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Protagonists - Likable or No? (1 Viewer)

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Foxee

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Moderator's Note: This is an offshoot discussion from another thread. It had the potential to completely change the subject there, so the author of that thread (Taylor) asked me to split it. - Vranger


Another area I wanted to explore, is where the protagonist feels this when they shouldn't. For example, in a very competitive work environment, she feels a bit of happiness inside when the rising star at work, makes a mistake and falters. This would only be because she wants to get ahead herself, and perhaps this makes it seem more possible. What I'm taking from this thread is that may make her unlikable.
That's interesting to discuss right there. How important is character likeability? Or, perhaps more to the point, must the protagonist be likeable?

I would argue (along with Robert McKee, author of 'Story', a writing guide for screenwriters and novelists) that the protagonist needs to be understandable and easy to empathize with, not necessarily likeable. This is why a character like Riddick (Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, Riddick) still works even though he's an antihero. Let's be honest, Riddick is a criminal and he's a jerk sometimes, he's violent, and he doesn't explain himself. He's also admirable, takes actions that need to be taken, and is a sympathetic character to someone who may feel on the outside a lot of the time.

To believe that protagonists need to be nice people in order to be sympathetic is to narrow and hobble our stories far too much. While they can certainly be nice and likeable, sometimes that might call into question why there is a story at all. Mary Sue floats serenely through her life, not causing problems for anyone and always taking the high ground, genteelly allowing conflict to go by, and suddenly it's hard to find a story.

Characters desire things. Other characters and the world around them push back against their desires. Getting what they want and having conflict is the meat of the story. Everyone wants to read, "Oh really what went WRONG?"

So my opinion is to let your character be human. If she has a little smirk at the failure of The Chosen One at work we might not all cheer but, if we're honest, we will certainly understand it and empathize with her.
 
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vranger

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That's interesting to discuss right there. How important is character likeability? Or, perhaps more to the point, must the protagonist be likeable?

I would argue (along with Robert McKee, author of 'Story', a writing guide for screenwriters and novelists) that the protagonist needs to be understandable and easy to empathize with, not necessarily likeable. This is why a character like Riddick (Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, Riddick) still works even though he's an antihero. Let's be honest, Riddick is a criminal and he's a jerk sometimes, he's violent, and he doesn't explain himself. He's also admirable, takes actions that need to be taken, and is a sympathetic character to someone who may feel on the outside a lot of the time.

To believe that protagonists need to be nice people in order to be sympathetic is to narrow and hobble our stories far too much. While they can certainly be nice and likeable, sometimes that might call into question why there is a story at all. Mary Sue floats serenely through her life, not causing problems for anyone and always taking the high ground, genteelly allowing conflict to go by, and suddenly it's hard to find a story.

Characters desire things. Other characters and the world around them push back against their desires. Getting what they want and having conflict is the meat of the story. Everyone wants to read, "Oh really what went WRONG?"

So my opinion is to let your character be human. If she has a little smirk at the failure of The Chosen One at work we might not all cheer but, if we're honest, we will certainly understand it and empathize with her.

We need to be careful, because we've just started a new thread (and maybe as mod I should break this off into a new thread--I will if this goes any further), but I have some examples.

*Columbo
*Basil Fawlty
*Archie Bunker

So I have to go back to the '70s. Pity me.
 

Taylor

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We need to be careful, because we've just started a new thread (and maybe as mod I should break this off into a new thread--I will if this goes any further), but I have some examples.

*Columbo
*Basil Fawlty
*Archie Bunker

So I have to go back to the '70s. Pity me.

I really like this new topic of likability, so perhaps we can start a new thread. Are you able to start one including foxee's post?

Mod Note: Done. :)
 
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indianroads

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People are complex creatures - none of us are 100% good or bad. Good people with a flawed past are sometimes compelled to do bad things. Bad people can do kind, charitable things. Hells Angels and other outlaw clubs do Christmas toy runs to help underprivileged children. Priests sometimes molest children. Who is good, and who is bad?

When this subject come up I usually recall a cartoon I watched as a kid - Dudlly Do Right and Snidely Whiplash - one only good and the other bad to the bone. There were two-dimensional characters, fine in a silly cartoon, but would be terribly boring in a novel.

To create complex interesting characters I believe we have to give them flaws.
 

Taylor

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That's interesting to discuss right there. How important is character likeability? Or, perhaps more to the point, must the protagonist be likeable?

I would argue (along with Robert McKee, author of 'Story', a writing guide for screenwriters and novelists) that the protagonist needs to be understandable and easy to empathize with, not necessarily likeable. This is why a character like Riddick (Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, Riddick) still works even though he's an antihero. Let's be honest, Riddick is a criminal and he's a jerk sometimes, he's violent, and he doesn't explain himself. He's also admirable, takes actions that need to be taken, and is a sympathetic character to someone who may feel on the outside a lot of the time.

