Storytelling

Seven Common Reasons Protagonists Are Unlikable

Bella from Twilight

Stephanie Meyer gives Bella some likable qualities only to make her sound petty instead of sympathetic.

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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Comments

  1. aslo

    If the character is not creating their own problems, than what reason do they have to undergo a character arc?

    • Cay Reet

      Yep, that’s definitely a problem.

      You can have a short story with very low stakes for an outside plot – that’s what slice-of-life stuff is often about, but there should always be a challenge to the main character that demands they have some character growth.

    • Jeppsson

      I’m thinking it’s a scale here. If the character is TOO bad when it comes to creating their own problems and failing to make use of obvious solutions, it becomes annoying. In particular if the character doesn’t seem the victim of some particular issue that makes them behave like this, but rather just comes across like a moron for no reason.

    • Bellis

      I think they have to undergo their arc to overcome flaws, not problems. For example, arrogance is a character flaw, but not a problem. Debt is a problem, but not a character flaw. Your character can be forced to confront their flaw (arrogance) because they’re in debt and have to ask a relative for financial support.

      Or in other words, a problem they didn’t create forces them to confront a flaw they could live with until then, but cannot ignore anymore. They might try to ignore it at first, but they won’t get very far with that. Often, it is inevitable that their flaw will clash with some problem or other sooner or later, if the flaw is big enough. When problem and flaw clash, that’s your inciting incident.

      • Bellis

        (or one type of inciting incident)

      • aslo

        I did not mean to imply that they need to overcome their problem, but rather that their flaw would necessarily need to (at least partially) create problems or hinder the solutions. Otherwise there would be no need for them to overcome their flaw.

        How does a problem (whether they created it or not) force them to confront a flaw if that flaw is not causing more problems?

        How does the flaw “clash” with the problem if it is not creating problems or hindering the character like the article describes?

        • Silverware

          While the wording seems to be weird, judging by the examples given in the text, this point means that if the character keeps avoiding obvious ways to fix their problem, it’ll get annoying.

    • Alverant

      I think what is meant in that item is that the protagonist shouldn’t do something incredibly stupid for the sake of plot. They can make their own problems and gain sympathy but it has to be done carefully and you have to consider how they react. Say a character is fired for spending too much time on Facebook at work. There’s a difference between the MC having an addiction (which they seek treatment for), there are other employees spending more time on FB and not being punished (hinting that may not be the real reason for the MC losing their job), and being a lazy person who would rather be on FB than work.

  2. Crovet

    This article is incredibly useful, and has helped me rewrite a couple of character establishing moments to minimize those issues. In particular that selfless acts have to actually MEAN something.

    “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”
    That sentence is basically the biggest issue I have with king Harrow in the dragon Prince. As much as I like the series, that character was handled very poorly.
    And as TV tropes put it: “If he’d actually gone through with this plan, then there’s a decent chance that his castle would have been besieged by hungry peasants with torches and pitchforks”

    • Chris Winkle

      Haha yeah, Dragon Prince was my inspiration for that comment. However, Dragon Prince is not the only place I have seen that mistake. It’s an easy one to make if your protagonist is a leader.

    • Passerby

      I went into comments just to write about The Dragon Prince, I’m so glad someone else did. Though what angers me about that show is not so much Harrow himself but how the narration treats him as a hero instead of a guy with hero’s complex who’d never have to actually suffer hunger himself… And how Viren who found a solution is the big bad baddie.

  3. Lexy

    Great list!!! One I would also include is – although I don’t know how often it happens – is when the protagonist’s motivation for doing whatever they’re doing isn’t clear, or doesn’t make sense. Without a good motivation, a protagonist can look incompetent and/or reckless, especially if it’s a high stakes plot and the protag is clearly not skilled enough to handle it and would be putting their life and possibly others, in danger. There’s a very thin line between bravery and stupidity, if you ask me. :’D

    Which reminds me of the protag of As Above, So Below (which is a movie, not a book as far as I know, but still), who I developed a hatred for within the first five minutes of the movie (new record!!!) because she was willing to risk her life and someone else’s just to find some ancient relic that could help her find the Philosopher’s Stone. And we never learn why it’s so important for her to risk so much to find it??? And what she’s going to do once she gets it??? Especially because we learn that her father hung himself possibly due to spending his whole life trying to find it and failing??? /headdesk. It was i n f u r i a t i n g.

