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On Likable Characters

I found this post on the “Catch-22″ inherent in stories about Domestic Discipline. It’s not something I’d considered before–I’m not really sure how one goes about writing an entire book around spanking.  The post is fun: Cara Bristol explains how she sets things up for her stories.

Something not particularly limited to DD books stuck out for me, though.

Readers want likable characters they can root for. If the heroine’s offense is minor, readers dislike the hero because he looks like a bully. If she commits a serious offense that can be seen as a moral failing – infidelity, endangering the lives of her children, readers dislike her. So as an author, you have to skate a very thin line down the middle of the two extremes.

I am unconvinced on this “likable” thing.  I’m plotting this month, so I’m actually sort of stuck on this concept–all the things that aren’t “allowed.”

My main character is a big old moral failure.

She’s going to do all sorts of unforgivable things that’ll get you snubbed at PTA meetings.

Every piece of advice out there suggests I’ve shot my story in the foot.  Women don’t want to read about a woman that’s “unlikable.”  No sluts, no bad moms. And, women are the primary audience for erotic fiction.

I wonder what it is that makes a reader turn on a character?  Why must the heroine be an unusually good person? Does that go double if she’s doing something as heinous as having really, really good sex?

Why isn’t being flat out fucking stupid verboten?  Because, believe me, there are a ton of unforgivably stupid heroines out there, and those are the ones I want to smack.  You know the ones:  she runs out after having a tantrum, gets caught by Dastardly Dan, has to be rescued.

Why is that okay?  How the hell is that “likable?”

Krysta Kaos and Tomi Knox, photographed by Bella Blush.

I’m pretty sure they’re flirting with “moral failure” there. Krysta Kaos and Tomi Knox, photographed by Bella Blush.  Click image for link.

I guess my problem is that I don’t personally enjoy ”likable” characters.

“Likable,” so far as we’re defining it as “never dealing in moral failings,” is boring.

Imagine Tony Soprano with no moral failings.  I mean, really.

Nora Sutherlin seems to have an audience. Lady Mary Crawley is doing okay. Nancy Botwin. Katniss Everdeen. Hell, Liz freaking Lemon is racist and neurotic.

“Girls like her, my grandfather once warned me, girls like her turn into women with eyes like bullet holes and mouths made of knives. They are always restless. They are always hungry. They are bad news. They will drink you down like a shot of whisky. Falling in love with them is like falling down a flight of stairs. What no one told me, with all those warnings, is that even after you’ve fallen, even after you know how painful it is, you’d still get in line to do it again.”

- Holly Black, from Black Heart

Maybe it doesn’t really matter so much, outside of explicitly religious love stories?

Porno directors don’t have these dilemmas.

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  1. Anastasia Vitsky
    Posted October 17, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Hi Joan! Thanks for linking to the post. You make a lot of good points here, although I’d like to gently point out that not all DD stories are religious. In fact, a great deal of them aren’t (mine, for example).

    You’re absolutely right that a lot of characters and stories don’t follow Cara’s thoughts on DD fiction. I think you’re also getting at the unspoken code of behavior for women (not just as characters, but also as real people). Having an affair, working outside of the home, cutting their hair short, not having children, etc. etc, were all at certain times considered unforgivable in society and also in fiction. Should we have stories that go against these “rules”? Of course! I’m all for breaking rules.

    But one challenge specific to DD fiction is the double-charged dilemma of creating (as Cara said so well) an obnoxious immature brat or an abused victim. Because spanking is verboten in many genres of fiction, to write a spanking relationship (and the great stories are real stories with spanking rather than just written-out spanking scenes that read as bad fanfic) requires a lot of careful handling.

    That said, I can’t stand Liz Lemon. ;)

    If you’re saying that women should be able to flout “rules” and assert their identity in different ways (in DD fiction or out of it), I’d agree with you completely.

    • Joan
      Posted October 17, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

      Oh, for sure. I liked Cara’s post, and I am not really familiar with DD stories. I think I’ve read one Alta Hemsley and… there was another I can’t remember, with a woman that found letters in an attic.

      Still, I would imagine that there has to be a subset of Shrew Taming stories out there, right?

