Episode 124: Do You Have to Like the Main Character?

On December 4, 2020, Kasie and Rex took on the idea of creating likable characters. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Likeable Characters


  • Join our community on Patreon
  • Famously hated protagonists
  • Do you need your reader to like the MC?
  • Devices to get readers to like your protagonist
Funny? Handsome? Kind to animals? You’ve got a protagonist!
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

Link to the podcast

Segment 1

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I thought we’d start with just a whine-fest all around the characters we all love to hate. I went to Twitter and asked people for recommendations and googled it (of course) and came up with these:

(this list

  • Dolores Umbridge (Harry Potter)
  • Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights)
  • Bella Swan (Twilight)
  • Patrick Bateman (American Psycho)
  • Daisy Buchanan (The Great Gatsby)
  • Humbert Humbert (Lolita)

(and this list)

  • Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye)
  • The Narrator (Fight Club)
  • Alex (A Clockwork Orange)

Is there a difference between “mischief” and “untamed” and troublemaking” like Jo March and the psychopathic manifestation of Patrick Bateman’s insecurities?

Is there a difference between necessary rebellion like Lily Bart (The House of Mirth) and the total amorality of Alex and his gang in A Clockwork Orange?

Segment 2

Some readers just like the “baddies” like this link.

Sometimes our hero needs a foil — the complete opposite in nearly every way. Someone to contrast with our hero, show what’s so great about the hero, and make the reader question the hero’s wants and desires.

As this link explains, the foil is not the antagonist because his/her actions do not deliberately deter or complicate things for the hero. A foil reveals parts of the hero’s character, but does not necessarily oppose the hero. Think Tom Sawyer (led by a sense of fun and adventure) and Huck Finn (led by a wobbly moral compass).

Is the foil necessarily evil? Not if the protagonist is the baddie. 

So baddie heros can be endearing and some are even raised to the level of icon. Think Edna from The Awakening. She was a nonconformist in an era when books were burned for having such protagonists (this link). Anna Karenina qualifies as an equally frustrating heroine. So why do we like her?

What is it about a character that makes them likeable? (this link)

  • Not being too vile or mean
  • Not being too perfect or good
  • Not being too annoying or crass
  • Having a backbone or agency
  • Having a goal and being persistent
  • Having other “good” characteristics (modest, courageous, kind, fair, funny dependable)
  • Having complexity (history, skills, fears, quirks)
  • Having a suitable name
  • Responding the way we expect people to (outrage, anger, grief, etc.)
  • Learning and growing as the story goes on (stop making the same stupid choices)
  • Being good looking — you don’t want to spend the whole book with someone unfortunate looking, do you?

Segment 3

Why do they need to be likeable? 

  • You want to forgive them for making bad decisions.
  • You want to care what happens to them.
  • You want to see them overcome their own flaws.
  • You want to see them overcome the obstacles put in their way.
  • When they fail, you’ll be sad.
  • When they’re in danger, you’ll be worried.

Are we too concerned that they are? (this link)

Is wanting them to be “likable” a mark of novice writers and commercial readers?

Or are we looking for companions in the work? Others we can identify as representative of parts of ourself and, in liking them, feel better about ourselves?

If we want characters to be “alive” does that mean they are engaging? Entertaining? Amusing? Or real?

Isn’t relatable a synonym for real and, as such, doesn’t it necessarily mean somewhat boring? Somewhat mundane? Expected? Normal?

But is likable the same thing as “relatable”? (this link)

Segment 4

Ways to make the character likeable (in small, “save the cat” kind of moments):


Grief (or some other shared humane motion)

Show how they treat people

Ways to create sympathetic characters (in big, overall plot kinds of ways):

  • Give the character a “great need” — Luke is desperate to leave Tatooine, right? Motivation gains empathy because we’ve all had a need, too.
  • Give the character “conflicting motivations” — Luke also feels a sense of duty to the people who raised him
  • Give the character limits — skills not yet developed, fears or phobias, things that prevent them from being capable of fully achieving their goal without changing first
  • Make the character a friend to animals — caring for creatures or kicking them is an easy distinction between a character’s goodness or evil
  • Write from the character’s POV — is it enough to just be in their head? Holden Caulfield? Debatable.
  • Backstory — everyone loves an orphan
  • Believable, relatable flaws (extensive list here) — greed, stupidity, easily frightened, easily fooled
  • Give the character self-awareness — he’s a coward and he knows it; she’s a cheat and she knows it
  • Give the character confidence — that he will succeed, that he will be forgiven, that he will get away with it; when the character believes in himself, we will believe in him
  • Give them admirable traits — loyalty, modesty, friendliness, patience — just remember to demonstrate these things, don’t just tell us about them
  • Give the character useful skills — brains, not beauty unless beauty can be used

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