The likeability of the main character


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Thread: The likeability of the main character

  1. #1

    The likeability of the main character

    I feel like a lot of stories I read don't really nail the importance of making a main character like-able. Or they misunderstand what 'likeable' really means.

    A lot of them do try, but there's usually something that isn't quite right. I think a big part of this is that people try and go for the easy routes. They focus on making their main character inoffensive, which often has the unwanted side-effect of making them dull as hell, a cardboard cut-out with some half-assed backstory that checks all the boxes but doesn't quite seem genuine, for one reason or another. It's the Luke Skywalker type, essentially, and it doesn't work very often. At least not in stories that are trying to say something new.

    I think it's really important to remember that readers don't care so much about what your main character does so much as understanding why they do it, giving them some source from which to root for the person. Going the whole antihero route and having a main character act like an asshole doesn't necessarily work either. What matters is understanding why, and having that reason -- that motivation -- itself feel both authentic and interesting.

    Thoughts? What kind of things make a character likeable, or empathetic at least, to you? Any widely-known examples?

  2. #2
    I approach them same as I do real people, by asking the simple question: do I want to spend some time in this person's company? Likeable is a bit of a nebulous term, and empathetic perhaps a little too limiting. Take for example Patrick Bateman in American Psycho; he's not exactly likeable, and pretty hard to empathise with, but yet there's something about him and his life. It's like he's a conduit to a more exciting world, the world of high finance, sharp suits, and dinners at Dorsia. And he's pretty funny in his way, banging on about 80s culture and being all manic. When I was at university, one of my closest friends there was, I can see now in hindsight, probably a sociopath. But we had great times. He was funny and crazy and knew all the cool people. I miss him actually. My god, though, he had an ego and eventually our lives became incompatible. So someone like that makes a compelling MC if not a warm, cuddly one.

    Another one I've mentioned before is Charlie Decker in Rage. A little worryingly, I empathised quite strongly with him as a teen, and I completely understand why SK let that book fall out of print in the wake of Columbine. I watched that film, Joker, the other day too, and had a similar reaction. Catcher in the Rye, Fight Club - same. I think when you have a troubled character and troubled readers, you create something of a brewing obsession, and that kind of disaffected, alienated, often male reader is primed for such things. In crafting a MC, we build a relationship.


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  3. #3
    I agree that being likeable isn't as important as being intriguing. Sherlock Holmes, in almost all incarnations, is a dick, but we're intrigued by him anyway. We want to be in his club. Anna Karenina is a self-pitying pain in the ass, but I can see how she's trapped so I sympathize with her. Alex from Clockwork Orange is absolutely horrible, but I want to read about him because he's unique and because there are glimmers of what he could have been. etc.

    I think "memorable" is more important to me than "likeable". But also quite a bit harder to achieve!

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by Bayview View Post
    I agree that being likeable isn't as important as being intriguing. Sherlock Holmes, in almost all incarnations, is a dick, but we're intrigued by him anyway. We want to be in his club. Anna Karenina is a self-pitying pain in the ass, but I can see how she's trapped so I sympathize with her. Alex from Clockwork Orange is absolutely horrible, but I want to read about him because he's unique and because there are glimmers of what he could have been. etc.

    I think "memorable" is more important to me than "likeable". But also quite a bit harder to achieve!
    A recent one for me is the lead in “The Irishman.” It’s a 3.5 hour gangster movie. I gave up on it when I just didn’t care anymore, but I liked the main character enough to carry me 2 hours deep. If it was an ordinary length movie, I would have finished it.

    Sometimes when I betaread, the stories feel more like screenplays. One part is this thing a lot of people do where they try to make the MC likeable by describing them as physically attractive and then say witty things. That’s okay, I guess, but it’s a lot easier if you are casting a charismatic actor who will be entertaining. In a novel, it just isn’t enough for me.

    Anyway, I think some of the flat MC business is the affect on writing from film.

  5. #5
    A comedy writing course I took many years ago surprisingly summed up for me the essence of building a functional main character by looking at three elements of that character.

    First, the character needed a unique perspective on life and the world. It's the equivalent of "if all you've got is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail". Every time your character acts upon the stage, his actions and thoughts should be informed by that unique perspective. If the world is your character's oyster and someone joins him on the elevator, he'll believe that person could well be a pearl. But if your character sees the world as a threatening sea of sharks and someone joins her on that same elevator, your character starts fingering the switchblade in her pocket because she'll probably need it before the ride's over. Same elevator, same new arrival.

