Story loves heroes. Beowulf conquers Grendel (also his mom). Even to solve money problems, Elizabeth Bennet refuses to marry an oaf she doesn’t love. Amy Tan’s protagonists ultimately transcend erroneous judgements about themselves and others.
Is the writer’s task to reveal the entire picture of a character, including hideous fantasies and metaphorical warts, or will that drive writers away? The best answer: Yes. Also no.
Some fiction tracks immoral anti-heroes with perfidious secrets. In Ian McEwan’s Solar, Michael Beard is a Nobel prize-winning physicist who has bottomed out, both professionally and romantically. And here’s a snapshot of Nino Ricci’s protagonist in The Origin of Species:
Alex wondered why he was following this man around like his pet. It was better than just going stir crazy out here was what he told himself. But it wasn’t just that. Somehow, the more time he spent with Desmond and the more reasons he amassed to detest him, the more he felt in his thrall. He wasn’t sure what sort of pathology might lie behind this, if he was drawn to him because they were so different or because he thought them the same.
Throughout this novel, the reader (or at least this one) keeps yelling, “No, don’t do it!” Yet, over and over, Alex makes the worst possible choice. Psychologically, perhaps that’s cause for cheer, as in, “I’d never make that mistake.” Emotional engagement comes not from admiring the character, but wanting to help while secretly believing we could do better.
In “How to Make Unlikable Characters Likable,” Jessica Brody offers this advice:
Tip 1: Give your hero one redeeming quality or action (even if it’s small) at the beginning of the story.Tip 2: Give your hero an enemy…a really evil one.Tip 3: Make us “love to hate” them.
Does that always work? The unlikable protagonist functioning as unreliable narrator in Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs generated a literary uproar. Here’s the author’s response: “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’ ”
Though Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings produced no uproar, she agreed: “One thing I’ve noticed that’s a kind of disturbing trend is fiction about and by women who the reader is meant to feel ‘comfortable’ around—what I call slumber party fiction—as though the characters are stand-ins for your best friends.” So likable has its place, as does discomfiting.
If the best fiction changes same-old into new, then making sure your protagonist is likable might be the safest but not necessarily best bet. How can you keep readers turning pages?
- Dark secrets must be insightful and universal—not just ugly.
- Both character strengths and weaknesses must feel like part of a whole being.
- Readers need to feel compassion before they encounter unappealing traits.
- Justification for questionable choices and behavior promotes empathy.
Tip: If characters seem whole and alive, readers are more apt to tolerate their shortcomings.