Last week, I got together with some writers and fellow book coaches, and we got on to the subject of likeable characters. I was particularly interested because I've recently encountered a character who isn't likeable, and it's pulling me out of their story.
For years, writers have struggled with an age-old question: Do fictional characters need to be likeable? This question has spurred debate with people passionately defending both sides. The "likability" camp insists that if a character isn't agreeable, readers won't be able to connect with the story. On the opposite end of the spectrum lurks a faction determined to prove that unlikable characters can still be engaging.
So, do fictional characters have to be likeable, or should they be able to bring something different to the table? Let's see if we can reach a verdict on whether likability is mandatory for our literary characters.
The Argument for Likeable Characters
The main point of having loveable characters is for readers to both relate to and enjoy them. Without a hero that people relate to or find entertaining, the story would have no traction. Of course, no one wants to invest in an unlikeable character. It’s more fun to root for someone you can get behind.
We all know the trope by now: the likeable protagonist. Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, and Frodo Baggins are just some of these characters that have been drilled into our collective consciousness. We can’t deny that we love them — it’s easy to relate to someone who resembles us. But hey, let’s be real; we read their stories for the pant-wettingly high stakes. Who doesn’t want to read about people saving the world?
Let's look at three likeable characters and why we like them:
Huckleberry Finn (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain)
Huckleberry Finn is a lovable and endearing character that readers can empathise with because of his moral struggles. In the novel, Huck faces choices and dilemmas that are rooted in his conscience and his essential beliefs. He is constantly torn between what society has deemed as right or wrong and ultimately makes decisions that go against what is considered “normal”. He is a rebellious and independent thinker, and his resilience makes readers root for him and his quest for freedom. His adventurous spirit and his strong loyalty to his friends make readers admire and sympathise with him.
Harry Potter (Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling)
Harry Potter is an inspiring and brave character that readers root for. The epitome of courage and bravery, his determination to fight against evil despite feeling powerless make readers admire and relate to him. He's a loyal friend and a courageous leader, and readers can’t help but cheer him on as he battles against the dark forces.
Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)
Katniss Everdeen is the strong and resilient type that readers can relate to. She's brave and determined, and her willingness to fight against the oppressive Capitol despite the overwhelming odds make readers admire her courage and strength. Her loyalty and her unwavering love for her family and friends make her an endearing character that readers can sympathise with. (Yes, Jennifer Lawrence had a face on her like a long wet week in the movies, but I'm not going to hold that against the literary Katniss.)
The Argument Against Likeable Characters
But there are those who side-eye the traditional notion that characters need to be likeable for a story to be entertaining. They argue that having an unlikeable protagonist can make the story more dynamic and gripping.
Take You by Caroline Kepnes for example. Joe Goldberg is a serial killer and stalker; not the kind of guy you'd want to invite home for dinner, if you know what I mean. But does that make his story boring? Good gravy, no! In fact, Joe's douche-baggery makes it even more addicting. We know why he does the things he does - and with such pithy observations as he does them - but that's part of the fun.
Let's look at three villains we can empathise with even if we don't like them:
Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye
Holden is an unlikeable character because of his tendency to be whiny and judgmental. His negative attitude towards the world around him often leads him to make inappropriate decisions. However, it's easy to empathise with Holden because he is struggling with the harsh realities of growing up and finding his place in the world. His longing for innocence is something that many readers can relate to, as they can remember the feeling of wanting to protect their own innocence. By showing the struggles of a teenager, Salinger has created a character that readers can sympathise with.
Gollum from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
Gollum is an unsavoury character because of his devious nature and his loyalty to the One Ring. He'll do anything to recover it, even if it means hurting others. However, readers can relate to Gollum, as the power of the Ring and its influence over him has corrupted him. He is a victim of addiction and readers can understand the power of an addiction and the lengths one can go to satisfy it.
Hannibal Lecter from Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs
Hannibal Lecter is an incredibly unlikeable character because of his cannibalistic tendencies. He is a serial killer and one of the most dangerous characters in literature. However, he is also a complex character and readers can empathise with his desire for knowledge and understanding. It is easy to feel for the character, as he is a victim of circumstance and readers can relate to his need to be understood.
So, should fictional characters be likeable or not? Well, it's subjective really.
Some stories need a protagonist that readers can identify with to feel connected to the narrative. But other times it's more effective if they've got an unlikeable character taking up the spotlight.
It all depends on how you want to tell your story - and remember, you are the god(dess) of your own story.
Ultimately, even characters like Joe Goldberg need to have a certain amount of charm. Readers have to relate to the character even if they don't agree with their choices. Readers need to understand their motivations and see why they do what they do. Basically, these characters should be so interesting that readers can't help but root for them, even when it goes against their better judgement.
Regardless of whether readers like them, fictional characters need to be genuine, believable, and sympathetic for the story to be a success. That's why it's essential for authors to craft characters that are multifaceted and have a variety of emotions and goals that readers identify with - even if they don't cheer for them.