Storytelling

Do Characters Need to Be Likable?

Woman with Halo

The other day, reader Ethan Michael asked us this:

I’m writing my first book and have already plotted the story, but when I take to the internet to see how to make a character likable or if it’s important, I find numerous articles saying not to make the character likable. My main question is should a major character be likable – and if so how, or should I make them dislikable?

I asked about the articles in question, and he sent me links to here, here, and here. I’ll put the articles in context, define what likability is, and tell you what that means for storytellers.

Why So Many Articles Advocate for Unlikable Characters

For most of these articles, it boils down to this.

It’s Provocative

I don’t doubt the sincerity of any writer who advocates for unlikable characters. However, as a blogger myself, I will tell you that articles making bold statements against conventional wisdom are more popular than articles repeating conventional wisdom.* As a result, an article that is contrary is more likely to be published, and published in more prominent places. So when you search for articles on a topic, the contrary viewpoint will be over-represented.

In addition, these articles are designed to respond to the assumption that characters should be likable. They’re for readers who already understand the cultural context surrounding likability, not for readers who still need an introduction to likability. Contrary articles are worth reading and considering, but they aren’t a good place to start.

Definitions of Likability Differ

I found that articles advocating for unlikable characters were using a much narrower definition of likability than I would use. Their definition seemed to be: “Would you like this person if you met them in real life?” This definition isn’t useful to storytellers, because whether you like someone in real life is not the same as whether you like a character. If it was, villains such as Darth Vader wouldn’t be so popular. In effect, these articles were actually discussing the value of characters with large personality flaws.

The last article was also questioning whether audiences hold a double standard, liking flawed male characters more than flawed female ones. At some point, every storyteller should consider cultural standards of likability and decide how their own work will respond to that. But again, that’s not the best place to start.

What Is Likability?

For our purposes, I’ll define it as “interest and investment in a character.” In other words, it’s a character we like watching or reading about. Instead of resembling whether we’d like them in person, character likability falls somewhere between the enjoyment of observing a person and the enjoyment of being that person.

The importance of that second part varies, depending on how strongly the audience identifies with the character. Identification is by no means a requirement for likability, but it usually provides a strong bonus. In general, the more your audience can understand and relate to your character, the more they’ll identify with them.

Should Your Main Character Be Likable?

Absolutely.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Go look at some book reviews, or ask people to tell you what they didn’t like about the books they read. Disliking the main character is one of the top complaints from story readers.

Audiences vary on how much they’ll tolerate characters they don’t like. I know many people who will continue reading a book with a dislikable main character provided the world is interesting enough. I personally won’t; if I don’t like the main character, I’m gone.

Tolerance also depends on how much identification your story aims for. The closer you bring your audience to feeling like they are your main character, the more likely they’ll grow attached to them. However, if they still don’t like the character, they’ll tolerate it less. That’s why roleplayers always create their own characters for an ongoing campaign. They identify strongly with their characters, so it’s essential to give them the power to make a character they’ll like.

What About Other Characters?

Other important protagonists, particularly viewpoint characters, should also be likable. Villains are more flexible. In a written work, they can be either loved or hated. However, it’s better when the storyteller is on the same page as their audience. For instance, if you love your villain, you might put them in a romance with the hero. If your audience also loves this villain, they’ll be thrilled. If they don’t, they’ll be angry.

How Do You Make a Character Likable?

I’ve got some bad news for you. Character likability depends largely on taste, and people’s tastes can be mutually exclusive. In other words, it’s impossible to make a character that will please everyone. However, some tastes are more popular than others. Here’s some things to consider.

Flaws

As the articles Ethan found demonstrated, people are divided on how flawed characters should be. Some people won’t like characters with any significant flaws; others love heroes that are dark and edgy.

My general impression is that a character with one or two flaws will please the most people. The flaws you choose are important. A flaw like clumsiness is meaningless – it’s not the character’s fault, and it’s just as endearing as it is annoying. On the other hand, a flaw like arrogance is significant, but it’s also particularly dislikable. You’re looking for flaws that hinder your character while still being relatable to the audience – something they know and understand. Good choices are impatience, impulsiveness, contrariness, stubbornness, abrasiveness, shyness, or insecurity.

Strengths

To be likable, a character needs strengths. For most heroes, one of those strengths will be their morals. Kindness, generosity, and selflessness are particularly likable. That’s why many movies have a “save the cat” scene near the beginning. In it, the hero will go out of their way to do something nice for someone else. For example, they’ll drop what they’re doing to help get an elderly woman’s cat out of a tree.

However, anti-heroes and villains with moral failings can also be popular. Instead of integrity, they usually have “cool factor.” Darth Vader wields a laser sword and can choke people with his thoughts. His big black outfit is badass. If a likable anti-hero doesn’t look cool, they can probably still face an army of the undead without flinching. There’s something the audience admires, and it’s enough to compensate for the character’s weaknesses.

Admirable traits work for heroes too, but don’t overdo it. If your hero is a math genius, martial arts master, expert shot, first-rate actor, and tennis champion, your audience will probably stop liking them and start resenting them. Generally, you want one or two really strong skills and a handful of decent ones.

Distinctiveness

As I said earlier, if readers identify with a character, they are more inclined to like them. The problem is which character traits audiences identify with depends on the person. The more common and mundane your character is, the more likely your audience can relate to them. But that means your character will be more like a blank template than a real person. These templates are popular with many people, but others dislike them because they are not strong characters.

