Making a likable protagonist

by Mingly

Question: My protagonist in my current story is a teenage girl. The story is told in first person from her point of view. In a nutshell, she has low self-esteem, is sorta pessimistic, witty, and hopeful. I feel like the only way to express her flaws is for her to whine about everything but nowadays no one really likes a whiny female lead. How do I make the reader care for my protagonist throughout the story and make her less whiny?

Answer: It sounds like you've made a good start by giving her flaws and anxieties which the reader can relate to.

What you might consider next is making her admirable or "cool." See if you can give her a strength - a special talent, skill, or unique way of seeing the world. Something no other character has and that makes her the uniquely able to lead the pursuit of the story goal.

I agree that someone who just whines about problems can be a bit dull. But a character who demonstrates strength despite her problems becomes heroic.

Sometimes a character can also become a little more likeable by making moral choices. We tend to like characters who stand up for others who are vulnerable, especially if it is not an easy choice.

You might also think of the type of person you might admire if/when you were the age of your readers.

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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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Are Dark characters unlikable?

by Uchiha Sasuke

Question: My main character has an extremely dark and emotionally traumatic past, and it has made him him extremely dark and pessimistic in the current story line. He is going to heal throughout the story, but until maybe the last fourth of the book he's very dark. I think this is realistic, but Is this really unlikable?

Answer: There are plenty of dark tormented characters with huge fanbases. Batman, the Silver Surfer, and Rorschach are three that come to mind from the comic books. Ebenezer Scrooge, Captain Hook, Sherlock Holmes, Malcolm Reynolds (from Firefly), Richard Blaine (from Casablanca) and the Phantom of the Opera are popular, despite being pretty morose.

Many of these characters fall into the category of the Byron-esque hero, which is a superior person who has become disillusioned with others of his class (perhaps because of tragedy or betrayal) and instead now lives the life of a criminal or vigilante, surrounded by those he deems beneath him, and occasionally seeking revenge on the corrupt elite. Such characters, despite their villainy or lawbreaking in some areas, hold to a strong morality in other areas. They tend to be intelligent, powerful, proud loners.

The appeal of such characters lies in the fact that many intelligent people find the illusions that keep society together to be shallow or false. Many people have had tragic, disillusioning events in their lives such as coming from a broken home, fighting in a war, being betrayed by someone they trusted. They can therefore empathize with a dark hero more than a traditional idealistic hero.

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Character Likeability

Question: For one of my character's arcs I plan on having him, for lack of a better term, become kind of a jerk after being disillusioned one too many times. Because of his new more confrontational attitude, he drifts away from his friends.

However, I do want to have him regain his original morals and reconcile with the main character after the main character gives him a taste of how much he had hurt the people who care about him in a kind of "if you kick me while I'm down, I'll do the same to you, but now I consider us even."

But I'm not quite sure how to make the reader acknowledge that this character is being just plain mean yet not have them dislike him so much that they wouldn't accept his reformation later on.

Answer: If you want the reader to see your character as mean, go ahead and show him doing mean things.

Readers will accept his later reformation as long as you show what causes his reformation. As long as they can understand why he changes, and what made him mean in the first place - because the evidence is illustrated in the story - then it will make sense to them.

The key is to not leave out any step in the character's arc. Don't have him suddenly behaving differently for no understandable reason. Show the forces driving the change, and crisis that forces the change itself, and the resolution of the crisis.

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by Ashy

Question: How can I make my character likable? What can I do make sure readers care about my characters?

Answer: There are a few basic methods to create a character readers like and care about, all of which have empathy at their root. For instance...

1. Make the character similar to your ideal reader. This is not always possible (or desirable) in literary fiction, but it's quite common in certain genres. For instance, women's fiction and romance usually feature a female main character of similar age to the reader. In Young Adult and Children's fiction, the narrators are usually teens or preteens.

In taking this approach, you want to give your main character problems and situations that your ideal reader can relate to.

One reason people read books is for the experience of seeing how fictional characters handle the same issues or difficulties they themselves are wrestling with, or people they know are wrestling with. It's easier to empathize with someone like oneself.

More specifically...

2. Give the character values and strengths the reader admires. Make the character someone the ideal reader wishes he/she could be. This increases empathy, because the reader already imagines him/herself being in such a character's shoes. We all like to imagine ourselves stronger, better, smarter, more successful, and more virtuous than we are.

3. Give the character weaknesses and flaws the reader can relate to. Perfect people are hard to relate to because they are so unlike us. So in addition to admirable qualities, giving your main character flaws the reader can relate to will also increase empathy and likability. For example, Harry Potter may be brave, selfless, and good at sports, but he doesn't get top marks in school and he doesn't know how to talk to girls -- traits many teenage boys can relate to. While it's true that most teenage girls do not have to compete in anything like The Hunger Games the way Katniss does, they do understand having to navigate a world where everyone expects you to be something you're not, where you can't always know who's your friend and who's your enemy, and where you're pressured to have a boyfriend you may not love just so others will approve of you.