  4. Evan Chapin

    Excellent list! However, I’ve got a question:
    2. Is this equivalent to a protagonist who is just cynical and blunt by nature? For example, if the main character is mildly rude to other characters, but that’s recognize as a flaw, would that still be a plot issue?

    • Chris Winkle

      Flaws that are recognized as flaws can be less grating to audiences than if they weren’t recognized, but that doesn’t mean they won’t cause likability problems. Someone who’s cynical and blunt could come off just fine, or they could come off as downright abusive – it’s all in the implementation.

      A good tactic is to aim any rudeness at people who are more powerful than the protagonist. If it’s aimed at people who have more privilege, more authority, etc, it will not only come off as more likable but make your protagonist stand out more. Guest blogger Mira Singer has some nice commentary on how Philip Marlowe does that here: https://mythcreants.com/blog/three-genre-defining-books-with-underutilized-tropes/

  5. Beez

    I see the point on mythcreants a lot that people don’t get bullied for doing well in school, and I find that confusing. I know there are schools where people compete and openly study, but I went to a school where even studying the night before a test was seen as some big radical thing. Now, it was cool to be good at Physical Education, but other than that, it was being a teacher’s pet.

    In terms of the ways I was bullied, there was more going into it than that. But there was a boy in my class who was naturally good at Maths and used to do only ok on class tests so his friends would leave him alone.

    There were days my class went on strike from learning, if you showed up the only one who had done your homework they would hate you, and receiving a merit for your work was like social suicide. Even now that I am in college, people get annoyed about the homework thing.

    Maybe it’s a cultural thing – I don’t know what it’s like in the USA. Over here there are mainstream schools and Grammar schools; my parents sent me to mainstream in a not so nice area because it was an integrated school. Most of our schools are split by background and they didn’t want us growing up with those sectarian views, but it meant we were in a building where people punched holes in the walls, all the toilets except 1 were burnt down and boarded up, and the fire department no longer responded to our alarms because students set it off several times a day just to get out of class. This was “fun” and “cool”.

    • Cay Reet

      I think it might have been more about your specific type of school. It might be possible that in a neighbourhood where it doesn’t look as if a good education will help you (where you need ‘street smarts’ instead of ‘book smarts’), being educated will make you seem weak and thus you’ll get bullied. What you wrote sounds like that to me.

      I went to school in Germany and nobody was bullied there for being good in class. I got bullied, because I was an outsider and made an easy target. In general, people who get bullied are people who don’t have a large social net, because that would make it impossible for the bully to keep on doing it. Bullies are cowards who go for the weak link.

    • Jeppsson

      This is absolutely true. When I was in “basic school” (compulsory, ages seven to fifteen), I was teased a lot for being good in school. Sure, I was very socially awkward, and the fact that I was mentally ill came out in various ways, so this was the main reason I got bullied on and off, but much of what other kids said to me was explicitly about me being good in school. Being good in school was definitely not something you got POINTS for; it was rather the case that if you were socially smooth enough, pretty enough, tough enough etc, the most popular kids could sort of overlook the fact that you were good in school and aced your tests. It still wasn’t a positive thing.

      When I went to “gymnasium” (ages sixteen to nineteen), on the other hand (I did the natural science program, but it was similar for kids who did the social science program, or other programs that were supposed to prepare you for uni), things were completely the other way around. Everyone wanted to be as good as possible, and people who aced their tests were rather admired for it. Sure, there was still an element of “you should preferably be brilliant enough to ace your tests without studying too hard”, but still.

      However, I think this had a lot to do with the fact that I grew up in a village built around a factory, and most kids in my “basic school” came from working-class families where their parents were either factory workers or had some other job that doesn’t pay too much and doesn’t require an education. Most kids just wouldn’t do well or go to uni anyway, so I think hating on kids who did was a bit of a defence mechanism in this context, even though it’s not a conscious one.

      So yeah, all that stuff about how kids don’t get bullied for doing well in school should probably come with some caveats?

