Character likability is generally created through three characteristics: sympathy, novelty, and selflessness. For a main character, I recommend aiming for at least two out of three, so not every protagonist needs to be selfless. However, selfish behavior counts against a character and can make audiences not just uncaring, but also angry. Since creating a likable main character can be challenging in a best-case scenario, we generally recommend against making your main character selfish.
However, tricky is not the same as impossible. Successful stories with selfish main characters employ a variety of damage control techniques to keep their audiences happy. Let’s go over some ways to keep a selfish protagonist likable, using Eleanor from The Good Place and Moist from Going Postal as examples.
1. Gloss Over the Harm They Cause
As we’ve explained in other recent articles, audiences don’t care about anything in the story by default. Storytellers have to show the right details and offer the right information to make a story immersive and emotionally compelling. So if you want to avoid making the audience upset over what’s happening, shift into reverse and drive in the other direction. In theory, it’s simple, but you might have to fight the good storytelling habits you’ve already learned.
Most of all, don’t show people getting hurt by your selfish character. Instead, just tell the audience it happened. For instance, in The Good Place, viewers see a flashback to Eleanor getting a telemarketing job. She states frankly that she knows the job entails scaring seniors into buying fake medicine, and she doesn’t care. We’ve also seen Eleanor brag about how good she was at sales, so we know she did it. However, knowing and seeing it aren’t the same thing. We don’t watch her make a sale, and we aren’t shown a single senior that Eleanor hurts at her job. In fact, telemarketing was almost certainly chosen to avoid showing the victims of her actions.
The more distant you stay from the situation, the less real it will feel to your audience. If your character is an unpleasant person, consider narrating in third-person omniscient rather than an immersive perspective such as first person or third-person limited. A pleasant omniscient narrator can also add humor to the situation and give readers an enjoyable personality to focus on.
2. Make Them Unaware of the Harm
You can also go a step further and arrange the story so not only is the harm offscreen, but the character also isn’t fully aware that they’re harming people. This doesn’t make the character blameless. It means that either they’re too self-centered to stop and think about how their actions impact others, or they’ve convinced themself they’re not doing any harm so they can engage in hurtful behavior without feeling bad. Regardless, these characters are usually easy to reform. Simply reveal the harm they did and force them to acknowledge it.
When you craft a character like this, you can choose to what degree you’d like the audience to believe what the character believes. Letting the audience be in the character’s corner will help with likability. Just don’t go so far that you shock your audience when you reveal your character has done harm; the audience should see it coming to some extent.
In Going Postal, Moist is a con artist who is always gone before he witnesses how his cons impact the ordinary people he cheats. To him, it’s just money in his pocket and not in theirs. However, after he is forced to stick around and fix the broken down postal service of his city, he uncovers specific stories of how others were hurt by his choices. This is a critical step in his journey toward becoming a better person.
3. Aim Harm at Assholes
While audiences don’t like seeing the average person get hurt, that’s not true of characters they hate. Just as you might cultivate attachment to a character, you can also cultivate antipathy. That way, when the character is harmed, your audience will feel satisfied or even rejoice.
Putting your selfish character in an environment full of other selfish people will do a lot to negate the impact of their behavior. The Good Place uses this technique when showing flashbacks of Eleanor with her friends and roommates. In one flashback, Eleanor secretly starts an online public humiliation campaign targeting her roommate, so that Eleanor can sell merch calling her roommate “dress bitch.” This is a horrible thing to do, but the roommate just sued a small dry cleaning company into bankruptcy for supposedly ripping one dress (which Eleanor actually ripped). Because the roommate is a bad person, it’s difficult to feel bad about Eleanor’s actions.
A character that tangles with people who are more powerful than they are will also look better than a character who targets the vulnerable. Of course, if your character only targets powerful assholes, they may not come off as selfish anymore. In Eleanor’s case, she’s selfish because her methods are malicious rather than constructive, she personally profits from the situation, and the whole thing started because she lied about ripping a dress. If she had told the truth, the dry cleaner wouldn’t have been sued into bankruptcy.
4. Choose a Subset of Selfish Behavior
When The Good Place begins, Eleanor is selfish in every aspect of her life. This was done because the show’s premise requires her to be a terrible person, and actor Kristen Bell has the charm to pull it off. However, replicating that is much trickier than writing a character like Moist. That’s because Moist acts selfish in one specific way – he cheats people. In other contexts, he’s free to be nice or even care about others. This also means that redeeming him is easier. Whereas Eleanor’s redemption is the central feature of The Good Place, Moist’s arc is small enough to fit alongside other major plotlines.
So if you’re looking for a way to lower the difficulty level of featuring a selfish protagonist, narrowing down how they’re selfish could help. Since selfishness is a huge category of behavior, being more specific might also help you better understand and develop your character. Here’s a few examples of selfishness applied in narrow ways that are easier to mitigate.
- Hoarding resources: Your character is one of those people who bought a whole store’s worth of toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic. Perhaps they’re simply worried about scarcity, or maybe they’re exploiting the situation to resell critical goods at a higher rate.
- Only in it for themself: When your character finds themself in a sticky situation along with other people, they don’t bother helping anyone else get unstuck. Maybe they cynically believe that others will only stab them in the back. Alternately, if they’re bitter about past hardships, they might want to make others go through what they did.
- Has to be number one: Your character believes the only true measure of success is being better than other people. To them, getting second place at anything means they are worth less, so they’ll do anything to best others even when that hurts everyone involved. A character like this probably either has a chip on their shoulder or is desperate for outside attention and validation.
5. Make Them Face Consequences
When audiences watch characters do bad things, they want those characters to be punished. The longer a character continues their bad behavior while going scot-free, the more the audience will dislike them.
In contrast, punishing the character relieves that resentment and makes it easier for audiences to forgive. While suffering in general creates sympathy and will soften dislike, making characters face consequences specifically for their bad behavior is most effective at dispersing bad karma. Once that’s done, the audience should be onboard with a redemption arc.
Both Eleanor and Moist begin their stories in deep trouble because of the bad things they’ve done. Moist is almost hanged for his crimes before Lord Vetinari offers to spare his life on the condition that Moist take over the Post Office. Eleanor finds herself in heaven only to learn she’s not supposed to be there, and soon she’ll probably be caught and sent to hell.
The pressure of having their actions under a microscope prevents them from doing more serious harm and motivates them to change their ways. After an initial escape attempt, Moist has to give up cheating people. Eleanor is in a place where it’s difficult to hurt anyone, and she has to behave to stay out of hell. From there, they work towards doing better things and being better people – something the audience can support.
As you keep your character from pissing off audiences too much, don’t forget to work on other sources of likability. There’s no reason a selfish person can’t also be interesting and sympathetic.
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