Certainly there are characters everyone can, more or less, agree are likeable: Harry Potter, Atticus Finch, Jane Eyre, Sherlock Holmes. It’s not that they are flawless, but they are nice people who generally go around doing nice things and being decent to others.
There are characters everyone can, more or less, agree are unlikeable, but are somehow still extremely compelling: The Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne, Dorian Gray, Tom Ripley, Humbert Humbert, Patrick Bateman (from American Psycho).
Then, there are characters who were meant to be likeable and relatable by the author, but somehow became polarizing and readers either go along with the original intent or just plain HATE them. Case in point: Bella Swan and Edward Cullen of Twilight and Holden Caulfield.
Writing is such a funny business. It’s part daydream, part method acting. When you put a character on a page, be it a suburban mom, a lethal assassin, or a lemur, you’re going to drip a bit of yourself into this character. And then, unexpectedly, readers weigh in on your character’s CHARACTER, when all you wanted was for them to follow along meekly with the plot.
The above examples show that it’s not necessary at all to have a likeable main character in order to grab readers’ interest. But the unlikeability needs to be intentional, as with Humbert Humbert or Patrick Bateman. They’re both monstrous jerks, extravagantly so. The problem arises when a character an author thought was perfectly sweet and realistic, suddenly starts getting hate. She’s too whiny. He’s too domineering. She’s too entitled, or dumb, or clueless. He’s a wet noodle. Or obnoxious. Or too pretty.
I am currently on a mission to find out a set of common denominators that make characters generally beloved.
Here’s my list:
- Decent: The character must be the kind of person who would help others, even if it’s not convenient
- Not gloomy: The character must have a neutral or positive baseline. Without the tribulations that befall them, they’re an upbeat persona.
- Special in some unique way: Recently this is called having a “Super Power”, though it could be as simple as having access to a restricted environment, being good at math, or being a survivor under difficult circumstances.
- Having a goal that is greater than personal: Personal goals are important, but the characters readers seem to genuinely root for are the ones who also want to make the world a better place for others, even if only a few others.
- Be worthy of love: Someone must love this character, whether it’s their grandparent, a romantic interest, or their pet.
How about you? As a reader, do you prefer likeable or unlikeable characters? As a writer, do you prefer writing likeable or unlikeable? And have you ever been surprised by your readers’ reactions to your characters?