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Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Does the Reader Need to Like Your Main Character?



Of course not. How could you possibly write a character everyone would like? No one likes everyone they meet, and the fact a given person doesn’t like another person isn’t even necessarily a commentary on that second person’s character. It’s just that some personalities are incompatible. It boils down to personal preference. 

I saw this question debated in a fantasy writing forum, spawned off a conversation I had on Twitter following a #writetip I posted. I was sad to see most of the writers who commented did so on the basis of their own personal experiences, characters they did and did not like, and how that impacted their liking of the book, instead of taking a more objective and analytical view.

I suggest this is the wrong question. The right question is ‘does your character need to be likeable?’.
How do we distinguish a likeable character from one we like?

Liking someone (including a character) comes down to your own personal preferences of qualities and characteristics you find desirable in a person. Essentially you are asking would this character be your friend, if they were real. Likeable, on the other hand, means capable of evoking empathy or sympathy.

One commentator on the forum observed they didn’t like Frodo. I can’t say as I especially like Frodo either. If I listed my all-time favourite characters, Frodo wouldn’t be on that list. Does that mean he’s not ‘likeable’?

I don’t think it does. Frodo’s character isn’t repellent, disagreeable, nasty, or otherwise have elements which would make a reader actively dislike him. In general, his character has the potential to be liked. Whether you do or don’t like him comes down to your personal preferences. Given the definition of likeable I’ve mentioned above, to avoid confusion it may even be better to say ‘relatable’.

When we rephrase the question ‘Is Frodo relatable’ I think the answer is a resounding yes. He’s a little guy, bowed down by the weight of the world’s problems, venturing out from the only safe home he has known, to do battle with demons he can’t comprehend. You can easily take the fantasy out of the context by making the demons and the problems figurative instead of literal. Who can’t relate to that? To some degree, nearly all of us will have some sympathy for his plight – even if we don’t like him, personally.

Why is it important to make your character relatable?

Bearing in mind I am only talking about genre fiction here (literary fiction being a different kettle of fish), your character should be relatable because they are driving the action. In many cases, the reader keeps reading because they want to see what the character does next, how they solve their problems, how they overcome conflict, how their decisions make things better or worse.  If we don’t have empathy or sympathy for the character, if we don’t care at some level what happens to them, if we aren’t invested in that character, then why would we keep reading to learn any of these things?

The short answer is, for most, they wouldn’t. Once upon a time, I probably did, and I learned I wasn’t the standard, but nowadays my time is too precious. If I don’t care, I won’t bother to find out.
The problem is exacerbated if the main character is actively unlikeable, pathetic, whiny, or any one of a number of undesirable qualities, because really, who likes to spend any amount of time in the company of someone like that?

A few case studies to consider:

  • Dexter – basically a serial killer, but we like him, or empathise with him, why? Because he has ‘The Code’. He only kills people who deserve it. Vigilante justice, but ‘good’ resonates more with us than ‘lawful’ in many cases. What he’s doing may not be strictly right, but we understand it, we relate to it, and, secretly, we probably applaud it;
  • Rincewind from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld – a pathetic, useless and cowardly wizard who can’t perform magic or, for that matter, even spell the word ‘wizard’. Why do we like him? His cowardice is brutally pragmatic, and when you listen to him, he starts to make you question the intelligence of all those ‘heroes’ who rushed in against insurmountable odds to rescue the princess. Not only is Rincewind often right, but he’s funny – his insights are clever, and entertaining. Everyone likes the funny guy – even if often Rincewind is the butt of the joke;
  • Riddick in Pitch Black – this one is a little less obvious, and harder to explain. Riddick is very much a ‘dark hero’. Why do we relate to him? A little bit, because we understand where he’s come from, and the tough circumstances he’s had to survive. A little bit, because he could have killed the other survivors at any time – and he didn’t. Surely he would have had a better chance without them, so why did he ever saddle himself with the burden of saving their lives? We have to ask the question, and suspect an answer. Even at the end, when he did make a break for it, and looked out for himself, he couldn’t go through with it. It’s that part of him, the good buried deep inside, that we relate to, and we follow the story to find out which side of him wins out.

As well as being relatable, no character should be irredeemable. Would Riddick work if we believed he was a bad apple all the way through, if he had abandoned everyone to die? No, of course not. Would Rincewind work so well if he didn’t save the world? Though he may be dragged to it, and forced against his will, at the end Rincewind accepts his fate with weary resignation and does what he can, little though it may be. If neither character showed any compassion or concern for others, they would fail completely.

You don’t need to like a character. But I do believe you need to understand and relate to characters in genre fiction, and most especially the protagonist. 



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17 comments:

Dee said...

I am the odd duck in that I like the "dark heros." I find them more human, more believable. I only ask someone reach beyond the unobtainable, and every once in a while, I want them to succeed in a most extraordinary manner.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I like dark heroes too. They are my favourites! But they are harder to write.

Amberr Meadows said...

Two of my favorite characters. Riddick (Vin is just yummy) and Dexter is a vigilante hero which I can relate to (minus murdering anyone in real life, of course).

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I love Riddick, although I admit I never got into Dexter - more due to time constraints than anything else I expect. But he is a classic example of how and why a character should be relatable.

Kasie Whitener said...

Well done, Ciara. I'm with you and Dee, I like dark heroes. The redeemability of a hero really matters. That he must grow or change in some way to achieve redemption is a compelling story line.

Julie Hutchings said...

I find a darker hero to be more relateable, one who makes dicey decisions, one who doesn't always do the right thing. If I wanted to hear about people who do the right thing all the time, I would call my mother so she could give me the rundown on my sister's life. I want impact!

Greever Williams said...

Purity of purpose, steadfast resolve and an unwavering course is like the comfort food of stories. We all like them once in a while but a steady diet of them makes us bloated gasbags. I like flawed. I want to see under the pretty make-up. Throw me a curve. Make me think. I might not like the character at that point, but I will certainly remember him/her...probably because I can more readily relate to their flaws.

Margaret Alexander said...

Excellent post (just did a similar one recently)! I agree completely. Just like not everyone's going to like the same books, not everyone will like the same characters. Interesting thoughts on the liking vs. likeable. I can see that, they have qualities that some can grasp onto, but it doesn't mean everyone will.

sevwinters said...

I think perhaps sometimes we can also champion something perfectly evil without redeemable qualities. FOr example, Heath Ledger's Joker or Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman. There's a sense in which the viewer latches on for the purity of disbelief... but if there is something to which we can relate, it is a dark side in all of us that wishes sometimes in the midst of a board meeting that we could just stab a man in the head with an ice-pick. Depraved, but we love it. Good post.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Thanks, Kasie, glad you enjoyed it. I think it's important the character ends the story a different person, in some way, than they started.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Most people make mistakes sometimes. We relate better to heroes who do the same. We want to know they're human, they're just like us.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Perhaps, also, we relate better if the hero makes the right decision after making some mistakes - because we, too, make mistakes, and if in the end they can get it right, maybe we can too...

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Naturally not - we're all different, and it would be a boring world if we weren't.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I expect some people can, but I'm probably not one of them. I don't regard The Joker as someone to champion - to me, he was pure villain. But that's not to say it wouldn't work for a particular target audience, and perhaps that might happen more often in literary fiction than genre fiction. Having not ever paid much attention to literary fiction, I'm not 100% sure, but I'm led to believe unlikeable MCs are more acceptable there.

Meg said...

Great post!

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Thanks, glad you enjoyed it :-)

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