Discussion

{DISCUSSION} Likable Main Character

Does the main character of the book have to be likable?

So… I’m curious. As someone who isn’t a very likable person IRL, (Nope, nope, you nice people. Don’t try to correct me. I know how many friends I have and I know more people than those few dislike me. :p  It’s cools. I am who I am and I ain’t changin’ for nobody), but anyway, as a not-likable person, I’m curious about why the main character in a book always has to be likable.

I mean, do we really all have to like the hero? What if the hero is a total jerk? What if the prophecy picked the biggest jackass or bitchiest woman on the planet/solar system/universe/etc/etc? Who says you have to be a nice, loyal, compassionate, wonderful person to be the hero? Or to even be the main character?

What about all the anti-heroes out there?

But even anti-heroes are still likable. I mean, who doesn’t like Deadpool? (Come on! Be honest with yourselves. You know you all love Deadpool!) Even the anti-heroes are still likable characters. And why is that? They literally don’t care who they kill along the way, but they just appear to be doing the right thing because it aligns with their personal goals. Still, we like them. What if… we didn’t like them?

What if the main character was a snarky, sarcastic, rude, blunt, obnoxious person? (NO! I didn’t just picked adjectives people use to describe me!!! … *cough* ) What if their goals and their motivations weren’t so squeaky clean? What if they weren’t the most gosh-darn compassionate person on Earth? What if they didn’t love every single animal and tried to sing to them? *side glances at Disney stereotypes* What if they were selfish?

“Melanie, why are you asking all of these questions?”

I am so glad you asked, random reader who didn’t actually ask any questions what-so-ever, but I love to pretend like I have to explain myself (because I’m going to explain myself whether you want me to or not.) … >.> Ahem. I’m picking these questions for a couple reasons:

  • I’m not your perfect, precious, adorable, nice, compassionate, blah, blah, blah person. I’m… kind of a bitch IRL. (I’m just really good at faking being a nice person. 😉 ) But I don’t find a lot of characters like myself in fiction, especially YA fiction. What’s more, I honestly want to vomit some days because of the excessively copious amounts of perfect, do-gooder, save-the-world-because-it’s-the-right-thing-to-do characters. I want a character who says, “Meh. Someone else can save it. I don’t really want to sacrifice myself for a world I’ll never see [because the prophecy says I’ll die or the odds are very high.]” Like… what is so wrong about that? That’s a story, too! The end of the world is a story, people. Come on!
  • I… have written some selfish, bitchy characters in my novels. We often write about things we know and I know what it’s like to be a selfish person (some days. :/ ) As such, I wrote a character like that. And you know what my betareaders said about them?
    “I don’t like your character.”
    “I wish she would’ve redeemed herself.”

Uh-huh… Well… I don’t think she needs to redeem herself. I don’t believe every character needs to have a heart of Gold or magically become a better person. Frankly, that’s not realistic. Not everyone becomes a hero. Not everyone becomes good. And while it’s important for society [and the law] to be a good person and care about others, I don’t think you have to be so good that you sacrifice yourself for people you don’t even know just because someone tells you to. :/ (Not to mention it would add a lot more variety of characters if they weren’t all good. You know what I mean?)

Of course, now everyone is sitting there going: “Well, Melanie is insane.” I mean… yeah, but I’m serious. Why can’t characters be selfish? Why can’t characters be rude? Why can’t characters say ‘no, thanks. Someone else can save the day.’? I just don’t understand why all the main characters have become… well… the same. I’m not seeing nearly enough variety in these main characters and it’s getting rather boring. But maybe I am crazy. Maybe I’m the only one who feels this way. I guess you’ll just have to leave your comments below to let me know if I’m still the Queen of Unpopular Opinions. 😂

But what do you think?
Do you think MCs have to be likable?
Leave your thoughts below!


And check out my discussion from last week:
Blacklisting Authors

20 thoughts on “{DISCUSSION} Likable Main Character”

  1. This is definitely an interesting topic, and on one level there are no hard and fast rules about what type of character can be a protagonist. But then there’s the other side of the coin, who is your target audience?
    I think there are many stories out there that step outside of the dominant conventions, but at the end of the day many readers are looking for those familiar, safe stories.

    Personally I think a protagonist who refuses to save the world is an engaging narrative, but I think the story would need to give voice to those objections, pair the protagonist with at least one character who answers “this is why you should save the world, in spite of your objections.”
    I think a big part of the problem is how ingraind the “redemption” narrative is in the culture of our fiction.
    Many audiences, seeing a narrative like this will assume that “of course the protagonist will change their minds eventually”, so they set themselves up for disappointment.
    I think the challenge is finding ways to subtly establish that “this isn’t a redemption story”, while also finding ways to define the narrative journey and meaning as an affirmation of something, rather than a story that just feels like it’s rejecting and criticizing a popular narrative pattern.