A strong character needs distinguishing traits that set them apart from other people. Those traits make them memorable to the audience but less relatable. That doesn’t mean people won’t like them; most still will. Just make sure that your character isn’t completely defined by one unique trait, because that trait could lose its novelty and become annoying.

Audience Understanding

Besides making your character generic, you can also increase audience identification by making sure they understand the character and their motives. A character that seems strange from the outside might feel rational and sympathetic once you understand how they feel and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Prose works have an advantage over visual works in this area, because they can incorporate character thoughts with more ease.

However, this has been done in visual mediums too. A great example is the show House of Cards. The lead character, Frank Underwood, is a villain protagonist – something that’s difficult to pull off, precisely because villains do immoral and therefore unlikable things. But in House of Cards, we actually know what Frank’s thinking. Frequently he’ll turn to the audience and explain his motivation and strategy, as though each viewer is his personal confidante. It makes him more likable than he would be otherwise.

My Favorite Formula for Likability

This may not be the best tactic for a James Bond or Indiana Jones, but it’s used in a wide array of stories. Here it is:

A character with great potential that is undervalued by the people around them.

I sometimes refer to this combo as “the special underdog.” People sympathize with underdogs, and they’ll sympathize with your underdog even more if you show them that your character deserves better. Audiences will become invested in watching your character reach their potential, and therefore invested in your story.

If you want your audience to hate a character, the reverse also works. Show how a character is loved and admired, even though they’re a rotten person who’s conned their way to the top. Your audience will enjoy watching them fall from grace.

My Advice for New Writers

It is impossible to make a character that everyone likes, but one person’s tastes matter more than anyone else’s: yours. You aren’t just reading your book; you’re writing it. It won’t do any good if you create a character that 99% of people will like and then never a finish a book about them because you dislike them yourself.

The more interested you are in your own character, the more driven you’ll be to get to know them. They’ll be better developed, and your audience will appreciate that. You’ll also be more inspired to see the character through to the end of your story; that will help you complete it.

Besides, do you really want a following that demands stories about a character you’re sick of?

So whatever you do, make sure you love your important characters. Then focus on developing them, helping your audience understand them, and giving them growth and agency during your story.

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Comments

  1. Rand al'Thor

    I like your article! Blank characters also work too, right? I was kind of thinking about Harry Potter as I read this.

    • Chris Winkle

      Yes, blank characters are very relateable and therefore likable to most people. There will still be some grumbling about your protagonist being a weak character, but you can’t please everyone.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Grumble grumble grumble don’t like blank characters grumble grumble.

  2. Rand al'Thor

    Even if you don’t like blank characters, your audience will.

  3. Ethan Michael

    Thank you for the article! This has gotten me back into writing again. Before I didn’t know what to do with my characters.

  4. Krysteen

    Could a fear of the unknown be considered a flaw? It would at the very least add conflict, in my opinion.

  5. Hunter_Wolf

    Nice article, and yeah i experianced the whole “I hate the main character but like the story/world/other characters” with Harry Potter, so i understand how this could work, a manga like Berserk has a very violent and flawed main character called Gutts, but his cool medieval gadgets, ridicliously large sword and insane strength soften out his initial repulsiveness, then we get to know him as a person and understand why he is the way he is, it works in the end, but not just because of all that but also because he doesn’t cross certain lines (or the trope known as Moral Event Horizon), this brings me to a certain dilemma.

    You see, i’m usually not squeamish and really like dark fantasy stories like Game of Thrones and Berserk so when i heard about the Broken Empire trilogy i checked it out, the first book is called Prince of Thorn, i read an introduction about it and i was appalled when i found out the MC Jorg Ancrat (who leads a gang of misfits) opens the story narrating his jolly exploits of splitting a farmer’s stomach open and gleefully watching his guts spill then proceeding to rape the dead farmer’s two young daughters, i just …sigh.

    I simply didn’t want to know anymore about the MC, the books or even the writer, how does this even work at all, yeah there are some digusting characters in say Game of Thrones who do terrible things but they are usually one or two characters out of many other POV characters, so we don’t have to like them or root for them.

    In Berserk manga were we have a central MC there are also terrible disgusting things that happen in the world but our MC is usually on the receiving end, tries to stop it (sometimes for the wrong reasons) or at least isn’t involved, but Jorg is the one and only MC here, the writer tries to use the cliched sad backstory of murdered parents and/or siblings to excuse the horrendous things he and his gang do but you know what, that had ZERO effect on me, i still can’t even fathom how and why would anyone read a story with an MC like that?

    • Chris Winkle

      I can’t either. I can only guess the writer was going for shock value. There’s been a trend toward darker and grittier stories lately, and sometimes it seems like storytellers are trying to one-up each other. Perhaps the book is getting some free publicity because of the horrific content.

      I really like characters who make a Heel-Face turns – starting as a villain then becoming a protagonist. But in all the popular stories I’ve seen with them, the storytellers have understood that even as a villain, the character shouldn’t cross the Moral Event Horizon.

      Blech. I hope you read something good to get the taste out of your mouth.

  6. Hunter_Wolf

    Thanks, and you are right about some fantasy writers trying so hard to one-up each other thinking that dark fantasy is all about shock value and making you MC as dark and edgy as possible without any nuance or thought.

    It also makes me sad because this means we are less likely to get new whimsical but complex fantasy books similar to Terry’s Disk World as long as this dark and edgy trend keeps ongoing, maybe i’ll go read some Disk World story to forget about the Prince of Thorns abd his Broken Empire (and personality), or maybe try Throne of the Crescent Moon, seems fresh and different from typical western-themed fantasy settings.

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