Can You Really Like an Overly Likeable Character?

As writers we want our main character to be likeable. But we also want them to be real. That means they have to have flaws.

Have you ever read a book where the main character didn’t have any flaws?

I recently finished Mansfield Park by Jane Austen as part of my To Be Read Pile Challenge. It’s a goal of mine to finish reading all of Jane Austen’s works because I want to live in a Jane Austen movie admire her work’s critique on social classism and gender inequality.

With that said, I’m just gonna set this here for a minute…

(I have a whole Pinterest board for this.)

Mansfield Park has never been one of my favorite Austen storylines, although some critics argue it’s her greatest work. The novel tells the story of Fanny Price, a gentle-hearted, kind girl who goes to live with her wealthy aunt, uncle and cousins. She is obedient, grateful, and never says an ill word about anyone even though she is often mistreated by her aunt, uncle, female cousins, and neighbors.

And let’s face it, she falls in love with her cousin, Edmund. I know that’s how things were done back then, but ew.

mansfield parkYou know else does that? Karen from Mean Girls.

The happily ever after in the book depends on all the other characters screwing up in order to fulfill Fanny’s dream – marrying her cousin, Edmund.

I did enjoy the novel. And, I really liked re-watching two of the film versions to see where they adapted the storyline. But I don’t know if I ever really liked Fanny. She’s too good.

One could argue that Fanny’s flaw is being too nice. While other characters do point that out, there is no change in Fanny’s character. She remains constant in her loyalty to family, service for others, and everyone else achieving happiness over herself.

I would argue that’s the reason the 1999 film adaptation was quite liberal with their side stories including slavery and an extra-marital affair, which though it could be insinuated happened in Jane Austen’s novel, it is never said outright. In the movie, Fanny (played by Frances O’Conner) is a cheeky little thing and also hopes to become a published authoress. None of her quips, nor challenging statements to her uncle, or the notion of writing her own novels are in the book.

So I ask again, can an audience bond with a character that is too likeable?

What examples can you think of?
Have you read a book with an overly likeable character? How did you feel about them?

24 responses

  1. I think the main goal of an author is to have characters that the reader can identify with, thus drawing the reader into the character’s world. If a character is too perfect, it is hard to relate and I think it leaves you outside of the story a bit. Besides the whole, “ew, cousin” part, I think it’s hard to relate to and therefore root for a person who is just too perfectly good, like Fanny. I read this book in college (along with almost all of the other Austen books) and have little memory of it. Whereas, I vividly recall the others. I think that shows my point. I just could never really get into the story (I guess) and once I was done, it completely faded from my mind. Characters need flaws because they need to be HUMAN and not just a made up character. Otherwise, we might as well just watch a cartoon.

    1. Good point, Misty! And I noticed far more elaborations in the film adaptations in Mansfield Park than in the other book/film versions. They really play up the issue of slavery and turn the uncle into a cruel man – and that’s not the case in the book. And Mary Crawford is sexualized more in the movie than in the book. And they add to Fanny’s character and have her writing and saying snarky little quips in the film – none of which happens in the book. So yah…another example that without those added elements, it didn’t keep the audience as well. Wouldn’t you love to talk to Jane Austen about it? *sigh* Over tea perhaps?

  2. My first question is how close of a cousin is he? Blech.

    I think the biggest problem with a character being too perfect is that he or she would just be boring. I’ve read a book fairly recently where the hero was too perfect and the author made things more “exciting” with sex. I liked the character, but there wasn’t enough conflict in the story. I love my characters flawed, whether it be that they have a dark side (like most of the heroes in my books) or maybe they do stupid things before thinking them through and get themselves in trouble.

    I haven’t read Mansfield Park, and I probably won’t. LOL

    1. To answer your question, Fanny’s mother and Edmund’s mother are sisters, so they are FIRST cousins! Blech indeed – although yes, given the time period this was common.

      Don’t let me deter you from all Austen though! I love her other works – absolutely love them. But Fanny never gripped me like the other heroines. Lizzy in Pride and Prejudice was ridiculously stubborn and quick with her tongue, and Emma and Catherine (Emma and Northanger Abbey) were always letting their imaginations get the better of them and foolishly misjudging people. They learned lessons constantly. And Sense and Sensibility has the Dashwood sisters so there is more of a contrast among the sisters and how they respond – even Elinor who is ultimately good and kind has her moments of breakdown in privacy with her sister. Try one of THOSE reads!

      1. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice, and I have a little trouble with the old-fashioned writing style. But I will say, Sense and Sensibility is one of my favorite movies. So I know I love that story. I think my favorite part is when Elinor breaks down close to the end after finding out….maybe I shouldn’t spoil that in case someone hasn’t seen it yet. Does that happen in the book?

        1. It most definitely does! I love when she snaps too. And she has quips with her sister Marianne who is foolishly daydreamy. She’s a well-rounded but still good character. She’s more real.

  3. Now I don’t want to read it!
    After learning so much about writing, it’s so hard for me to get into a poorly written book, not that Austin’s is poorly written. I may not have noticed her unflawed character, but I do notice bad conversation like, “Do you want me to turn out the light?” “The light?” “Yes. It’s pretty bright, don’t you think?” “You are right.” Who talks like that and why would it be important enough to include in a book? Thanks for letting me rant! I feel better now….