    I think it is difficult to enjoy a story while disliking the main character, but there are many ways to make a main character likeable.
    Maybe the story portrays the selfish main character as honest, or determined in their own goals and dreams, or unwilling to simply submit to the will and pressures of others, all of which could be admirable characteristics.

    Reading the comments of others, I’m starting to debate the concept of a likeable character vs an interesting character.
    We may not think of a character as a good person, but still like aspects of them.
    I also think flaws and imperfections are an essential ingredient in making a character likable.
    I can think of a few characters, most notably a knight in David Eddings Belgarad, who was so virtuous and “perfect” that it became his main flaw.

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  2. It’s all about making them interesting. Whether that be the character posing an ethical question that makes you think, or relatable feelings of questioning morals, or that you just want to see that son of a bitch fail, and so on. I don’t really care about somebody ignoring a child’s cry for help. Not because I judge them for acting that way, but, well frankly it’s just boring. Put in some stakes. Make me think a little bit.

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  3. Frankly I do prefer a not nive main character than an annoying one! I can also like a villain as far as I can understand his motives and where he comes from. But honestly the books I liked when I disliked the main characters are few, very few. I’m a “I want to like” my character kind of girl or rather “I want to understand” my main character. Even someone kind etc. that I can’t understand won’t work for me. Like or not the main ingredient to appreciate a book is feeling a connection with the character. Not very helpful for you discussion I bet LOL

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  4. I don’t think the main character in a book has to be likable but they do have to be relatable, interesting or just so horrible and bad you can’t wait to see what they do next.

    I think a main character has to generate some kind of emotion from you, even if it’s an intense dislike. It’s the boring, moany characters who are just a bit meh that bother me more.

    It would probably be a fairly short book if the main character decided the world ending catastrophe was someone else’s problem and went back to bed though. Although Patrick Ness did manage to write a pretty long and very good book about the non heroes.

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  5. Interesting topic! It made me think for a bit (which probably isn’t a good idea late at night 😅), especially about why I love certain characters. 🤔

    For me, the protagonist is one of the most important character in a book because s/he is the character I follow most. (I do the same with video games, I dump all the best stuff on him/her and then I give the leftovers to the rest of the party. 😆) But that doesn’t mean s/he has to be all rainbows and roses and save the world because s/he wants to! I prefer s/he to be more relatable than likeable and have strengths / weaknesses, yet there needs to be at least some degree of likeability in order for me to follow him/her. Kind of like meeting a stranger and being asked to be a friend; we’d only be friends only if there’s something about him/her that I like or feel hopeful about, and I doubt I can stick with a character (or a person) that grates me on a regular basis. 😅

    So I do agree with the beta readers who didn’t like the snarky and bitchy character; I’ve seen a few bitchy women antagonists in Korean dramas and wow, I can feel my blood pressure going up, so I don’t really watch them. 😅 And at the same time I agree not all protagonists are do-gooders; some of the characters I like are those who save the world because they have to or they’d lose someone important to them. I think a bitchy character could work as a protagonist as long as it’s not too much and there’s something good about him/her as an anchor. Because we humans are a combination of good and bad, after all. 😀

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  6. Good topic to get the comments flowing today. Sherlock Holmes wasn’t particularly likable, and he didn’t care for the plight of others, just the challenge to his mind. Hannibal Lechter was a secondary character, but so was Sherlock to a degree. (Watson was the POV character.) It can be done, but aside from liking them, you can make them so bad people will stay with you to see them fail. There is a commercial decision to make eventually too, and authors are wise to consider it.

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    1. This raises an interesting question for me, the distinction between likable and interesting. I agree that both Sherlock Holmes and Hannibal Lechter were, by most standards, not the friendliest of characters, but on the other hand I wonder if one could say that we as audiences did like their brilliance.

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        1. Mmm. I think I read a list of “techniques for making a character likeable”, and one of the strategies was “give them a uniquely pronounced skill or talent, and an equally pronounced deficit.” There’s always a certain appeal to watching the maestro perform their magic.

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          1. In more adult pieces, there are more unliakable characters. I like to talk film, because more people will know the story. Gran Torino featured a very unlikable Clint Eastwood, and the Death Wish movies are legendary. Those two might qualify more as anti-heroes though.