To believe that protagonists need to be nice people in order to be sympathetic is to narrow and hobble our stories far too much. While they can certainly be nice and likeable, sometimes that might call into question why there is a story at all. Mary Sue floats serenely through her life, not causing problems for anyone and always taking the high ground, genteelly allowing conflict to go by, and suddenly it's hard to find a story.

Characters desire things. Other characters and the world around them push back against their desires. Getting what they want and having conflict is the meat of the story. Everyone wants to read, "Oh really what went WRONG?"

So my opinion is to let your character be human. If she has a little smirk at the failure of The Chosen One at work we might not all cheer but, if we're honest, we will certainly understand it and empathize with her.

I like the way you describe it. "A little smirk". And I'm glad to see that you agree being honest and all. But it is the one thing I struggle with the most in my writing is making good characters not always have the purest thoughts. I had set out to write about real people, and I use myself as a gauge for what a characters may think, but I always wonder if others feel the same way.

I'll admit that I'm inspired by Candice Bushnell, who broke through with a blockbuster best seller by sharing some of the not so noble thoughts of single women in New York. So now that I've made the commitment to show some mental weakness in my characters, I am finding it difficult to undestand what is an acceptable amount of unpure thoughts and unacceptable down right nasty.

But when I reread your post, I picked up on something else, which is your point that people may want to read that something went wrong. Which is interesting becasue that initself is a form of schadenfrude, so I guess this part of the response relates better to the other thread. Anyway... I do like your question, "Must the protagonist be likeable?" (I spelled it that way first and spell-check didn't like it. Must be the Canadian/British spelling :) )
 

Taylor

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We need to be careful, because we've just started a new thread (and maybe as mod I should break this off into a new thread--I will if this goes any further), but I have some examples.

*Columbo
*Basil Fawlty
*Archie Bunker

So I have to go back to the '70s. Pity me.

So I take it these are examples of people with faults who are likeable. I see it in Basil Fawlty and Archie Bunker. I think some of their faults would not be accepted in this day and age. What do you think?

but I'm not sure I see it in Columbo. Why is he in this category?
 

Foxee

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I'll admit that I'm inspired by Candice Bushnell, who broke through with a blockbuster best seller by sharing some of the not so noble thoughts of single women in New York. So now that I've made the commitment to show some mental weakness in my characters, I am finding it difficult to undestand what is an acceptable amount of unpure thoughts and unacceptable down right nasty.
To some extent this is subjective. For instance, the piece that I submitted for the Grand Fiction Challenge ("What Goes Around") followed a main character who wasn't particularly likeable. The challenge was in making sure that she was still someone a reader would want to follow to see what happened. Most readers seemed happy enough with the perspective but not all. One judge in particular pointed out the unlikability of the protagonist as a detractor which told me that I hadn't done the job I had set out to do well enough. That's something I would want to know from beta-readers.
But when I reread your post, I picked up on something else, which is your point that people may want to read that something went wrong. Which is interesting becasue that initself is a form of schadenfrude, so I guess this part of the response relates better to the other thread. Anyway... I do like your question, "Must the protagonist be likeable?" (I spelled it that way first and spell-check didn't like it. Must be the Canadian/British spelling :) )
It's a wonder my posts are even coherent at the moment. I'm fighting through my second day of a migraine.

Regardless, I'm really just referencing conflict.
 

CyberWar

Senior Member
I'm not really a mainstream person by any measure, so I wouldn't know the first thing about the importance of character likeability to the average reader. Personally, though, I find the classical do-gooder protagonists of literature and film absolutely detestable, and more often than not root for the villains simply because the latter appear more human, without any of the protagonists' smug self-righteous pretentiousness of moral high ground. The so-called "good guys" often embody the exact same mentality of single-minded self-righteousness that their villainous adversaries do, except that these protagonists most often don't even realize it.

So I make a point of avoiding "likeable" characters in my writings. I've written all sorts of flawed protagonists - a foul-mouthed unapologetically-racist ex-skinhead soldier, a ruthless cyborg secret agent a la T-X and her crew of borderline-sociopathic associates, a far-future general who prides himself on having extinguished entire civilizations, a violent substance-abusing East European thug from the 90's, and more. None of them are anything resembling mainstream "likeables", and if anything, would most likely appear as villains in the typical do-gooder setting. What makes them worthy to be protagonists by my book is their ability to the right thing despite their flaws rather than because of their absence, to be better than others who are even worse than them.
 

vranger

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So I take it these are examples of people with faults who are likeable. I see it in Basil Fawlty and Archie Bunker. I think some of their faults would not be accepted in this day and age. What do you think?

but I'm not sure I see it in Columbo. Why is he in this category?

