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Do You have to Like the Main Character(s)?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Ankari, Oct 18, 2012.

  1. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

    A Twitter exchange is responsible for this post. It evolved from a statement that "Keeping a secret should bother the MC’s conscience, otherwise he won’t be pushed to reveal it."

    I replied with: "Why does it have to bother the MC? Can't an MC be a serial killer who enjoys his work?"

    So, to the point. Can a story be told from a MC(s) POV that the reader won't find likeable?

    Sound off.
  2. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

    I personally find it hard to stick with reading something where I find the main character not likeable. But likeability is pretty subjective. If someone likes dark, evil characters who do horrible things to people, then they may like the story. Depends on how broad someone wants the appeal of their main character to be. I think Frodo's likeability is pretty great. I think someone like Tyrion Lannister is only likeable to some.
  3. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    Absolutely! I see no reason why readers have to like a MC.

    Furthermore, as far as secret keeping goes. There's loads of reasons why a MC would keep a secret w/o it bothering them. It has nothing to do with whether or not they're likable. Top that off with unreliable narrator types and the idea that they have to be likable as a rule seems fairly absurd.
  4. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    Yes, of course. See, for example, Ian Graham's Monument, which I have mentioned in other threads :)
  5. WyrdMystic

    WyrdMystic Inkling

    Very true - after all, I can't stand Frodo (Sam is the hero to me) and Tyrion makes me laugh.

    For the point in the thread - I feel there does have to be some likeability somewhere, doesn't have to be from the MC though. Sometimes, wanting to watch the MC cop it is enough to keep people hooked.
  6. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Ditto. Although there will be some who get turned off by the unlikeable character, but I'm not one of them.
  7. FireBird

    FireBird Troubadour

    I can hate an MC as long as they are interesting. Being interesting to your reader is what matters to me. I could care less about likeable.
  8. Ciara Ballintyne

    Ciara Ballintyne Acolyte

    I think an Mc has to be likeable, or at least relatable. Likeable is better. fter all, this is the person whose journey we are along for the ride with, and the outcome is going to affect them. If we don't care about them, why will we care about the ending.

    If we take the serial killer example, that's the premise of Dexter, isn't it? But wait... Dexter has 'The Code'. Why? So we can relate to him, and like him. He's only killing people who deserve it. Sure, it's vigilante justice, but nevetheless we can like him and relate. He's breaking the law - but he's doing good. He's a good serial killer. Now we like him.

    If the reader literally detests, despises or hates ther MC (or even finds them pathetic, or useless) what engages them to keep reading?

    Sure, you can use unlikeable POV characters (such as showing us the POV of a villain), but making your MC unlikeable is a very hard sell.

    Evenif you manage to pull it off, which is sometimes achieved by keeping the reader in the dark and not revealing the MC is a bad guy or monster until the end, the reader is likely to feel cheated. They might have read this book, but they might not come back for the next, because they didn't get what they were expecting.
  9. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    You should take a look at the book I mentioned, above. It's a very well-done book, and the main character, Ballas, is not likeable. In fact, he's pretty disgusting and despicable and there's not secret about it as you move through the book. If nothing else, the book is instructional in terms of how Graham manages it.
  10. shangrila

    shangrila Inkling

    I don't think you have to, but it sure as hell helps.
  11. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Auror

    I agree with the ones claiming that a character should foremost be interesting. A dull character can be as likeable as he or she wants, they won't get the reader (or at least me) to care about them. Being interesting is what makes me turn the pages and then the character can be almost any sort of misfit or evil, because I want to know what will happen next and how the character will end up.
  12. PaulineMRoss

    PaulineMRoss Inkling

    I agree with those who say that interesting is more important than likeable.

    There's been huge controversy over Mark Lawrence's Prince of Thorns, where the MC is - well, an evil bastard, basically, and fairly gleeful about it. Some people just hate the book because of it, but the author recently wrote this blogpost on the subject:

    Mark Lawrence: Murder’s bad m’kay?

    I've just finished reading Stephen Deas's The Black Mausoleum, the 4th in the Memory of Flames series, which features some of the most outrageously selfish, devious, scheming MCs around (including the dragons), but it's still a cracking read.