    1. I second that, Susie! I get pulled right out of a story when that drab conversation happens. People don’t talk like that. And yet a lot of writers start out inserting the “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine. How are you?” “Pretty good.” conversations. Reading it out loud is a good editing tip because if it’s boring to read it out loud, then it’s boring for your reader to see it on the page.

  4. This is very thought provoking, Jess. I’d have to say that characters who are “too good” become difficult to identify with and like. We all have quirks, and when we read about others who have quirks/issues/flaws, we identify with their struggles and hope they overcome them. But it does make me wonder why Austen made Fanny so perfect. There must have been a reason, and my literary brain wants to know why. Did her perfection annoy the other characters and cause conflict? Hmmmm….

    1. I know! I LOVE Jane Austen and have enjoyed all her other works, so I too wonder what her reasoning behind making Fanny so good was. She made a lot of comments about social class in her works and that definitely appears in this book, but I don’t know what Fanny’s personality says about it. Her class status – sure. But her personality? Good triumphs over the wicked? I’d sure love to ask!

  5. A character, especially a young woman of Austen’s era, can start out too good. That’s okay. But life happens, and it tends to change us for better or worse. So my issue with Fanny Price is why didn’t she learn that being too nice wasn’t a good idea. I’d rather she become a bitter bitch, mad at the world because she was deprived of her true love, than sit around like a tree stump refusing to grow.

    1. Bahahaha! Tell me how you really feel, Kassandra! I’m sure many agree with you. And case in point, the Miramax film version (I think it’s Miramax) made Fanny burst with a couple lines that put her snooty Aunt Norris in place or called her uncle out on his role in slavery. That doesn’t happen in the book. And the upsetting part is she witnesses so much impropriety amongst her peers and family members, but is too good natured to take a stand against it – only encourages good behavior in the politest of manners. *rolls eyes* Yah, I hear ya Kassandra! Show me Fanny the spinster! LOL

  6. I agree completely! If I may use my own novel as an example…

    One of my main characters is a teacher who is beloved by his students. He’s cool, has a great sense of humor, an awesome record collection. And he’s single. This was bothering me during the writing process. WHY would this otherwise perfect guy still be single (and not jaded by love, either)? He needed a flaw. And one day while driving to work, it came to me in a flash of brilliance. I gave him a flaw – a great, big one – and in the process, humanized him. I like my characters a little imperfect, I guess. Sounds like you do, too.

    1. Isn’t that interesting how you questioned your own character – when you made him totally likable? You sensed something was missing. That human side. I think that’s fascinating.

  7. LOL, Mark. Don’t you love it when the perfect solution comes to you like that.

    I started out making my protagonist of my series too perfect. I naively believed that flaws were things like being a lousy cook. Now I realize that is just a quirk.

    But then I killed off some of the people she cared about and that shook her up considerably. Eight books later (the one I’m writing now), she’s still dealing with the emotional residuals of those events. That’s what I meant about events changing people. Sometimes we overcome one flaw, only to have another pop up in response to some life event.

    1. Another great example! Thanks for sharing. Grief and loss would definitely cause a character (or a real person) to respond differently than they had previously.

  8. I haven’t read Mansfield Park (ducks) but I’ve seen 3 or 4 different versions of it. I like Fanny in the stories there, but as you point out, they movies may have added elements to the character that make her more interesting.

    Personally, I like a really good character. I feel like I read SO many characters that aren’t terribly pleasant but have some redeemable quality…it’s refreshing for me to read someone who is just good. Granted, it’s nice for there to be some quirk or insecurity – they still need to be interesting!

    Which I think, still has me agreeing with you. Fanny in the 1999 version was still quite a good girl, but she was witty, and loved to write. She had opinions, but she managed to live in a “proper” way despite what was happening around her. I liked that Fanny well enough.

    1. Agreed Fanny played by Frances O’Connor would be my buddy!

  9. Flaws equal fun/tension/tears…yup, the stuff of good stories. Just sayin’ =)

  10. Cousins marrying. Blurgh. My junior high and high school teachers never got all that into Austen. I really need to go back and read those books on my own. It fascinates me that she had to publish the books anonymously for so long.

    1. I never read her works in school either. Read them all on my own after years of watching and swooning over all the movies.

  11. Now see, Mansfield Park is one of my favorite stories by Jane Austin. Although I will admit that I haven’t read the book. I loved the 1999 version with Francis O’Conner. And I think that Fanny Price was flawed. I think she was unbalanced in her loyalty towards family. She was the eldest daughter and so much was expected of her. So much was riding on her shoulders in order to save the family from poverty. According to the movie version, her mouth was what got her into trouble. It was what sent her back home for a period of time. Whoops, another flaw. But her reward for sacrificing her wants and needs for the sake of her family was her marriage to the cousin. And back then something like that wasn’t as big of a deal as it is now. I’m sorry, but I see a flawed character. Shoot me now!! 🙂

    1. Yes, in that movie version she is flawed. Because they gave her a quick tongue and made her more rounded. Sorry to disappoint, but the book doesn’t have that. I will refrain from shooting you though, Karen, my blog is a gun-free zone.

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