  6. Rose Embolism

    Number 3 really seems designed to create bland, Pollyanna-ish, boring characters. When I think of some of the compelling characters in fiction, “All hardships aren’t the fault of the character” really doesn’t come to mind. For instance:
    * Bujold’s Miles Vorkoskigan is driven, intelligent, and massively overconfident. A large chunk of the problems he faces are ones spawned by his own ability to dig himself into a hole, and then keep digging. Seriously, read “A Civil Campaign”, and try to tell me none of the hardships Miles faces were self-inflicted.
    * Zelazney was excellent at creating characters whose flaws drove plotlines. Corwin from the Amber series for example, is basically responsible for most of the problems he faces, because he won’t give up revenge or listen to reason.
    * In Neuromancer, Case is in the state he’s in at the beginning because he’s an addict and stole from one of his clients.
    * Tom Sawyer: Pretty much all of his problems are self-inflicted, and that’s what makes his character fun to read.
    * In the webcomic Witchy, Nyneve will actively slap away people who are trying to help her; she’s frightened, angry and has a major tendency to cut her nose off to spite her face. This drives the plot.
    * In the comic Suihira, Wahida the main character is an arrogant, driven religious fanatic worshipping a dead goddess. Her attitude causes all kinds of problems for her, and everyone around her- creating the plot.
    * Gosh, it’s a pity that all of King Lear’s problems are externally inflicted. Same goes for that Hamlet fellow.
    * It’s an old tradition: In the Tale of Genji, the protagonist is alluring noble, and purely awful- his actions make his own hell.

    I mean, I can go on and on and on. But after this, I would contend that maybe, just maybe, being “Likable” in this context shouldn’t actually be a goal to look for. “Compelling” and “Interesting” should be what we aim for instead. Character actions need not be likable, but be understandable. We can see why Wahida might abandon her companions ad run off into the desert. We understand why d’Artagnan would challenge four experienced musketeers to duels at the same time.

    I would say it’s a flaw of genre fiction that people are encouraged to go for “I’d like to be their friend” characters instead of dramatically flawed characters. Bland pleasant characters that do not create their own problems are the subject of thousands of books that are forgotten almost as soon as they’re printed. On the other hand, a grim obsessive willing to kill his entire crew to hunt a whale out of revenge? HIS name is remembered 169 years later.

    • Cay Reet

      This is only about the protagonist, the character(s) from whose point of view we see the story. They should be likeable to a degree in order to encourage the reader to read on. In your Moby Dick example, the grim obsessive willing to kill his entire crew to hunt a whale out of revenge is not the protagonist – a member of his crew is. We don’t need to like Ahab, because he’s not the person who tells us this story, he’s not the person whose viewpoint colours what happens.

      A story will and should have all kinds of characters and some of them very well might make stupid decisions and bring a host of problems down on themselves. The protagonist, however, should at least have understandable reasons for their problems. Addiction, by the way, is an understandable reason – you can slide into it easily and once you’re addicted, you will do whatever you can to get whatever you’re addicted to. As is being immature, as Tom Sawyer is. Nobody expects a young boy to make the same decisions as a grown adult.

      Let’s look at the example with the sports car. Normally, a character who goes into debt, just because they want a sports car would not really be that likeable a protagonist, especially if they complain about the rates and about how they now have to work a second, third, and fourth job just to pay them off. If you give the story another spin, buying that sports car can work very well. Your protagonist isn’t just buying the sports car to show off, they are buying that car, because they want to enter illegal street races to make money. Now the car is central to the story and the character will be under pressure to win races so they can pay off the rates and also improve the car (instant stakes and tension inside!). Now the decision to buy that car and run that risk is good for the protagonist. You can still argue whether doing illegal races is a good idea, but now the car isn’t just a thing the protagonist wants, it’s something they acquire because they need it. As soon as such a decision drives the plot, it’s much easier to justify, because it’s plot relevant. If you just use it to give the protagonist spinach, then you should avoid that kind of reasons for hardship.

    • Jeppsson

      So… In various places on this website, the creators explicitly say that someone can be likeable as a character even though you’d never want to hang out with them in real life.
      Still, many articles talk about character likeability AS IF it’s the same thing. From what I understand (Chris and Oren can very well correct me if I’m wrong), a big reason for this is that it’s really difficult to create an MC you like to read about even though this person would be horrible in real life. Not impossible, but very difficult. And it’s certainly true that there are many examples of MC:s that readers get annoyed with because they behave so irrationally, are selfish, etc.

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