How to have a manipulate, selfish main character that is still likeable?

by Cassidy

Question: My main character is a teenager from a wealthy, yet dysfunctional family, and is very manipulative, cunning, selfish, and lies a lot, and throughout the story, as he realizes that he and the antagonist (who has done horrible things that even a narcissist like my main character knows are wrong) share many similar personality traits. How would I portray my main character as such a cold, selfish person, while not making him unlikable?

Answer: You might start by asking yourself what makes your main character different from your villain.

It's fine to have an immoral main character (a thief, a murderer, a con artist, a pirate, etc.), so long as you show that he is better than the villain.

For instance, you might give him something to fight for that makes him sympathetic (e.g. to help an innocent). He might have a sense of honour or personal values. He might be loyal to his friends or underlings. He might have a line he will not cross which the villain does.

If you can't make your hero good, at least make your villain worse. For instance, in the animated film Megamind, the main character is a supervillain always trying to defeat his enemy, a superhero. But there are rules and limits to his villainy. So when the supervillain accidentally creates a villain far more threatening to the story world, the main character ends up taking on the role of hero.

Bear in mind that readers will relate to your character according to their own sense of values. Some people like the main character of A Clockwork Orange, others see him as an immoral rapist/murderer. To some, Dracula is a monster, to others he's romantic. Some people love the main character of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, I personally have the opposite reaction.

But if you can empathize with your hero, despite his villainy, that's a good sign.

Another thing you can do is make your main character charming. This works well if you are writing in first person. He can then talk to the reader as if they are best friends. He can share jokes, confess his true feelings, etc. This can create a warm bond with the character.

Best of luck.

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