.

I’m considering doing a series of these posts. What other Top 5 Discworld posts would you like to see? Or are there other fantasy Top 5 posts you are interested in? I’d love to hear your suggestions. 

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to check out my previous posts if you haven’t already. If you’re finding yourself here often, you might like to join as a member, sign up to the blog through RSS or email, or subscribe to my newsletter.

Don’t forget to share the love and spread the word on Twitter, Facebook or StumbleUpon (or other social networking site of your choice) if you know other people who might also enjoy this.

Thanks for stopping by and visiting with us!
 
All quotes from ‘The Wit and Wisdom of Discworld’ by Terry Pratchett.