      • Anastasia Vitsky
        Posted October 17, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

        Oh, absolutely! DD is only one type of spanking fiction. There are lots of the bodice-rippers where a screaming shrew gets her comeuppance. At the heart of DD is that the person being spanked is spanked, not just for fun or for sexy kicks, but as true punishment for bad behavior. That concept can push a lot of people’s buttons (in a bad way). If the spanking is for fun or sexy kicks, there is a lot more leeway writing it into the plot. What I love about writing DD fiction, however, is that altruism of helping someone else to improve. Sort of like a life coach who spanks. :)

        You reminded me of an author (can’t remember the name) who was chastised because one of her characters said something like, “If I’d known you’d be coming over, I would have tidied the drawing room.” The criticism was that the drawing room *always* should be tidy whether there was company or not.

        • Joan
          Posted October 17, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

          I think “a life coach who spanks” is my new favorite phrase. Thanks for clarifying. I do tend to overlook the disciplinarian aspects.

          That’s crazy about the drawing room, though. I’d crack up.

          • Anastasia Vitsky
            Posted October 17, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Permalink


            Although this is a lot more whimsical than my usual fare, here is a small taste of what a DD relationship can look like.

            The drawing room comment was a long, long time ago rather than modern-day. I’d say things are much different now, but it’s past 5 PM so I need to go home to fix dinner. ;)

  2. Lily
    Twitter: MsLilyLloyd
    Posted October 17, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Is the main character the same one as in “Deenie”? Because I most certainly would have read much, much more about her.

    If the “likeable characters” thesis is true, what explains The Sopranos, The Wire, hell, the Kardashians?

    I’d ignore this advice. It’s only true if people are looking for characters to identify with, and then only if the reader is particularly invested in or threatened by being thought a slut or not being “a good girl.”

    One of my favorite erotic novels is Megan Hart’s “Dirty.” The main character is promiscuous and can be cruel. In total? The book is fascinating and I like the main character, as flawed as she is — she’s got reasons, and most of us do.

    • Joan
      Posted October 17, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

      I’m not doing Deenie in November, but that one is so next. I’m excited. I’ve got a title, and a general notion, and some scenes worked out, and everything.

      I’ll have to look up that Hart book.

  3. t1klish
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    I like a variety of characters, so I don’t need them to be overly nice. But I’m a woman who doesn’t enjoy romance novels because they’re all exactly alike. Good girl meets exciting man, they fall in love, exciting man suddenly becomes boring and obsessed with white picket fences and babies, the end.

    I don’t like it that the exciting man becomes boring.

    I don’t like it that the story ends with babies, or babies on the way.

    I don’t like it that the exciting man will never be seen again in the series.

    But since the writer has ruined the man, ruined the couple, and made the fun part over, it leaves me glad it ended where it did.

    As for a spanking story, who knows, maybe if the female character is real bad I’d enjoy the punishment scenes more. I’ve never read a spanking story, so can’t be sure. Maybe I should start reading them.

    But if she gets spanked for going beyond her allowed computer time, or for eating a cookie after a certain hour, I wouldn’t be able to keep reading. There has to be a good reason for the spanking or it would just be silly to me.

    • Joan
      Posted October 18, 2012 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      LMAO. The baby endings!

      There’s actually a whole subset of “secret baby” stories. You START with the baby. It works it’s amazing baby magic on the dude throughout the story. My favorite part there is that the covers are often just… so, so, SO wrong. Instead of being heartwarming, it totally looks like a Pedo Adventure. LOL.

      I’ve read a lot of stories with spanking, but not a lot of stories that are specifically about domestic discipline. Really, if there’s no element of sexy times to it, I’m not interested in corporal punishment.

      • t1klish
        Posted October 20, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

        I haven’t read any, but yeah, I’d need it to be sexy too. I don’t want to read anything where a grown woman is being treated like a child who’s not allowed to determine for herself how many cookies she eats or how much time she spends on the computer. On the other hand, if she’s being punished for infidelity, that I’d read, or if she’s being “punished” for not swallowing well enough during a blowjob. That could be fun.

        • Joan
          Posted October 22, 2012 at 10:07 am | Permalink

          I really am down for both, but if it is for cookies and computers, it STILL better result in some tingles, you know? Most of my personal rules at home that result in spanking are actually sex-related. I don’t need a “life coach.” I need “sexy underpants games.”