Actually, it's characters who were not likeable at all, but were successful anyway. Columbo may be a matter of taste. He was, on purpose, an annoying pest. I never understood why one of the murderers didn't just end his own suffering by picking up a gun and killing Columbo. LOL The murderers were often more sympathetic characters than Columbo.

In real life, if you were around Basil Fawlty once, you'd take pains to avoid him thereafter. He's a great example for the schadenfreude topic, because he suffers indignity and calamity in each episode, yet we laugh at his misfortune. Not a lead, but a similar example is Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Archie Bunker had a gradual progression where his character grew, but in the beginning, there was nothing likeable there. He was set up as a strong negative example to encourage viewers to examine (consciously or unconsciously) their own attitudes.
 

vranger

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People are complex creatures - none of us are 100% good or bad. Good people with a flawed past are sometimes compelled to do bad things. Bad people can do kind, charitable things. Hells Angels and other outlaw clubs do Christmas toy runs to help underprivileged children. Priests sometimes molest children. Who is good, and who is bad?

When this subject come up I usually recall a cartoon I watched as a kid - Dudlly Do Right and Snidely Whiplash - one only good and the other bad to the bone. There were two-dimensional characters, fine in a silly cartoon, but would be terribly boring in a novel.

To create complex interesting characters I believe we have to give them flaws.

In my sci-fi book (see my blog), I have the MC take a belt and strangle four unconscious bad guys. They were about to turn him over to people who would torture and execute him, then sell his fiancé into sexual slavery. So these were very bad guys. Later, his fiancé proclaims she would have done the same thing, after he was ashamed to tell her what he'd done. The man reason for eliminating them was the heroes' needed time to escape and disappear, and as much time as possible before an alarm would be raised. If they're recaptured, back to torture, execution, and slavery.

I was worried this act by the MC would ruffle feathers, especially since I didn't originate the character. I thought the decision was justified, but--man!--it was cold-blooded. Several people have now read and commented on the book. Not one peep about the scene I expected to be criticized for.
 

Taylor

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Actually, it's characters who were not likeable at all, but were successful anyway. Columbo may be a matter of taste. He was, on purpose, an annoying pest. I never understood why one of the murderers didn't just end his own suffering by picking up a gun and killing Columbo. LOL The murderers were often more sympathetic characters than Columbo.

In real life, if you were around Basil Fawlty once, you'd take pains to avoid him thereafter. He's a great example for the schadenfreude topic, because he suffers indignity and calamity in each episode, yet we laugh at his misfortune. Not a lead, but a similar example is Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Archie Bunker had a gradual progression where his character grew, but in the beginning, there was nothing likeable there. He was set up as a strong negative example to encourage viewers to examine (consciously or unconsciously) their own attitudes.

I always loved Columbo. Such a unique idea to break the investigator paradigm.

With Archie Bunker, I doubt that younger viewers today would feel comfortable even laughing at him let alone liking him. They likely haven't witnessed many people so politically incorrect. I think we really have come a long way.

Yes, it's interesting that one thing I flushed out of all of this is that it's perfectly okay for the reader/viewer to feel schadenfreude towards the characters like Fawlty.
 

Selorian

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A couple more recent tv examples would be Gregory House (House) and Joe Goldberg (You). Very different characters, but neither overall likeable, yet they are the leads in their series.

I believe it is like Foxee said, there needs to be something the audience can relate to and empathize with, even if they despise the character for the most part.

Something I enjoy doing is taking a protagonist and antagonist and write a paragraph or two for each that switches their roles. It serves a way for me to discover the good and bad qualities of each to give them flaws and depth.

I originally started doing this just for the protag after reading somewhere that 'every villain is the hero of their own story'. That stuck with me and I eventually realized I could do the same for the hero.
 
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One of the things i read was that readers hate the 'perfect' protagonist, it isn't real, thus having fallabilities makes a more rounded and relatable character. It wouldn't concern me if the protagonist wanted ill will of someone, because this is normal, and relatable thus this is geniune for the reader to believe the world you created.
 

indianroads

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Global Moderator
In my sci-fi book (see my blog), I have the MC take a belt and strangle four unconscious bad guys. They were about to turn him over to people who would torture and execute him, then sell his fiancé into sexual slavery. So these were very bad guys. Later, his fiancé proclaims she would have done the same thing, after he was ashamed to tell her what he'd done. The man reason for eliminating them was the heroes' needed time to escape and disappear, and as much time as possible before an alarm would be raised. If they're recaptured, back to torture, execution, and slavery.

