Way back in 2015, before we had an official Q&A section, I received this reader question about likability.
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?
– Ethan Michael
Ethan was just trying to get his first book done, and he’d already run into so many provocative doubt pieces that he was wondering if his main character should be disliked.
I hadn’t covered likability before, but its importance was obvious. Readers often report that disliking the main character negatively impacted their enjoyment of a story, and writers generally want to avoid this. Wherever writers are not getting the results they want, advice to help them is needed.
As the years passed, I learned that likability was even more essential than I thought. I also homed in on the most effective techniques for encouraging it. But the articles Ethan mentioned haven’t gone away; likability remains one of the most controversial storytelling concepts Mythcreants covers.
Given that, it’s time for an updated overview of what likability is, what’s most important for new writers to know, and the debate taking place. You can still read my original 2015 answer via PDF.
What Is Likability?
When I discuss concepts in depth, I start by defining them. Readers can’t follow my advice unless they know what I mean, and people get in an astounding number of false debates because their definitions differ.
In this case, about 90% of the arguments against likability use a definition that no storyteller should be using: whether we would like someone if we met them in real life. A storyteller has little reason to care about that; stories aren’t real life. And when readers complain about likability, it’s not because that character is living next door and wouldn’t let them borrow some sugar.
If someone likes reading about or watching a character, for them, that character is likable. That’s all. For a storyteller, audience engagement is the only relevant metric. That means if you ignore all of my likability advice and readers enjoy your characters anyway, then congratulations, your characters are likable. And readers who’ve had a good experience with a character don’t leave reviews complaining about how unlikable the character is.
Likability doesn’t mean characters should be perfect, bland, or boring. While likability is affected by whether the character does good deeds, it’s by no means defined by it. Skilled storytellers have managed to make all sorts of despicable characters likable; take Eleanor Shellstrop from The Good Place or Frank Underwood from House of Cards. And far from encouraging cookie-cutter personalities, characters who are unusual get a likability bonus because they have higher novelty. Seven of Nine, Murderbot, and Deadpool all broke the mold to their benefit.
Does likability come with constraints? Yes, because any audience will generally like some things more than others. But the same goes for every aspect of storytelling. People also don’t like tangential exposition dumps or head hopping. Understanding how people respond to stories and creating the experience we want for them is what storytelling is about.
That doesn’t mean that broad likability has to be your highest goal, or a goal at all. You might decide that your story is for some people and not others, and tailor your characters accordingly. You might sacrifice likability to send a message. But regardless of your objective, you’ll make better storytelling decisions if you understand how much it matters to your audience.
Why Is Likability Important?
Let’s start with the obvious. An overwhelming portion of any story is devoted to its characters – the main character in particular. The reader should get something from consuming tons of narration about that person. If hearing about the characters is boring or annoying, why would they stick around?
What’s less obvious is the impact likability has on other aspects of audience engagement. Likability is necessary for readers to become emotionally attached to characters. Then caring about the story’s characters allows readers to care about everything else by extension – including the story’s plot. The higher reader attachment is, the more small events feel important, and the stronger motivation readers have to continue the story – even if it’s boring or unpleasant.
On top of that, disliking a character can become a downward spiral. Most storytellers encourage emotional investment in characters, and then they write their stories under the assumption that the audience will be delighted when the main character succeeds and disappointed when they fail. But an audience who dislikes the main character may not have that reaction. When the storyteller inevitably glorifies the character, these readers will become even more frustrated.
While storytelling includes many niche choices and techniques, these don’t change the basic equation. If the storyteller wants their audience to root for the protagonist’s downfall, the story will still benefit if readers find the protagonist morbidly fascinating – another form of likability. Some books are popular with a protagonist that’s only loved by a core group of readers or with a protagonist that is neither loved nor hated by anyone. Regardless, liking the protagonist gives engagement a powerful boost, and any story that neglects likability has to make up for it in other ways.
What Makes Characters Likable?
This is a complex question because it varies so much based on the type of character and the reader. Let’s go over the big factors.
A common phenomenon in storytelling is audience members who identify with characters. People tend to do this when the character shares important traits with them. The most obvious shared traits are demographics, such as a young white male reader identifying with a young white man in the story. However, more specific traits like being a parent who is stressed out, loving horses, or being shy can also play a role.
Identification is niche by nature. No character can make every audience member identify with them. But when it happens, likability skyrockets. Unfortunately, audiences who identify with a character also have different tastes. They’ll want the story to have more wish fulfillment so they can enjoy it vicariously. That means lots of candy (glorification) for their character. To those who don’t identify with the character, this can make protagonists unlikable.
Storytellers who aim for identification generally choose a specific audience demographic to cater to. Often, they’ll make their protagonist blank – giving them a generic personality so more people will relate to them. Harry Potter is an example of this kind of character. His personality traits, such as bravery and rule breaking, are generic heroic traits. He succeeds at school when it matters, but struggles just enough to stay relatable to the many school-age readers who don’t ace all of their classes.
While encouraging identification is a viable strategy, Mythcreants doesn’t teach this method because of its narrower appeal. Instead, we encourage storytellers with wish-fulfillment characters to make a few changes that will broaden the character’s appeal while preserving identification. That means toning down the amount of candy these characters get and adding traits that are appealing to others.
Broadly Appealing Characteristics
Discounting the effects of identification, there are three general characteristics that make characters appealing to most people. The reverse of each characteristic can make audiences dislike a character if not handled carefully.
- Selfless. A selfless character helps others at a personal cost to themself. The reverse is a selfish character, who harms innocent people to benefit themself.
- Sympathetic. A sympathetic character has suffered through no fault of their own. The reverse is an arrogant character, who has an oversized ego resulting from easy success.