    Second, the character needs a major flaw. It's what gets her into grief through most of the story. It's the beginning of his character arc. It's how the reader can believe this is a real human and not some two-dimensional, all-powerful superhero.

    Third, the character must exhibit some humanity. He might be an axe murderer, but he keeps the blade honed super sharp so that his victims feel less pain. He's not a monster! It's often the character's humanity that saves her from her major flaw, but it's also what draws in the reader, creating empathy and interest in that character.
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  6. #6
    I think an MC should be all about relatability rather than likeability. Personally, I'm all about anti-hero characters with deep personal flaws and questionable ethics, and if anything, often find myself rooting for the villains while reading or watching movies simply because the protagonists are too bland and one-dimensional for my tastes. A do-gooding Mary Sue surrounded by one-dimensional pathetically-inept and cartoonishly-evil villains whose sole reason of existance is to provide some (futile) resistence for the protagonist is unfortunately all too common in film and literature.

    I think it's personal flaws and vices, not virtues, that really make a character relatable. I certainly find it much easier to relate with a scoundrel who doesn't give two craps about morality and simply pursues his own selfish agenda, yet finds the strength to do the right thing, or even an outright villain with motivations more complex than to be able to rub fingers and cackle sinisterly about how evil he/she is.

  7. #7
    Patron Foxee's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by luckyscars View Post
    I feel like a lot of stories I read don't really nail the importance of making a main character like-able. Or they misunderstand what 'likeable' really means.

    Thoughts? What kind of things make a character like-able, or empathetic at least, to you? Any widely-known examples?
    Great discussion topic! And I'll add the question IS it actually important that the protagonist be like-able? I used to think so but I no longer do.

    If the protagonist had to be like-able then crime fiction like James Lee Burke's wouldn't work. Neither would stories like Riddick where you have a sort of antihero (thinking specifically of Pitch Black) who is very admirable in his abilities but isn't a very like-able guy. As much as I like James Bond there are times that if staying in the story depended on liking the guy, I'd be out but I don't fall out of it because I get the 'necessity' of what he's doing. Same with Jack Reacher.

    There is a great book called Story by Robert McKee that goes into all the nuts and bolts of storytelling, mostly for screenwriting but it's a good resource for any kind of storytelling. On page 141 I was bowled over when I read this:

    "The protagonist must be empathetic; he may or may not be sympathetic."

    Sympathetic is the term for like-able. Tome Hanks and Meg Ryan are typically like-able in the roles they choose, for example.

    Empathetic means "like me", the recognition of a certain shared humanity between the protagonist and the audience. Something strikes a chord and instinctively the audience roots for the protagonist to achieve whatever it is that he/she desires.

    He goes on to write, "An audience may, if so moved, empathize with every character in your film, but it must empathize with your protagonist. If not, the audience/story bond is broken/"

    We talk a lot as fiction writers about the suspension of disbelief, creating that for the reader. Empathy with your protagonist, sympathetic or not, is an essential piece of that.

  8. #8
    I've always had a soft spot for a rebel who doesn't quite play by the rules, but has a semblance of moral code intact. I think back to the Dennis Wheatley books I used to read and some of the MCs were quite capable of murder if the situation warranted, and were even capable of withholding a fatal blow in wartime if they saw something in the enemy that they deeply respected. Gregory Sallust (the MC in the WW2 works) was known to [SPOILER ALERT]








    leave poison in a traitor's (whose name I've forgotten) smoking pipe and share a bar of chocolate with his arch enemy (Grauber) when they were stuck on a ledge together with nowhere to go and Grauber badly injured. The war stopped for a few hours for those two. He even spared a Czech who was spying for the Germans when he realised she did it from patriotism.


  9. #9
    I'm writing an antihero who is NOT likable in the least, but eh... perhaps relatable and understandable. And anyway, he gets his comeuppance in the end. LOL

  10. #10
    Member hvysmker's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Amnesiac View Post
    I'm writing an antihero who is NOT likable in the least, but eh... perhaps relatable and understandable. And anyway, he gets his comeuppance in the end. LOL
    Been there, done that. Also anti-heroes that win in the end, as in real life. I'm even working on a story series of such a prick, in third person POV, putting the reader in his head.

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