          I really oughta do a spanking entry. This has me thinking.

          • Anastasia Vitsky
            Posted October 22, 2012 at 10:11 am | Permalink

            Oh, if you like sexy underpants games you would like my friend Celeste Jones’ book, Underwear Probation. (Not DD!)

            And yes, there are many layers to DD beyond just the cookies and computer thing. But I think that is true for anything that is only practiced by a minority.

  4. Jenny Lyn
    Twitter: jennylynwrites
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    I tend to want to agree with Lily here and say ignore this advice. More and more writers are pushing the envelope with regards to an “unlikable” main character. I want mine to have some flaws. I think where you might worry about losing your reader is if the character is completely morally bankrupt, not necessarily a moral failure as you mentioned your character to be. I believe there’s a difference. Even Tony Soprano had a few decent qualities. He was good to his kids, for instance. Loved his wife, even though he cheated on her. Provided for his family, despite it being by ill-gotten gains. See where I’m going?

    As far as the DD, I dabble with spanking in some of my short stories, but I agree that there has to be a legitimate end result, whether that be a lesson learned or simply because it’s a turn-on for both parties. If he’s just snatching her up and wailing on her for no reason, that’s not sexy, it’s domestic violence.

    BTW, love the changes to your site! :)

    • Joan
      Posted October 18, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      Thank you! My stupid hosting company kept killing updates, so it was a little late, but I’m sooo pleased with how it’s turned out.

      I think the trick is creating a character that’s sympathetic, instead of merely likable. However, there does seem to be a cult-of-likability in romance–same with chick lit and women’s memoirs. Likewise, if we look at Carmella Soprano, Skylar White, or Betty Draper, a portion of the audience is way, WAY more judgmental about them than their husbands, even if their husbands are much more serious “sinners.”

      I still like Nora Sutherlin about a million times more than a Sweet Damsel in Distress. I like Scarlet more than Melanie.

      I mean, really, Melanie Wilkes. Would anyone really want to read ten years in the life of Melanie Wilkes?

      • Jenny Lyn
        Twitter: jennylynwrites
        Posted October 18, 2012 at 11:31 am | Permalink

        Not me! Scarlet, with all her flaws, was still way more interesting a character.

        Using Tiffany’s Nora as an example, in The Angel she introduces us to Suzanne, a reporter bent on finding out the “truth” behind Soren and his church. She’s certain there’s something *bad* going on, given the reputation of the Catholic church in general. She walks the moral high ground. She’s the complete opposite of Nora. But I couldn’t stand her. Could I name a reason why? Not really, other than she was just boring. Give me a twisted, morally corrupt character any day.

        • Joan
          Posted October 18, 2012 at 11:40 am | Permalink

          Twitter tells me that she somehow redeems Soren in The Angel. This will teach me to start 1000 page epics when good stuff is coming out. LOL.

  5. Anastasia Vitsky
    Posted October 22, 2012 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    You may or may not be interested in this article I wrote regarding punishments within DD. It’s likely you won’t agree, but it’s interesting to see what you think.

    • Joan
      Posted October 22, 2012 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      Actually, that all sounds like excellent material for a DD story, to me. I had no idea that you could get more spanking for “withdrawing.”

  6. Scarlet Cox
    Posted July 28, 2013 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    The problem that the linked article has made is confusing sympathetic with likeable.

    Creating sympathetic characters is essentially Creative Writing 101. A reader needs to have a sympathetic connection with a character to care about what happens with him or her. “Sympathy” in this instance is understanding, not pity.

    Characters can be entirely unlikeable so long as the reader can understand them and see why they make the choices that they make. As you say, the idiot heroine who is nothing more than a plot device is utterly unsympathetic, because we as readers realise she’s just a fucking idiot, so we don’t care, because we don’t sympathise with her.

    Tony Soprano is unlikeable, but he is thoroughly sympathetic. We understand why he does what he does, we empathise with the choices he makes because we can see the life he’s in and how it sometimes forces his hand (or he thinks it does).

    You’re completely right to be unconvinced, because it’s erroneous. Write believable characters, but don’t worry about whether they are likeable ;)

    • Joan
      Posted July 29, 2013 at 2:48 am | Permalink

      I think it really does depend on your genre and intended audience.

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