- Novel. A novel character can have any unusual trait that the audience finds interesting. The reverse is a clichéd character, who will annoy some audience members by embodying tropes that have been used to excess.
While these traits make a big difference, characters don’t need all of them. In fact, a character could be likable without any, though I would expect the audience will warm up to them more slowly. To encourage emotional investment, I recommend giving main characters two out of three. For more specific examples of these characteristics in action and protagonists that use them, see my article Twelve Traits for a Lovable Hero.
If a character has none of the reverse traits and is still disliked, it’s often because the storyteller is so focused on the character’s flaws that the rest of the character is neglected. For instance, they might plan six different ways their protagonist grows during the story. That’s too many. Even in a novel, there won’t be enough space left to build understanding and empathy for each growth area. Or the storyteller might exaggerate a flaw to the point where the character feels entirely defined by it. Remember that characters can also become deeper and more nuanced through their strengths.
Likability in Protagonists, Antagonists, & Side Characters
While audiences should like antagonists and side characters, they don’t need to identify with them or emotionally invest in them. Because of this, likability is a little different depending on the role the character plays in the story.
Understanding and Humility for Protagonists
People become more emotionally attached to characters if they understand them well. A storyteller who makes a protagonist’s motivation clear, communicates any background that affects how they feel, and illuminates their thought process will encourage likability. That’s because this transparency makes the protagonist more sympathetic and easier to identify with. Plus, just like in real life, familiarity can lead to affection. That’s why when storytellers try to make protagonists mysterious, it lowers engagement.
Protagonists are more likable when they’re underdogs. Humility in a protagonist encourages sympathy, whereas seeing a character get constant candy invokes dislike. This is why serving wish fulfillment to people who identify with a character is so alienating to everyone else. However, this doesn’t mean that the protagonist should never be treated to candy – that would make the story too gloomy for many audiences. A balance between spinach and candy is required.
Mystery and Glory for Antagonists
While antagonists can be sympathetic, they don’t need to be. When they are, they are often secondary to a bigger bad. That’s because sympathetic traits can reduce an antagonist’s effectiveness as a threat, and the audience may become invested in seeing a sympathetic antagonist change sides.
Mystery, on the other hand, is ideal for the primary antagonist in a high tension story. It arouses curiosity and boosts their threat level. This is why some villains such as Sauron are barely shown in the story. The aura of mystery Tolkien creates for Sauron makes the character feel larger than life. The more Sauron talks, the more he comes off as just another person who can be defeated. For an antagonist to be outright scary, mystery is usually required.
Similarly, without needing sympathy, antagonists are free to be as successful, slick, and badass as the storyteller wishes. In fact, villains often become more popular by having these traits. Audiences want to see villains with strengths; a villain who is detestable in every respect is cliché and tiresome for many people. Darth Vader is a great example of a glorified antagonist who was popular with audiences.
Helpfulness for Side Characters
Secondary characters are generally judged by how they relate to the main character or another central protagonist that the audience is invested in.
If they are mean or otherwise hostile to the protagonist, then they will be considered a secondary antagonist by the audience. You can treat them like other antagonists, but making them sympathetic and reconciling them with the protagonist later is a stronger possibility.
Otherwise, allies are usually judged based on whether they’re a help or a hindrance. A sidekick that continually causes problems for the protagonist will become annoying to many audience members. This doesn’t mean they can’t make mistakes and cause problems at all; they should just help more often than they hinder. With a large team of protagonists, it can be tricky to find ways for everyone to help out. For ideas, see 18 Ways for Protagonists to Contribute.
Why Likability Is Controversial
I mentioned that about 90% of arguments against likability are using a different definition. Are we all just talking past each other? I doubt it. If that were the case, we would’ve sorted it out by now. Instead, the “meet in real life” definition is probably being promoted to discredit likability.
So why would people want to do that?
Writers and Fans Get Defensive
Never underestimate how defensive people get when the stories they like are criticized. People get especially attached to characters, and likability is a common criticism of characters. However, it’s difficult to tell readers they’re wrong about their own negative experiences. By redefining likability as something other than reader interest, criticisms can be dismissed by arguing against likability itself.
Fanragers also like to argue that likability problems don’t count because the storyteller sabotaged their character intentionally. But this is irrelevant. The intent behind the story doesn’t change its strengths or weaknesses.
Likability Upends Romanticism
Today’s literary culture is narrowly focused on characters. Literary elitists like to romanticize storytelling, and they often resent “the masses” and disparage the idea of entertainment. Teaching likability is a far cry from this. It means not only demystifying characters but also taking reader entertainment into account when creating them. To those most influenced by literary culture, it may feel like this is cheapening their art or taking the magic away.
However, literary elitists still want their stories to be appreciated by readers, even if they don’t always want to admit it. They’re just hoping that if they write whatever they feel like, reader engagement will solve itself. Suffice to say, I don’t recommend this approach.
Readers Have Double Standards
Some feminists object to likability because of the double standards of our culture. For instance, a self-serving woman will probably be judged more harshly than a self-serving man. While double standards are indeed a problem, using that to attack likability is like saying we should abolish paychecks because women are paid less than men. Besides, the best we could do is bury our heads in the sand. Readers won’t stop reacting to characters or applying double standards just because we’re ignoring it.
The real solution to bias is to work on reforming our culture. That should include writing more marginalized characters, and it can include writing marginalized characters that some people will judge harshly. Stories that push the envelope can help change subconscious beliefs and start discussions about how characters are judged.
Today, Mythcreants promotes likability as one of the storytelling basics that every fiction writer should know. For anyone who cares about engaging their audience, its impact on readers is too large to be treated as an afterthought. But that doesn’t mean you can’t create flawed and interesting characters. It just means you should consider how your characters affect the experience you’re creating.
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