I was worried this act by the MC would ruffle feathers, especially since I didn't originate the character. I thought the decision was justified, but--man!--it was cold-blooded. Several people have now read and commented on the book. Not one peep about the scene I expected to be criticized for.

Cold blooded... ha! I'll raise you on that bet.

My WIP Redemption has a MMC that is an assassin - he specializes in staging the scene such that it strikes fear in others. My FMC betrays and uses everyone in her path to get ahead, and she's completely heartless about it.

However, early on the reader learns that they both have tragic and abusive pasts.
The MMC is driven by rage, he and his family were placed in a forced labor camp when he was 5 yo. One day his father was pinned beneath a boulder, and the guards placed bets on how long it would take him to die. They also raped and killed his mother.
The FMC is driven by fear, which manifests into a need to feel safe. She was adopted out of a labor camp when she was a baby, and was physically and sexually abused by her foster brothers and parents.

The novel is titled Redemption, because it's about their evolution into better people.
 

Foxee

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I am trying to avoid putting 'what readers like' out there like some standard that my perfectionism has to hit. If readers were one homogenous mass who only liked one thing then we could possibly write the same story with the same protagonist over and over.

So I suppose I'm looking at this as, "What can I pull off that feels true to life?" in my estimation and, hopefully, in the estimation of anyone who reads what I've written.

Human beings are flawed and not likeable at every instant of every day. My husband would not be shocked if he read this but I don't even like him at all times. And sometimes it's because he's done something wildly unlikeable. It doesn't mean I immediately go for the smelling salts and the fainting-couch and have hysterics or haul off and shoot him because he's somewhat asking for it at that moment. It's just life.

I keep coming back around to that. Life makes for good stories.
 

Taylor

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In my current WIP my three MCs are all women. I'm trying to give each of them a major fault that is their downfall:

One who falls into the traditional values of her upbringing by expecting to be provided for and kept in a certain lifestyle by her husband.

One who has had enormous struggles in life but rises up by using her beauty to manipulate men into supporting her rise to power.

And the main protagonist, who fuels her career by blurring her own ethical values, when she falls prey to greedy people who use her for their own means.

It has been a tremendous challenge to portray these weaknesses, while still keeping the characters likeable. And ultimately they all learn and grow. My plan is they overcome some of the conflicts they bring on themselves with these underlying characteristics, but they don't completely eradicate them. Because that would be unrealistic.

My hope is that the reader will relate to characters who cannot conquer their own demons, but merely learn how to manage them.
 
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I always think that 'conquering your own demons' is something of an over used phrase that doesn't really exist. I think you can get the better of the demons, maybe shove it deep down in the corner somewhere, with a million books squashing it so it doesn't have a good time getting back up, and then when it moves you chuck another load of bricks to keep it quiet for a lot longer ... but it is always (as you said) managed.
 

indianroads

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In my current WIP my three MCs are all women. I'm trying to give each of them a major fault that is their downfall:

One who falls into the traditional values of her upbringing by expecting to be provided for and kept in a certain lifestyle by her husband.

One who has had enormous struggles in life but rises up by using her beauty to manipulate men into supporting her rise to power.

And the main protagonist, who fuels her career by blurring her own ethical values, when she falls prey to greedy people who use her for their own means.

It has been a tremendous challenge to portray these weaknesses, while still keeping the characters likeable. And ultimately they all learn and grow. My plan is they overcome some of the conflicts they bring on themselves with these underlying characteristics, but they don't completely eradicate them. Because that would be unrealistic.

My hope is that the reader will relate to characters who cannot conquer their own demons, but merely learn how to manage them.

Sounds interesting! Do your women see their faults as faults?
 

Taylor

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They don't. And perhaps faults is too strong a word, but the reader may see them as weaknesses. Then again the reader may see them as normal or even strengths, depending on their own values and upbringing. More importantly, as part of my voice, I portray these characteristics as symptoms of our society, that many women struggle with, but are conditioned to accept as the path of least resistance.

Each of these women have what appears to be a desirable lifestyle on the surface. I hope to depict just a little bit of the downside of not being intrinsically independent. Spoiler alert: They all end up more independent in the end.

 
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Taylor

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I always think that 'conquering your own demons' is something of an over used phrase that doesn't really exist. I think you can get the better of the demons, maybe shove it deep down in the corner somewhere, with a million books squashing it so it doesn't have a good time getting back up, and then when it moves you chuck another load of bricks to keep it quiet for a lot longer ... but it is always (as you said) managed.

Lol!! I agree it's overused, but it's one of those phrases that just speaks volumes. And as you say...it's the ideal, not the reality. But it's the goal that counts. Getting there...the process. And food for writers....
 
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