Everybody Hates My Main Character

I am a member of a small writer’s group (three to five people), which I consider my safe harbor. We meet twice a month. We welcome submissions that are not ready for prime time. We are candid in our critiques. We don’t hold back criticism.

Recently, I brought in to the group the latest chapter from my work-in-progress. One of the group members whose opinion I value was highly critical of the main character. This member thought the main character came off as dour, unemotional, and joyless. That was not what I had hoped to hear. I promised to renew my efforts to soften the character’s hard edges.

The well-intended criticism got me thinking about an age-old debate in fiction writing. Does the main character have to be likable? Author and blogger K.M. Weiland believes likability is overrated. In this blog post, she wrote, “Forget niceness. Niceness doesn’t enchant readers and doesn’t sell books. This doesn’t mean, of course, that characters can’t be good or moral. It doesn’t mean the only hero worth reading about is the anti-hero. But nobody wants to read about perfection. What readers want is reality. And the reality is that imperfection is by far the more appealing option. A character’s charisma is what draws readers back, not his ‘likability.'”

Angela Ackerman, co-author of The Emotional Thesaurus, an excellent resource for writers, emphasized the importance of creating main characters with flaws in this guest post for Writer’s Digest. But she added a caveat. “To be credible, characters must have flaws as well as strengths, just like real people. There is a tipping point for flaws, however. A bit too much snark or insensitive internal narrative and the character slips into unlikeable territory. Too much surliness, negativity, secretiveness or an overblown reaction and the reader will disconnect, frustrated by character’s narrow range,” Ackerman wrote.

Some of the most memorable characters in fiction were hardly angels. Scarlett O’Hara comes to mind. For the most part, I found Scarlett a petulant, conniving, and manipulative person. Then, why did I stay with Gone With the Wind for more than 1,000 pages? Because Margaret Mitchell made me care about Scarlett. And I discovered her redeeming qualities in the narrative–the way she fought to keep her extended family together during the bleak years of the Civil War, how she protected even her adversary from danger, and how she showed compassion to her family. She made me care.

Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe, featured in several novels, is one of my favorite characters in fiction. Yet, even I have to admit, he’s not very likable. He comes across at times as cynical, self-absorbed and emotionally remote. Despite these flaws, Frank resonated with me in a way that few characters have in fiction because he voiced all of the fears and insecurities that many middle aged men feel. Other readers who don’t share my demographic may not have the same opinion of Frank.

So what’s my take on the question of likability? Here are a few ideas:

Make the reader care about your main character. Your main character will go through a struggle and face mounting challenges that will force her to make a transformative change. She may show a range of emotions: joy, hatred, rage, contentment. Make the struggle meaningful, something to which the reader can relate.

Establish early on in the story something about your main character that the reader admires. For example, the main character is incapable of being in a relationship, but it is because she was emotionally abused by her parents.

Show examples of the character’s kindness and humanity, especially at the beginning of the story,

Strive for complexity in your characters (and that includes the antagonist). Real people are complex with multiple aspects to their personalities. The most memorable characters, like Scarlett, are complicated people.

What about you? Do you struggle with the issue of character likability?

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Everybody Hates My Main Character

  1. A Confederacy of Dunces is a really good book and Ignatius Reilly is a great character. Yet he is hardly likeable. I think if you have an unlikable character you should go over the top like that and make them REALLY unlikable. It helps to put them in funny situations. Thanks Chris. This was a great blog post!

  2. Honestly can’t remember having an MC deemed unlikeable, but likeability is an issue in other ways: once a side character, one I have sympathy for but personally dislike, was discussed & liked rather too much for someone that isn’t a major player in the story. Not sure if she still comes off that way, but I did downgrade her in some ways, since she absolutely didn’t have a wider part to play.

  3. There is that “fine line” there – there is need for some vulnerability, some kind of “reason” behind their personality flaws – something to make the reader root for them despite their being so flawed. If I want to follow a character and find out what’s going to happen to them and I care what’s going to happen, then, at least for this reader, the writer has done his/her job.

    I think, too, it’s a more careful balance when it’s a novel versus a short story – you can get away with a dark more unlikeable character for a short story than a novel-length book. There are certain “expectations” there in a novel-length work. Though the trend seems to be in movies, and in books, to have a really flawed unlikeable character sustain throughout, if it’s not done with a deft hand, then the reader may put down the book.

    I bet some small tweaks will get you where you want to be.

    • Yes, I’m thinking tweaks instead of wholesale changes. Those will come in the revision process. Getting to fully know your main character takes time. Thanks for your insightful comment,

  4. You are fortunate to be part of a writing group that is serious about criticism.
    Your example for establishing something about the character that readers admire could use some work. A character is unable to be in a relationship because of past abuse. That makes me feel sympathy, not admiration.
    Did you like Madame Bovary, the character? I have mixed feelings about her.

    • Thanks for your comment. She does eventually find herself in a relationship. My point was that the reader can relate to her, though they may not necessarily like her,

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