Or, to put it another way; unlikably likable.

Do you want your readers to be sure and confident about exactly who your characters are?

In some ways that can be a good thing. Whenever Mary Jane enters the story your reader can be confident that she is the reliable good friend and helper. You need some of those.  You can give them a few negative characteristics – say, being chronically late or untidy and disorganized but the reader knows she can rely on them being an ally.

One of the main purposes of some of the main characters is to keep the reader on the edge of their seat because they just don’t know.

It’s your job as a writer to create characters that are complex and not ho-hum. Complicating this are the many stereotypes – the bad guy feeding a stray dog for instance. You want someone to appear tense? Have them bite their fingernails. You know all the clichés to be avoided.

But what do you replace them with? Replace them with your own observation. Someone came into the coffee shop yesterday, sat down with friends and cut right into their conversation with a monologue of his own. Brilliant, I thought. File it under insensitive.

It isn’t a terrible sin, but think how you could use it. You could exaggerate it – you could make it the prime characteristic of a person who is much disliked until they….

You could show it distorting their life until the spouse threatens to leave them unless…

You could downplay it and use it as the one weakness of an otherwise positive character. Where will it take him, how can it be used, eventually?

A friend of mine hates to see people with dirty fingernails. First, what does this say about her? If I was to use her as a basis for a character how would her fastidious nature play out? Would it be a major driver of the plot or would it be an annoying aspect of an otherwise intelligent and charming woman?

And what about dirty fingernails? Do they offend you? Do you even notice? Are they OK if a person has just come inside from working in the garden but not OK when sitting down to dinner at a friend’s house? People (readers) see different things, feel things differently. Writers groups will show you that. The way you feel about a characteristic may not be at all the same for other people.

We all know  that no character can be totally likeable or totally unlikable. Building in layers and dimensions takes you further and further away from totally anything. Think of the genius who is socially inept. A cliché. But not if you wrap it up in so many layers and brilliantly observed characteristics that those absolutes become almost invisible.

Characters and characteristics are your business as a fiction writer. Observation is the basis, along with practicing and experimenting. You enrich your own life in the process.