Does Your Main Character Need to be Likeable?Jan 22, 2022
Anyone who's ever studied the craft of writing will have heard the adage that a main character must be likeable. For the most part, this is true, because audiences don't tend to get emotionally invested in characters they don't like. If our readers don’t care, then the stakes will mean nothing to them. Any story that fails to create an emotional bond between the MC and the reader ultimately fails altogether.
The Problem with “Likeability”
The problem is that not all characters are likeable -- at least, not at the start. This is especially true if we're trying to tell a story where the whole point is to show a character who changes over the course of the telling. Any story that starts with an antihero, for example, necessarily becomes problematic. By their very nature, antiheroes are selfish. They can possess other undesirable traits as well, such as cowardice or a cloudy moral compass. These “bad” character traits cannot be condoned, and they certainly aren’t “likeable.” In fact, we’ll have to work to redeem our antihero over the course of the story by making him aware of his character defects, and then forcing him to overcome those traits. The purpose of this kind of story is to change that character’s essential nature so that they become selfless or brave as a result of the crucible they’re going through. They might end up likeable, but they wouldn’t have started out that way.
The Basic Rule of Thumb
But this begs the question, if a main character is supposed to be likeable, what does this mean for the writer who has this kind of character at the center of their story? Well, it means we go back to the reason this adage exists in the first place: It’s not so much about likeability as it is about forging an emotional connection between your main character and your audience. And there are other ways to accomplish this besides making your character likeable.
Making a Character “Sympathetic”
Instead of trying to make your character likeable, you might try making them sympathetic. A sympathetic character is one who, though we don’t “like” them per se, we do “feel” for them in some way given their current situation or life circumstances. The idea is to play upon an audience’s ability to empathize with someone who might be a bit rough around the edges, but who has had a rough enough time about it that we understand why they’re this way and are therefore willing to invest emotional energy into that character anyway.
For example, in the film As Good as It Gets, Jack Nicholson plays the character of Mr. Udall, a man that is so unlikable that he can even ruin a sweet little old lady's day. From the moment we meet him in the opening of the film, he shows himself to be a fairly horrible human being. In short order, he comes across as sexist, racist, rude, homophobic, selfish, a bad neighbor, and uncaring. This last part is made extra clear when we see him put a cute little dog down a garbage shoot. What kind of cretin does that to a dog? Mr. Udall, that’s who. There’s no doubt in our minds that he’s a hateful human being, and yet, audiences loved him. Why?
Well, because it’s not about likeability so much as it is about creating that emotional bond. In the case of Mr. Udall, we go from this introduction immediately into his apartment, where we suddenly gain insight into WHY he’s so offensive. He flips the light switch up and down five times. Goes into the bathroom and does the same. Throws brand new leather gloves into the garbage, and begins washing his hands in scalding hot water, five times total, and each time using a brand-new bar of expensive soap. That’s when we realize, “Oh, he’s sick.” He’s got OCD to a debilitating degree. And this realization makes us have sympathy for him. Yes, he’s rough around the edges. Yes, he comes across a Grade-A jerk. But we assume there’s more to him than meets the eye, because of his situation. So, we’re willing to extend grace to him, simply because we find him sympathetic. We’re willing to give him a chance, to emotionally invest in his journey. Thus, we bypass the rule of likeability by making him sympathetic instead.
Making a Character “Intriguing”
But there’s yet another way to draw readers into a story: Try making the main character so intriguing that the audience can’t possibly look away. Intriguing characters are those who may not be likeable OR sympathetic. They may even possess psychotic character traits, commit heinous crimes, or otherwise be repulsive to us. Nevertheless, they’re so fascinating to us that we still get hooked into their story. In this case, the bond you create between the main character and the audience is one of sick captivation, like watching a train wreck unfold.
A perfect example of this is Matt Damon's character from The Talented Mr. Ripley, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith. Ripley is not a good man. His most prominent qualities are shared by many psychopaths: he’s remorseless, manipulative, arrogant, deceitful, calculating, and murderous. Nothing about his behavior could be called “likeable.” Nothing about him is “sympathetic.” He’s a stone-cold serial killer, and yet, he’s fascinating to us. We get sucked in because he's a master chameleon, and we can’t seem to stop watching to see what’s going to happen. What will Ripley do next? Make the main character intriguing enough and readers will feel compelled to stay involved in the story out of a desperate need to see how it all shakes out.
The moral of the story is that you must create an emotional bond between your character and the audience. Historically, the easiest way to do that has been to create a character who is likeable. However, some stories have at their centers a character who is unlikeable. When that happens, writers can still accomplish this objective by making their main character either sympathetic or intriguing.