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  7. I had this discussion with a few people over the last few weeks related to the book Artemis by Andy Weir. Early reviews have started to come out and they’re not good. Why? Because they don’t like the main character as she is apparently not a nice person. When they’re complaining about it I’m over her screaming YES! Not everyone has a moral compass the size of the continental US! Of course people will question their actions sometimes and fight with rights and wrongs, but unlikeable people are normal! I personally love a character that’s rude, crass, vulgar and brutally honest because that’s me in real life. I do think that if a main character is unlikeable I like to know their thought process though. Understanding why a person does what they do or think what they think makes that character easier to understand and relate to
    Thanks for a great topic!

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  8. I mean, Harry Potter– in my opinion– is in the top 5 least likable characters in Harry Potter, but that doesn’t take away for my enjoyment of the series. He’s annoying and kinda dumb, and the least observant character probably of all time. It’s a miracle he lived through the first 3 books (thanks, Hermione). I think it makes the book better if the main character isn’t perfect. The series wouldn’t be as good if it wasjust Harry fighting Voldemort, it’s a community effort.

    Likability and relatability are important, but I think relatability is more important. The less perfect and more like a person that exists outside a book, the better the character. Harry being super whiny and annoying makes him feel like a person pulled right out of actual high school. I mean, you may not like the character, but the character’s flaws are what make the character good.

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  9. Okay, other than Darth Vader (for whatever reason) I 100% used to love those cookie-cutter heroes until I was old enough to read YA then I started finding books with good people and maybe a touch of darkness, then soon my favorite character type became the anti-hero (which it still is). I guess in theory most people don’t want to spend their time with people they don’t like so having a hero that is at least somewhat likable or relatable appeals to a much wider audience, but honestly I totally hear what you’re saying and I’d be totally down with reading a book where the prophecy or whatever totally chose the biggest prick who couldn’t care less about saving the world. That could actually be a really interesting story and, okay, yeah, great, now I want to read it. UGH. Why do you do this to me?? Haha jk

    (Like you said, antiheroes still tend to be likable (I love Kaz Brekker and will never stop loving Kaz Brekker) and I’m okay with this (although I still want to read this “i don’t wanna save the world good day sir slams door in face” book you’ve proposed haha) but I think the closest I’ve gotten to a book with a main character who is not at all very likable would be Blood Red Road by Moira Young because honestly Saba is not nice or patient or looking for world peace, she literally doesn’t give a shit about her little sister but rescues her because she knows she should, she helps rebels free other captives literally just because she needs them to break out herself, etc. Like she is not truly nice…ever. I mean you do see her try to be nice or do the right thing sometimes (I mean come on, it’s a YA book) but she is not a warm friendly person at all. I definitely thought she’d warm up and show that good heart buried beneath her tough exterior before the book was halfway through but uh nope not really…lol. I’ve only read the first book though so maybe her callous personality changes later but at least in that one book I could see how people would be put off because the main character is kind of a stone cold bitch for like 90% of it. And yet I liked her 🤔 I guess everyone is likable to someone…)

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  10. i don’t think, that a main characters needs to be likeable or perfect. i think the most important thing is, that the main character is relatable. i don’t care if a character is perfect, does only good things, is selfish or rude. i need to understand why a main character is the way he or she is and i need to believe it and the reasons behind it. if it doesn’t make sense and i can’t relate to that at all, then the main character doesn’t work for me.
    i also thing, that a main character who has her or his reasons to be the way she or he is, is way more interesting than a perfect character who wants to save the world.

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  11. We need to be able to relate to the main character. Most people, no matter how mean, nasty and self-centered they are, think of themselves as at least sort of nice people. We also need to cheer when the MC has good things happen and feel bad when bad things happen.

    That being said, no, the main character does not have to be likable. The main character does have to be interesting, or why would you bother reading the book, but you can hate the MC. Or laugh at the MC. Or….

    Thinking of anti-heroes, I guess showing my maturity level, the first one I thought of was Gru in Despicable Me. I liked that he did hateful things, because when you are a super villain, that’s what you do 😉

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  12. This is an interesting topic! Some of my favourite characters are the ones that are unlikable because they just feel more real. I think I agree with B.L. Daniels when he says that this might be a YA thing! I am having a hard time coming up with an unlikable character in a YA book…

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  13. Maybe this is a YA genre thing? There are lots of “morally gray” and unlikeable protagonists in traditional Literature (capital L), and genres like horror and thriller/mystery. I usually don’t care if a protagonist or anti-hero is likeable or not, as long as they are interesting. My favorite example is Corwin from Roger Zelazny’s Books of Amber. He is not a nice guy, but extraordinarily interesting and charismatic.

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