What happens when you create a main character who’s not very likeable? Does it matter? Isn’t it interesting for the reader to find out why he/she is unlikable? Wouldn’t the fact that the character changes and becomes OK by the end of the story make the reader keep reading?
This is an eternal question. It relates more than anything to why we read. We read for pleasure and enjoyment, so why would we choose to read about someone who makes us feel uncomfortable or annoyed. We read for escapism, to get away from the negative things in our lives, so we probably don’t want to read about a negative character. We read to find out about interesting characters, their lives and what happens to them — in the process, we grow to care about them and want them to be happy (like we want to be happy). Unlikable? Don’t care.
So mostly, the answers to those initial questions are no. Except for the one about redemption, but in that case the writer has to work really hard to keep the reader somehow empathizing with the main character from the beginning. It’s all to easy to close the book or skip to the next one on your e-reader.
There are always exceptions to this, and the one that everyone tends to quote is the guy in American Psycho. Because lots of people read that book, or said they did. But did they read it to find out what happened to the main character, whether he came good? Or because it was so violent and disgusting that they were waiting for him to get his come-uppance? Some people read it because it was cool to say you had. I’ve never heard of anyone, even reviewers, who said they liked it, and really liked the main character. (If you do, don’t tell me!)
Like is probably a misleading word. What we usually talk about is empathy — we feel something for the main character, perhaps pity or some kind of identification, and we grow to care about what happens to them. But the writer has to give us something in the first few pages to latch onto. Something hopeful. Something that suggests this character has another side that we might like if we’re let into it a bit more. We keep reading because we hope the character will redeem him/herself, show they aren’t so bad, show they can change, show that they will come to understand the world and themselves a little more.
There’s a well-known screenwriting book called Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. The title literally means the character should ‘save the cat’ early in the story in order to show their positive side. To show us good things are possible with this person. A movie I often use in class to demonstrate structure, Sixteen Blocks, also demonstrates this facet. The guy is a has-been, alcoholic cop who’s given a simple job — get a felon to the courthouse on time. The cop ‘saves the cat’ when he saves the felon’s life early on, showing us that underneath the slob we see still beats the heart of a hero.
The most common reaction to an unlikable main character is to stop reading. Who cares if he/she dies? Wins through? Changes on Page 299? If we’re up to Page 20 and the character is awful or stupid or apathetic or depressing, we stop. Plenty more books out there. As writers, the last thing we want is a reader giving up on our book.
The key questions to ask yourself as you write are: why is your main character unlikable? Was it intentional? If so, especially if you intend redemption later in the story, how can you show a glimmer of hope early in the story? If it wasn’t intentional, I would suggest you yourself don’t much like your character — yet. You haven’t got a handle on them, you can’t get deep into their thoughts and feelings yet, and you don’t really know why they (and not another character) are in your story. Sometimes we have to write our way into loving our character/s, which takes time and work. But it’s work you need to do. You may find my Medium article on interviewing your character helpful.
This question came up for me because of a book I’ve just read, The Watchman by Robert Crais. If you’re a Crais fan, you’ll know that his detective is Elvis Cole, whose sidekick is Joe Pike. Inscrutable, iron-faced, unfeeling Pike. Now Pike gets a book all of his own, with Cole as the back-up. If you want to read something where the main character is unemotional, cold-blooded, and acts like a machine, and then see how the writer gradually unpeels him, little by little, to reveal his vulnerable side, this is the book for you.
Crais never overdoes it. All the way through, Pike remains the consummate soldier of fortune, able to kill without compunction when required. Yet every so often, we see a little crack of light, and even though most readers probably won’t finish the book “liking” Pike, I think they’ll understand him better and feel that empathy I mentioned.
More importantly, you can use a book like this to examine how the writer does it. Underline or highlight every tiny instance where Crais shows us the vulnerable snippets of Pike. It’s not impossible to have an unlikable main character, but it takes a lot of thought and writing skill to make it work without putting the reader off. Learn from the books that do it well.