Five Clever Techniques for Writers to Make Your Audience Care
By Zena Dell Lowe
February Blog – The Write Conversation
One of the most important skills you can learn as a writer is how to draw your readers into your story and keep them invested all the way to the end. You start by creating a character that is either likeable, sympathetic, or intriguing. But how do you sustain the emotional bond you’ve established between your main character and the audience? How do you make your readers care about your main character’s journey for the rest of the story?
Try using one of these master techniques.
- Make sure they're good at something.
We're attracted to people who are good at something. Could be their jobs, a skill, a talent, some kind of ability that they possess that others around them don't. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, his skill is his uncanny ability to take on the characteristics of whatever kind of person he needs to be. The name of the film even testifies to this: The Talented Mr. Ripley. In As Good as It Gets, Mr. Udall is a wealthy, accomplished novelist. We like that about him. We like him all the better knowing the hardships he must have overcome to attain that level of success. Think of Napoleon Dynamite: “Everybody's got skills.” What made Napoleon so special was his surprisingly impressive moves. That dance sequence at the end was worth its weight in gold. As long as your character is good at something, even if he starts out a dork or a jerk, we will still be attracted to him in some way, because people who are good at something are compelling.
- Give us a glimpse into their vulnerability.
We need to understand that they have pain. No matter how confident they appear, no matter how everyone else in the story views them, the audience loves it when we get to see a glimpse of something that others in the story don't see, especially pain. The key is to pull back the curtain just enough to show us some kind of woundedness beneath the surface. The great equalizer and common denominator of mankind is suffering, so when we see the pain in that person, we can relate, which automatically triggers our empathy. It makes us care. So, show us that there's something your character is hurting over, some wound from the past, some sort of healing that they need or want that they themselves may or may not be aware of, but that the readers can see. This will help forge a bond with the audience and keep us emotionally invested in their story.
- Show us that there is more to the character than meets the eye.
This is different than just showing us a vulnerability. I'm talking about showing us that they are not at heart what they seem to be at face. We need to see complexity, that there is more to them than we originally may have thought. It’s easy to dismiss or write off simplistic or one-dimensional characters. It’s much more difficult to dismiss someone who has multiple layers to their personality, regardless of if those layers are good or bad. The villain who nevertheless rescues the homeless dog; the hero who’s too shy to talk to the girl; the mother who takes care of her family with perfection but then slips into the closet to cry.… These are characters we think we know in an instant, but who become immediately more compelling when you reveal something about them that we couldn’t have otherwise surmised. Contrast, complexity, paradox, and depth -- the audience likes to be surprised. Naturally, you have to do the hard work of setting it up so that we're delighted, rather than baffled or confused, by what you’ve revealed. But supposing you've done that, you can bet that the audience just became more deeply invested.
- Make sure they care about something that matters.
We care about people who care about something. And I'm not talking about puppies or children with cancer, because those are a given. I'm talking about your character being personally invested in something that tugs at their own heartstrings. Maybe it's a cause, or an object of some kind, like a beautiful building or a piece of art at the museum. Maybe it’s another person, like a parent, a sibling, a friend in need. Maybe it's even somebody that everybody else in the world sees as a nuisance, like a belligerent, alcoholic next-door neighbor. It doesn't matter, really, as long as it matters to your character. Having a character who cares about something or someone other than themselves shows the audience that your character is worth caring about. It could be anything, as long as it's a single entity. It can't be something like, “all the whales,” because it needs to be personal and not generic. But provided you do that, you will have a really good chance of making us care about your character.
- Give them a good sense of humor.
We love somebody that is able to laugh in the face of hardship -- or better yet, make US laugh. Even if your genre isn’t comedy or the joke isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, a character with a sense of humor in a world full of suffering gives us hope on a subconscious level. John Cleese wrote, “Laughter connects you with people. It's almost impossible to maintain any kind of distance when you're howling with laughter.” And if you’re worried about the possibility of the humor taking away from the “importance” of your story, don’t. Because humor is not the opposite of seriousness. It's the opposite of despair. Using it can give the important stuff even more weight. As Mark Twain said, “The human race has only one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.” Who could forget Tommy Lee Jones’s portrayal of US Marshal Sam Gerard in The Fugitive? His deadpan humor literally made that film. We loved him AND we took him seriously. Or remember the battle sequences in Braveheart when the characters would be hunkered down and waiting to charge? We'd be on the edge of our seats. Then one of them would crack a joke and our hearts would burst wide open. The fact that they could employ humor in the face of such horrendous circumstances made us love them all the more. Joss Whedon once said, “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.” Adding humor is often the key to making the audience connect with a character.
As storytellers, it’s essential that our audiences stay emotionally invested in our characters’ journeys. While there may be many possible ways to accomplish this, these five techniques are among the best. Master these, and you will be well on your way to creating and sustaining a solid emotional bond between your readers and your main character.
Does a Main Character Need to be Likeable?
By Zena Dell Lowe
January Blog – The Write Conversation