25 February 2015

Do Characters Have to be Likable?

There are all kinds of characters in any story--heroes, villains, sidekicks, love interests. The possibilities are endless. The way a reader could respond to any of these can be as diverse as the characters themselves. Some people may love a book's main character; others might hate him/her. Or it could be both--love to hate, hate to love. There are so many different ways to like or dislike a character. So when you're writing these characters, which one do you want?

It can depend a lot on the specific character you're writing. If your story has a villain, then you most likely want your readers to hate him. But villains can also be entertaining and fun to read. He doesn't have to be a sadistic monster without a single redeemable quality (unless that's what you're going for). The opposite can be said of a hero. A hero doesn't have to be perfect. They can do stupid things that make us want to punch them in the face. Characters need flaws so the reader can relate to them actually believe these are real people. No one is perfect, and a story about a perfect person would probably be boring to read.

But let's focus on the main character of a story. How likable does he or she need to be? And what exactly does it mean to be likable?

I've been told that my main character is not likable. Which is disheartening, to say the least. And confusing as hell, since I actually let him write a monthly blog post and people seem to respond well, or they're entertained at least. So why the big turn off? I guess it's not completely understandable. The first word I would use to describe Jordan would be manipulative, which I guess isn't all that likable of a trait. And he's a little full of himself, but not in a ridiculous way. He just knows what he's capable of and how other people respond to him. So why all the hate? Do I have to change him, make him more likable so that people will actually want to read this book?

It got me thinking that being likable doesn't mean the same thing in real life as it does in reading a book. Think about all of your favorite book characters--if they actually existed, would you be friends with them? We don't choose the books we read like we choose friends. We want books to entertain us. That doesn't mean that the main character has to be some perfect, goody two shoes kind of a person. In fact, you would probably be turned off by this sort of character.

We don't have to like a character in the same way we would like a friend. We just have to like to read about this character. You could love a character's snarky attitude, but if you met them in real life, you might want to smack them. There just has to be something about them that makes you want to read more. Think about this: is Lolita's Humbert Humbert a likable guy? Good lord no. But do you still like to read from his point of view? Yes! Because there's something captivating about the way his words come across the page. Liking to read about a character isn't always the same as liking them as a person.

So keep your imperfect characters! Nobody likes a goody two shoes, anyway.

Do you consider your characters likable? Are there are any characters from books you've read that weren't exactly likable, but you still wanted to read about them? 


  1. I just ran into this problem with my latest WIP. Someone read it and said she hated my heroine. The things she said about her were like punches to my gut. I'm now trying to make her more likable, although I already thought she was. When it comes to heroes and heroines (the MC), I think they should be likable. They can still be strong and imperfect, though.

    What I've read about Jordan, I find him a hoot. He's young...a lot of young people are exactly like how you describe him.

  2. This is a great post.

    I think flawed is different than unlikable.

    For instance,
    If the female character is all whiny, stupid and never learns from her mistakes, I don't care if she gets the guy or not. If the female character is flawed, and trying to get through her pain/suffering/mistake/bad decision, then I will root for her to the end.

    I find I can forgive an unlikeable character, especially a guy, if they redeem themselves before the book is over.

    Don't give up on your character because of what anyone tells you about them.


  3. Neither of my two leads are very likeable. But they do have just enough redeeming qualities and I've shown why they are that way. That helps readers understand them.
    I'd get along with Byron but I probably wouldn't like Aden that much in person.

  4. I'm with Heather - flawed is different from unlikable. All characters need to be flawed in order to be human, and it's the writer's (often difficult) job to make those characters sympathetic to the reader, flaws and all.

  5. I like flawed but likeable characters.

    I feel your pain. My initial beta readers told me they hated my characters. Said Derek was shallow and MaTisha was contradictory. So I redid both of them. It's not a fun process, but I think I came out the better for it. From what I can tell, my characters are likeable now. *shrug* I did want likeable characters though.

  6. I agree w/Chrys- Jordan just sounds like a teen! =) And from all the talk about Mary Janes (or is it Mary Sue? Mary Ellens, oh, I don't know!) being boring, characters who aren't afraid to show the less than perfect side of themselves are refreshing.

  7. If readers end up cheering for your antagonist to win and your hero to lose, perhaps your balance is a bit too bananas (or maybe who you thought was your hero... isn't). Otherwise, things should be fine. I like watching an unlikely person saving the day (and maybe getting taken down a peg if they're cocky).

    Flaws make characters into... humans.

  8. Characters who come off as totally unlikable seem a bit flat and contrived. We should find something to like in them to make them more real. Some of my favorite types of character arcs are where a character starts as a real jerk and becomes a decent person.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

  9. Not every character has to be likeable but every story has to have likeable characters. I've read books where, by the time I was half way through, I found all the characters so unlikeable that I just didn't care what happened to them so I stopped reading. That's no good.

  10. That is so true. I had to kill off an overly perfect character once . . . he was too good to survive battle . . . poor guy.
    Great post on unlikeable, flawed characters who are fun to read!

  11. Yup. I started writing a story about the unconquerable hero when I was just starting, then learned my characters needed to be fallible so readers could relate in some regard. Characters don't have to be likeable, but they do have to possess some redeeming trait, some arc the reader hopes will be fleshed out. Unless you're writing for adults, I don't think you can ever take the dark spin where the hero turns into a villain, but some people like that too.