Likeable Characters

March 25, 2011

Somtimes things seem self-evident. So self-evident, in fact, that we forget about them and start taking them for granted. Which makes their absence all the more unnerving.

I’m specifically thinking of having likeable characters. Even more specifically, having likeable main characters. Most main characters are likeable. After all, we tend to identify with the protagonist- who wants to identify themselves with someone they loathe?  Besides, who wants to spend X hours reading X pages about people they don’t like, when they could be doing something else?

That’s not, however, to say that you have to black and white about it. While it usually turns out that your heroes are likeable and your villains are not, that doesn’t always have to be the case. It’s entirely possible to have a likeable villain, and/or an anti-hero. In fact, literature is littered with them. Think of Richard III, from Shakespeare’s play of the same name (spoilers follow). In the play, he has his young nephews murdered (whether or not the historical Richard did so is open to debate). He seduces, marries, and then breaks the spirit of Lady Anne. He manipulates his way into power, and then kills his kingmaker.

Richard III

Clearly, not a very nice guy.

But he’s charming. He’s intelligent, and determined. He’s ambitious. And yes, there is something heartbreaking in his final cry of, “My kingdom for a horse!”

However much we may dislike his actions, and yes, even the man himself, there nevertheless remains a small part of us that likes him. He appeals to a tiny, treacherous part of us. Even if we don’t necessarily want to see him succeed, we don’t necesssarily want to see him fail… and least, not too soon, not too easily. The appeal of the likeable villain comes from the contradiction: we like them, but we’re not supposed to. Contradictions like that are interesting; they keep the audience engaged.

The flip side of the coin?

Unlikeable heroes are something else. I think you can distinguish these from anti-heroes: they’re usually not a villain thrown into the role of protagonist. Instead, it seems they were intended to be likeable, but something went… wrong.

I’m reading a book right now (though I can’t say why I’m continuing to put myself through it, if not for some masochistic pleasure) in which I don’t like the protagonist. At all. I think I’m supposed to. She has a cool name. She follows the “Chosen One” archetype. The other characters like her a lot.

But I don’t.

She is self-centred, petulant, whiny, strings the male characters along (and obviously takes great pleasure in doing so), and is essentially the grown-up version of a spoiled brat. Okay, so she’s agreed to save the world. But that’s not enough to make me like her. Not when she has yet to show any moral fibre or concern for anyone but herself. Especially not when there are characters with spunk and spirit I like much, much more.

Those secondary characters are the reason I’m sticking around. As for the heroine? Well, if she were to fall off a cliff or something (though the chances of that happening are less than nil) I wouldn’t be terribly sad. When she succeeds at saving the world, I won’t be terribly happy.

Maybe it’s just me. Perhaps, as in real life, some personalities just rub people the wrong way. But if I care more about the chorus than the diva, maybe it’s time to reexamine your casting.




  1. You’re reading “Atlas Shrugged”? I had the same experience with that novel. The main character was entirely lacking in any appealing qualities, and I didn’t want to spend thousands of pages with her.

  2. Wonderful post, as usual. King Richard reminds me of this character archetype from TV Tropes. Characters really do shape the book. The main reason I’ll never pick up Twilight? Bella Swan drives me insane.


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