In an earlier question I mentioned writing the first arc of my story involving two characters partaking in a journey, with one of them wounded and not fully cognizant. This wounded character is an antihero of sorts, and because of his sleep deprivation, hallucinations, and injury, he's a pretty grumpy fellow. What's more, the character he's traveling with has a hybristophilia of sorts, and tags along with the wounded character on his journey despite him wanting to travel on his own. What concerns me is even though this wounded character is on a journey to fulfill something noble, I don't think he'll be interpreted as a likable character. It always seems that a protagonist must be likable in some way, even if they are an antihero (think Walter White in "Breaking Bad"). Furthermore, because he is pursuing a noble cause, I don't want his character development to be thwarted by the archetype of a mythical hero (you know, the ones lacking personality and just there to save the day). Any advice on this?

How to make any character a little more likable in two easy steps:

Step 1: Create a different, more unlikable character.

Step 2: Have the unlikable character hate or harm the character you want your readers to like.

Result: your readers, who don't want to identify with the more unlikable character, will take the opposite side and the opposite view.

You can expand on this technique by having a likable character change their opinion along with the reader. Be careful, though, because if you push this too far, your writing will seem manipulative to some readers.

Some other, tricker strategies:

Consider your own experience or opinions about people in your life. If one of them did what your character did, or behaved as your character does, what would make you like him anyway?

  1. You know him and already had a good opinion -- give the readers some history or experience with the character as a good guy
  2. He has a reason for the bad characteristics, but doesn't use it as an excuse -- share enough of the backstory that readers can identify with the bad behavior
  3. He is not (always) annoying -- in fiction, murderers can be more likable than someone who constantly whines. Pull back on the annoying elements of his character. You don't want to make him irredeemable
  4. He is entertaining or charming -- if readers are having fun when they read about a character, they're more likely to end up on that character's side

What is it with likeability? Who cares if they are likeable. Are they interesting?

Let's look at some examples. The Sopranos. A bit dated, but hey, whatever. Those characters aren't relatable. They do despicable things for a living. But the fact is, they are interesting. Like a train wreck you can't take your eyes off of.

Another example, though a more controversial one. Suicide Squad. We can debate all day and night if it was a good movie, but that isn't what this is about. The characters are all interesting, uniquely flawed.

Joker is quite frankly incapable of feeling emotion, and likely homicidally insane. And when he essentially abandons Harley in their opening montage, you don't get a very good impression of him. But how he battles against the odds to find her, to save her, to free her. That is someone I can respect all the same.

He isn't likeable. In any way. But he's interesting, and relatable, and you can understand who he is and what he desires. Especially when he pushes Harley out of the falling helicopter to save her, almost as penance for leaving her behind before.

Another example, Guts from Berserk. There's little to like about him. He's essentially carnage and chaos condensed into human form. But I respect him. I respect his resolve, his ability to not go insane with everything going on around him. I respect that he still tries to do right by those he cares about.

So forget likeable. Focus on interesting, focus on relatable, focus on someone I can understand.

  • 1
    Yes! Reframe the question. In fiction, INTERESTING, RELATABLE, UNDERSTANDABLE often = LIKABLE. Except in a Quentin Tarantino film. Those characters are all style...very little substance. Except for Jackie Brown. – Erin Thursby Jun 19 at 23:08

Allow him to be vulnerable.

He is injured, delirious, and probably being followed by a hallucination. It's all he can do to remember he is on this noble quest at all.

Allow him moments when he breaks down and falls apart. Allow him to wonder the same things the reader is wondering. Am I going to make it? Is this even worth it? Allow him to want to just drift off one last time and forget noble causes.

His grumpiness will be understandable if we see that he is under physical and emotional stress. He's naturally going to want to hide it, even from friends and hallucinations. It can be revealed strategically over time.

Metaphorically, he can also be losing bits of his armor and leaving behind weapons and resources he can no longer carry, to make his vulnerability more visceral.

I once heard it said that a hero is interesting because of his flaws, and a villain because of his virtues.

You can create a character who is mentally unsound, if that's what is required for your story, and it will not necessarily make him unrelatable, as long as you create for him some virtues as well.

Sherlock Holmes was not a particularly likable person most of the time, but he was brilliant. This has carried over marvelously in the current BBC series, "Sherlock". Sometimes I find myself really disliking him, but I can't stop watching because his character is fascinating.

Archie Bunker was a complete jerk but many people watched the show because he behaved in ways that they could picture themselves doing. How many of them secretly wanted to refer to the sloppy, overly-idealistic youngsters in their lives as "meathead?" Maybe a lot. Similar to @Dan Hall's answer, if your character meets someone who readers dislike, they will be able to relate to his terrible treatment of that person.

Now, that being said, maybe what you need to do is set the current circumstances (sleep deprivation, health problems, etc) aside, and think seriously about his actual character. What are his virtues and flaws? As an exercise, write a short piece about something nice which he did when he was younger and in better condition. Or something brilliant. Or courageous. Or loyal. If you are having trouble, get yourself a list of virtues and try each one on him to see if it "fits".

You might even rewrite a chapter or two of your story as a what-if: what if this happened while he was feeling better? How would he react differently?

Once you have a good handle on your baseline, go through the chapters with an eye to making it clear how his current condition is creating his grumpiness. Show us how he snaps at people more when his wound is aching and less when it isn't so bad. Show us what he is like when he's not hurting (maybe he gets ahold of a pipe-full of painkilling drugs and it makes him a nicer, more mellow person for a little while).

You are correct in that an unrelentingly unlikable POV is going to turn away a lot of people, but unless you actually want readers to dislike him (and it is clear that you don't) you will attract more readers if you give him likable traits and habits that they can focus on. Once you can answer the question "what is compelling about this person?" you will know what will make readers want to read about him.

A lot of the most compelling and even sympathetic, characters aren't particularly likable, even if you do feel for them as human beings. The first example that comes to my mind is David Gemmell's character Druss. Druss gets a raw deal, repeatedly, throughout his life, you really feel for him on many occasions, but he's also a bit of a dick. He does some really questionable things, and not just in terms of violence or hedonism or anything like that; he does some things that look reasonable from his perspective that are simply callous or even actively cruel.

My point being that "likable" is not necessarily the same as "engaging" characters need to be engaging, readers can care for characters they don't necessarily like if the struggles that character goes through make them sympathetic or relatable.

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