If the audience can’t stand your main character, then they probably won’t get very far in the story. We call this critical factor a character’s “likability.” We’ve previously described how you can make your character likable by giving them sympathetic, selfless, and interesting traits. But what if you’ve done that, and your beta readers still don’t like them? Unfortunately, people can interpret characters very differently, often for small and subtle reasons. To help you review your story and ask your readers the right questions, let’s go over some of the most common reasons characters don’t land right with audiences.
1. They Have Too Much Candy
We coined the terms “candy” and “spinach” at Mythcreants largely to help us discuss likability. “Candy” is anything in the story that glorifies a character. It could be praise by other characters, moments where they look badass, or narration that describes how they’re a genius and gorgeous to boot. In contrast, “spinach” is anything that humbles or humiliates a character. If their job is washing chamber pots, they fall on their ass at exactly the wrong time, or their face is full of pimples, that’s spinach.
Spinach creates sympathy for a character – a crucial ingredient in likability. However, after spinach has done its job and audiences are emotionally attached to a character, they’ll be delighted when that character gets some candy. The problem is that storytellers are often attached to their character when they start writing, so they’re tempted to leave out the spinach and give only candy.
When a character gets too much candy and not enough spinach, it evokes antipathy from many audience members. To them, it feels like the character is getting lots of cool stuff without earning it. Unless you’re okay with limiting your audience to a narrow group of people who love your character instantly, you’ll need to use restraint when handing out candy before the story’s end. If you loathe the notion of giving your main character any flaws or personal weaknesses, then that’s a big sign that too much candy and too little spinach is contributing to your likability problems.
2. They’re Too Hard on Other Characters
Interactions between characters come off differently to different people, so what might seem like an okay interaction to you might not come off that way to your audience. If they feel like your character was a jerk to someone who didn’t deserve it, then your character’s likability will drop fast. This is particularly likely to happen in conflicts between protagonists. Check over for these types of interactions in your story:
- Arguments between protagonists
- Teasing or banter where one character criticizes another or gives another a hard time
- Any scene where a protagonist tries to convince someone else to handle their personal problems differently or go about their life differently
Problems in this area are especially likely if there is an imbalance of power. If one person is a leader and another a subordinate, then the leader will be held to a higher standard when they get in an argument.
Real-world privilege and marginalization also changes the standard by which characters are judged. For instance, men have been judged leniently when it comes to how they treat others, but as gender equality improves, that privilege is fading. What seems like acceptable male behavior to some storytellers looks bad to many audience members today.
Outside of these nuanced character interactions, protagonists should direct any harm only at those who deserve it. Don’t let your thief character steal from people who are already down on their luck. Don’t let your antihero hurt someone who’s being forced to do bad things by an antagonist. When other characters go out of their way to help the protagonist, the protagonist should come off as appropriately grateful.
3. Their Hardships Are Partly Their Fault
For a character to feel sympathetic, their hardships must be undeserved. If they caused their own problems, it won’t work. For instance, it’ll be really hard to use the debt a character incurred from buying an expensive sports car to get sympathy. Audiences will think your hero brought that problem on themself.
To fix something like this, explain their actions in terms of helping someone else. Maybe your protagonist went into debt to pay for someone’s life-saving medical treatment. This justification makes them looks selfless. Hardships taken on voluntarily for someone else’s benefit work just fine.
In addition to creating their own hardships, protagonists will lose sympathy if they are not taking obvious steps to fix their problems. If they could ask their rich mother for help but they’re too prideful to do that, then the problem will look self-inflicted. This means that there’s a careful balance to be achieved when showing how a character’s personality flaw hinders them. If it never hinders them, it won’t feel like a real flaw. But if it hinders them too much, it may feel like the protagonist is creating their own problems. Even if it doesn’t damage likability, this will lead to a frustrated audience.
Often, protagonists refuse to use obvious solutions simply because the story’s conflict would disappear. If you’re dealing with this type of plot hole, you’ll need to find another way to patch it. Either find a way to eliminate the possible solution or attach a cost to using it that’s unacceptably high. Maybe the main character doesn’t want to ask their rich mother for help because then their mother will use the leverage to force them into a marriage.
4. Their Hardships Feel Contrived
Storytellers often design their main character first and then look for ways to make them likable after. The result is that many story openings feature characters with problems that feel petty, tacked on, or unrealistic.
For instance, Hollywood’s favorite tactic for a school-aged protagonist is making them bullied. The justifications for the bullying of protagonists range from the tiresome, to the problematic, to the laughably improbable. When’s the last time you heard of an otherwise popular kid getting bullied just because their parent died? Kids aren’t that awful!