4. Make your main character unique. Most people have a quirky friend who they can count on to see the world differently or behave differently than everyone else in their life. We like unique people because they break the monotony. Empathy works here because most of us wear a certain mask to fit in with our friends, while secretly wishing we could just be ourselves. We like people who let their uniqueness show because we secretly wish we were brave enough to do the same. (This goes back to the second point.)

5. Make your character charming. This works especially well in first person narration where the main character treats the reader as their confidant. Even if the main character is a complete villain and his explanations of why he does things make no sense, it's flattering to have him tell you his secrets. You can't help like the character more for that.

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Disliked Characters

Question: I'm trying to create a character that will be disliked by some of the characters and be hopefully not so appealing to the reader. But I don't want it to seem like I'm just making him a complete piece of trash to force that impact. Is there a way to make a disliked character a "complete" person yet still get that unpleasant vibe?

Answer: In this respect, characters in a book should mirror characters in real life.

Everyone believes they are a good person and most people want to be seen as good by others. A person can be liked by friends and family, but still make plenty of enemies.

You may only need one issue, one thing about your character, that makes the reader and some of the characters dislike him. It could be a habit of acting a certain way in certain situations - an insensitivity, a disregard for others, or any of the seven deadly sins (wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony). Okay, maybe gluttony is politically incorrect these days, but perhaps we could stick "bragging" in its place, as that can tick some people off, or "selfishness," "unfriendliness," etc. It could be something big or something small, depending on how disliked you want the character to be.

Again, depending on your story, it could be something he did a long time ago that certain people know about. He may even have changed since then, but everyone who remembers the incident still blames him for it. In that respect, some characters can be disliked for something they didn't actually do but were blamed for nonetheless.

Even if your character is evil in a big way, softening him a little in one aspect or situation can actually make him seem nastier (like the way Ernst Blofeld in the James Bond films shows affection for his pet cat).

See, you are free, as the writer, to stack the deck against your character a little or a lot and just as much as you need.

But I do agree with you that characters who are evil through and through are rare in real life and come across as two-dimensional in stories. Even Hitler had a wife who it seems cared something for him (though she did attempt suicide twice during their relationship).

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How would I make a perfectionist Main Character likeable?

Question: So I have a main character who is a perfectionist. All he is focused on is bettering himself, which, in a way makes him selfish. However, he is brave, and is willing to take on any task. How do I make him be likeable and relatable?

Answer: Is he a bully who demands perfection from others? Or is he hardest on himself? Most people, perfectionist or not, are hardest on themselves. We can therefore empathize with someone who is putting himself through hell over his imperfections.

Does he think he is better than others? Or does he think he is inferior and all his striving for self-improvement has the goal of helping him to feel okay about himself?

Does his desire for perfection come from a dislike of others and a desire to set himself apart, or does he in fact care a lot about others and want to improve himself so that he can help others?

People tend to like underdogs, because just about everyone feels like an underdog. We dislike perfectionists when they are judgmental--looking down on people who don't meet their standards, because we empathize with the people who are being looked down on. But when a perfectionist means well, is a good person, but feels inadequate, we usually find them more likeable.

An obvious example (which I quote a lot because most people are familiar) is Hermione in the Harry Potter series. She is certainly a perfectionist, very hard on herself, but also cares a lot about her friends. Many teenage girls can relate to her because many teenage girls have plenty of their own self-doubts which they try to overcome by doing things right.

When someone is afraid (and fear is the basis of low self-esteem) they often want simple solutions. For instance, they think that if they follow certain rules and get everything right that will make things okay and they won't have to feel afraid. It usually doesn't work, because you can always find some little imperfection, and getting everything right doesn't actually solve the anxiety. The quest for perfection usually leads to greater anxiety.

Usually, a better solution is to recognize that you are safe despite your imperfections, that the threats you perceive aren't such a big deal, and to let go of anxiety, but people often don't see this. Nonetheless, as long as someone doesn't let their anxiety cause them to attack others, they can be likeable.

Comments for How would I make a perfectionist Main Character likeable?

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I havent fully decided, but i have an idea of how he should be.

Thanks for your answer, Glen!
I was thinking that he would be both hard on himself and hard on others, especially his younger brother. His younger brother doesnt feel as strongly as he does, so i'm thinking the audience will automatically empathize wih the younger brother. But, at the end of act 1, the younger brother dies, and the older one regrets acting that way to his brother, and that regret and desire for revenge essentially is what sends him on his adventure, which is the main story.

So basically would it work to have the audience root for one character, and then suddenly empathize with the character they used to dislike? And would they feel more empathy throughout the story if the character eventually came to terms with his over-perfections and regret mixed together.

But again i dont know exactly if that would work, and if it would be good enough to drive the whole story? Or would that be too confusing and unlikeable for the readers?

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