I’m Not Likable, I’m Sympathetic

In a great writing seminar, one of the mentors told me that your main character must be likable or sympathetic. It helps if they’re both, but they don’t work if that aren’t at least one or the other. Your readers can’t connect with them if they aren’t. But I’ve found that as an author, you have to be likable. Period. Sympathetic doesn’t cut it.

All the marketing advice for authors is essentially trying to get people to like you. Your work isn’t nearly as important as whether those potential readers make a connection with you. Write your blog posts, do your book signings, maintain an active Twitter account – just keep reminding people that hey, they like you! Which presents a real problem for me.

You see, I’m sympathetic.

I listen to self-help books and the first thing I notice is I don’t think like most other people. My reactions are usually on the extreme ends of the “normal behavior” bell curve. That happens when you’ve lived differently. For instance, logging your food is supposed to help you eat better. Uh-uh. Not me. Last time I started logging my food I found myself binge eating. Logging my food made me artificially hyper-aware of it, triggering old fears. I felt I couldn’t eat enough. I gained ten pounds on my company’s weight loss program before I quit.

All of which makes a great story. But it also makes me the kind of person people tell stories about, not the one they tell stories to. They sympathize. Yet that same set of stories that make me so damned sympathetic also make me unrelateble. So while I may be the subject of a great story to tell at a party, I’m not likely to be invited to the party. People don’t really like me.

The main way I have of relating to other people is through my writing. Yet, the fact that I’m not likable means people aren’t very likely to read it. Marketing, for the most part, doesn’t help. The books stay unread because I’m not the life of the party. The blog post I labor over gets hits in the single digits. That short story an editor liked enough to buy vanishes into the black hole, never to be heard about again. I live the irony that the way I communicate my emotions to other humans produces such a resounding silence.

While my life may be unique, I can’t imagine my problem is. An author has to be likable. What about us, the sympathetic? How do we market a book, or a blog, or a short story in a world where likable trumps everything? Now I get why the internet is full of trolls. If you can’t be likable, you can be the villain. Then at least you know someone is listening.

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