If you’re planning on using bullying or general oppression to create sympathy, you’ll need to understand how power and privilege works. People are oppressed for traits that make them vulnerable. They are not oppressed for traits that give them an advantage over their fellows, like being beautiful, doing well in school, or having magic. That’s not only contrived but also spreads myths about oppression.
Besides contrived problems, some problems feel too petty. For instance, having to apply for a job is unlikely to generate sympathy from your audience. Your protagonist also won’t get sympathy because they have unruly hair, are getting rained on, or have to live with a roommate who’s merely annoying.
If you’re struggling in this area, I have an article on creating sympathetic problems for your protagonist.
5. Their Viewpoint Feels Too Negative
One of the liabilities of close narration is that it can be hard to tell what’s objectively true and what’s character bias. This can mean the hardships the character experiences are interpreted as the character being whiny or petty.
For instance, in the beginning of Twilight, Bella would prefer to live with her mother in Arizona, but she moves in with her father in the Pacific Northwest so that her mother is free to travel with her husband. This is a selfless act, so author Stephenie Meyer tries to build on that by showing why Bella didn’t want to come live with her father. However, she does that by highlighting how Bella doesn’t like the weather and the scenery. This backfires, making Bella feel petty instead of sympathetic.
While the intent was good, Meyer’s narration needed to focus on details that readers would all agree were tragic. Instead, Bella could have had important friendships in Arizona that were difficult to maintain or important hobbies that her new town or school lacked the facilities for. Watching her struggle to keep up those things would have created more sympathy than hearing about how she didn’t like the rain.
On the flip side, likability problems can also be created if readers believe a character who’s supposed to be biased. I wrote one story where a viewpoint character felt guilty about being a burden on their sister, and so they thought of themself as a jerk and a brat. Readers assumed this was true, which created a likability issue. To fix it, I added more moments showing the viewpoint character helping their sister and demonstrating how much they cared. Showing will always trump telling.
If your character has a condition like depression that will make their viewpoint more negative in tone, then I recommend making readers aware of that. They need to understand what’s happening with your character, or they may have trouble sympathizing with them. For more on this and on bringing out emotion effectively, I recommend my article on melodrama.
6. Their Selfless Acts Don’t Mean Anything
Selflessness is a powerful way to create likability. To be selfless is to help someone else even though it will cost you. Unfortunately, storytellers often forget that second part of the equation. I blame the famous book Save the Cat. In it, screenwriter Blake Snyder tells readers to build likability by inserting a scene where the protagonist does something like save a cat. This makes writers think that they can create a jerkass protagonist who plucks a cat out of a tree once and they’ll be fine.
But not only will the character’s jerkass behavior destroy any goodwill the cat scene creates, but the scene could feel bizarrely out of character. You can’t just insert a scene of selflessness in your story; you have to create a character who does selfless things.
Even in a best-case scenario, helping a cat out of a tree probably won’t mean much. A character isn’t demonstrating selflessness until doing the right thing has consequences for them. Let’s say the protagonist is running late to work, and their boss has already given them a couple warnings. They notice an injured cat in an alley and take the cat to the vet even though it could cost them their job. Now their choice is truly selfless.
It’s also essential that the costs of the selfless choice are borne by the protagonist personally. If a monarch gives away something their people depend on to aid a neighboring kingdom, it won’t look selfless; it’ll look dangerously incompetent. Find a cost for selfless acts that creates sympathy for the protagonist but doesn’t impact anyone else.
7. They’re Ineffective at Solving Problems
The protagonist exists to be the person the audience roots for as they struggle to solve problems. Watching the protagonist solve problems gives the audience a feeling of empowerment and satisfaction. If the protagonist doesn’t do that, the audience will feel cheated. Frequently, they’ll blame the protagonist.
One reason this happens is that the protagonist simply isn’t given agency in the story. This usually means they’re being carted around from plot point to plot point by other characters. Even if you write the story so this isn’t the protagonist’s fault, many audience members will get frustrated at the protagonist for standing around instead of doing something.
Besides frustration, audience members might also emotionally distance themselves from a character without agency. If getting attached to the character would just cause frustration, then why would your audience want to get attached? If you think you might have an agency problem but you aren’t sure how to solve it, I recommend my list of possible turning points. They can be used not just at the story’s climax but also when the protagonist is handling any problem.
Trying and failing constantly also creates a likability problem, though this is more common for side characters than for the main character. If a side character is more often a hindrance than a helping hand, they’ll become annoying. This means that if your child character exists to repeatedly get in trouble and make the main character save them, that will be an irritant. Cuteness will not fix this, especially if your story isn’t told visually. Readers can’t see those big eyes. If you need some ideas for getting a character to help out, I have a list of 18 ways characters can contribute to the team.
Last, just remember that character traits must be shown rather than told. If you summarize how selfless your character is, but that character acts selfish in a scene, audiences will trust what they witness firsthand.
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