    I don't really know what a 'relateable' character is. Characters are either interesting, believable, etc, or they're not. Whether I relate to them in some way is irrelevant, to me at least. YMMV.
  13. Konstanz

    Konstanz Minstrel

    The "Malus Darkblade" series from Dan Abnett (set in the Warhammer universe) is another fine example of a book with an evil protagonist. Even when compared to the other dark elves, Malus is one of the most loathsome, scheming, backstabbing bastards literature has ever seen. But as a reader, you still find yourself rooting for him. I wouldn't hate and detest him if he were a real person, but in fiction, you grow to like him. Even though he's pure evil, you can relate to him. He's scorned by everyone (including his parents), cursed by a daemon and he has his share of bad luck.
  14. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

    For me it look like there is a misuse/confusion of the word "likeable"...
    Someone can be a likeable character but a bad/evil person...
    Hannibal Lector? Almost all "Noir" MCs are somewhat grey morally [even James Bond isn't a nice person but jolly good fun to read - I have been told]...
    You are given a back-story that lets you empathise with their actions - to put them in to context. You are given a reason to excuse their actions...
    I think the words "detestable" or "unsympathetic" might be more appropriate. I think it would be hard to write a successful book where the MC is emotionally unsympathetic and their actions ones you could not empathise with.
    I'm not saying that you couldn't write a story about a serial killer that only targets the weak and the innocent in the most despicable ways with no moral amelioration - but it might be a hard sell to the reader... but perfect for the awards circuit...
  15. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    The MC of Monument is emotionally unsympathetic. There was nothing to render him likeable, in my view. Really, it's the only example I can remember of this sort of thing, even though I've read plenty of books where the MC is evil or an antihero. It's hard to explain how thoroughly unlikeliest Ballas is, but if you don't think it can be pulled off you should read the book. :)
  16. Amanita

    Amanita Maester

    Main characters don't have to be nice and kind people no. There needs to be something relatable however. Something that makes us care for the character's fate. Backstory, some traits we'd few as noble, reasons for their behavior we can understand and so on. If a character has nothing like this and shows cruel behavior, there's no real reason to follow his story.
    Reactions vary greatly from reader to reader as far as this concerned. Many of us have some "no go"-things that put us off right away but it's no the same for all of us. (With some exceptions I assume. I doubt many people would want to read a story with a child rapist as its protagonist.)
    Personally, I have trouble to get into a book if I don't care for the characters and sometimes it's happening for much less severe reasons so it's really hard to predict.
  17. LisaChitty

    LisaChitty Acolyte

    I have to say that as a reader, the mc does have to have something likeable about them. They can be the meanest character possible, as long ad they have a reason for it that the reader can engage with. Otherwise, the reader is unlikely to continue
  18. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    As far as it pertains to "the reader" in the abstract, I don't agree. Using Ballas as an example, again, he's just a complete bastard. There's not explanation or justification for it. He's a belligerent, drunken, jerk. Great book, though.
  19. Alex Beecroft

    Alex Beecroft Scribe

    *I* have to like the main character. If I don't like the main character within the first two chapters I put the book down and move on to something else where I do. Life's too short to spend in the heads of unpleasant people. However that doesn't mean you can't have a serial killer MC. It just means you've got to get the reader to like him - maybe he enjoys his work so much that they can't help but enjoy his joie de vivre, or maybe he's been hurt so much they can't help but pity him, or he's got so much that's otherwise good in him that they can't help but wish he could be saved from himself, or he's just so clever that it's a joy watching him work, etc.

    Equally, your character can be likeable without worrying in the slightest that he's a liar, if he's a liar it's fun or cathartic to be around.
  20. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    Okay, I want to point out the other direction, since serial killers is the extreme. I wrote a character who I want to punch in the face, a naive girl who just can't see the light. But, everyone who read her, likes her (though they want to strangle her sometimes). Is she likeable? I dunno, but people can relate to why she is the way she is. And for me, sometimes it's about watching the character change.

    I'm reminded of The Redemption of Althalus - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    which I tried to read twice, and stopped both times. For me, I loved the rogue of a character. The sort of ne'er-do-well, jerk who happens to be so down on his luck, he makes some STOOPID decisions.

    I was a little surprised to see this on the top worst novels, to tell the truth.. but then, I tried it twice and quit.. so whatever.

    My point? Sorry, I was just getting to that, it's 3am here. My point is, that if you have a sort of unlikeable main character, the story is going to make a real difference. It probably doesn't hurt to get us laughing, or writhing in creepy-crawlies. Just get us to react. I'd be offended by a MC who is just sick for no reason. I want to see the art, get into his head and understand why hes deranged or evil, or twisted beyond human (or in my case, childish and delusional). Can I relate to the character? perhaps on some level, but it only takes a few connections to make me interested in his journey. I think an author can do that with any number of unlikeabe characters.

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