12

I have the feeling this is already been asked, but I can't seem to find it. Close the question if it comes out as duplicate.

There's an issue with novels with a first-person narrator, or a third person limited narrator that doesn't switch point of view. Namely, the reader is stuck for all the novel with the same character.

Does the reader need to like the character? Of course, it seems a nice thing to have, but is it necessary?

Even if the narrator follows just one character, there is usually more that's happening in a novel. The plot. The other characters and their struggles. The worldbuilding.

Are those elements enough to make a story interesting* despite the unlikeablity of the PoV character?

*NB: Interesting, here, means that the readere will keep reading it to the end.

  • 1
    They don't have to like all aspects of a character but they have to like/connect/identify/intrigue with some significant aspects of the character. I can't think of examples of where all aspects of the character are liked. I'm not sure that's optimal for drama. – BSalita Mar 21 at 11:41
  • 1
    If your MC is not likable, the reader has to relate to him in some way. A good example of this is Nightcrawler — Empathy for the Antihero from Lessons from the screenplay. The video essay explains why we are engaged to the character despite him being a monster. – kikirex Mar 21 at 12:23
  • A reader can like being with the MC whether the MC's likable or not if the experience of traveling with that character is enjoyable. (1) This can be done with setting and food, etc. (2) It can be done by having the MC verbalize what they like, even if they are horrible: "I like the feeling of clay in my hands. I like the grey wetness creeping up my sleeves as I work the pot, throwing it again and again until it takes the shape I desire. I like the whole of this, building new from old." That can be anyone talking-a mass murderer. (3) Or, make them hot. That goes a long way too. – DPT Mar 22 at 16:54
  • No, but personally, I generally don't like stories if the main character isn't likable. – ShadoCat Mar 23 at 0:03
8

Some people need to like the MC, yes.

And they don't seem to change their mind just because the writing is good or the situation is original.

Me, I need consistent characters that have believable actions. I can put up with a lot of plot contrivances if the characters are well-written and their motivations make sense. The minute characters behave just to advance the plot or create unearned conflict, it's enough to make me drop the story. I do not expect the ending will have a satisfying payoff, so I usually don't finish. It's a kind of deus ex machina, when characters behave in ways that are convenient for the plot to happen.

Since that's subjective, I'll put it under the same "feeling" as the MC being "unlikeable". They have been written in a way I don't like. I can't state everything I don't like in advance, but it's obvious when I see it.

POV characters need flaws and blindspots (handicaps). Most make mistakes, reveal their prejudices, and need to grow as human beings. In every coming of age story the POV character may be oblivious to how they treat others (but the reader sees around it) – that's not the same as "unlikable". Unlikable implies they have no moral compass and no path to redemption or personality growth at all.

Likable vs Relatable

When we can relate to a character, we give them more leeway on likability.

A villain with a believable motive is going to be a "better" character than an antagonist who exists just to antagonize. But, when the villain's motive is more believable than the hero's – or he is more psychologically nuanced, it undermines reader sympathy. The villain does all the emotional heavy-lifting while the hero is just a foil who floats through the events unchanged.

A different problem happens when a protagonist is too psychologically nuanced. When we can relate to a protagonist, we see their flaws and understand their reasoning, we will forgive some of their indiscretions. But, relatability is not universal. The further you go, the fewer readers will be able to relate – and the character is already unlikable, so it's definitely possible to alienate the reader.

Anecdote: My husband and I watched a melodramatic Bette Davis movie where she was caught between a jealous husband and a controlling lover. At the end my husband said he hated it because "there were no likable characters" (which is valid). But as we discussed it, there was a whole story-level that he had missed because he couldn't relate to her character at all. He didn't understand her flaws or her predicament, so he didn't understand the story was about a complicated character who compounds bad decisions in an amoral world. Had the MC been a detective in a noir movie (under similar circumstances) I believe my husband would have related just fine, and forgiven the un-likable protagonist.

Likability is objective. Hero saves the cat, and is kind to Grandma.

Relatability is subjective. If I can't relate to emo guy who must kill because reasons, I'm just never going to care whether this character lives or dies or accomplishes his goals.

12

Most books written in the first person have a likeable narrator, but it's absolutely not necessary. However, as readers we do have a natural tendency to sympathise with the narrator, and the tension between this sympathy and the moral character of the narrator can be a very effective device.

An interesting example is Nabokov's Lolita, which is not only very popular but also highly critically acclaimed. With the exception of the prologue and epilogue, it is (unreliably) narrated throughout by Humbert Humbert, a narcissistic paedophile who describes in great detail his immoral desires and actions. Nabokov does make him very "likeable" on the surface, very charming and eloquent, but it would be difficult to read the book and actually like him. This leaves the reader in the uncomfortable position of rather enjoying the narrator's company but seeing him as the monster he is. (Note: if you've only seen the film, it's quite different from the book, and treats the Humbert character more sympathetically.)

American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis is also unreliably narrated by a monstrous character, and Timur Vermes's Look Who's Back is actually narrated by Hitler (and was a best-seller in Germany). I'm sure there are many others.

  • The main character in both the UK and US versions of House of Cards would be another great example. Francis/Frank is an objectively horrible human being in both shows (and at least in the US case, the actor was not so great in real life, but that's neither here nor there), but that's what makes the character interesting, which is far more important from a writing perspective than being likable. – Darrel Hoffman Mar 21 at 19:43
  • 1
    And another very interesting one is Alex, the narrator of A Clockwork Orange. – Bob Mar 21 at 22:25
5

Differentiate between unlikeable actions and unlikeable personality

Unlikeable actions would be something like trying to end all of humanity. If the character is charismatic I would root for him. I would want to find out if he can do it and how he does it, always thinking about if he will change sides somewhere in the book or if he actually manages to stay evil till the end. Think of a character like The Joker from Batman.

What would be an unlikeable personality? Think of a spoiled child. Somewhere in the book the child picks a fight with a stranger, loses, starts to cry and calls mommy for help. Would I want to read that from the childs POV? No. Would I want to read an entire book with Geoffrey from Game of Thrones as the POV character? Certainly not.

I would argue that you only need a character with a likeable personality.

In truth however, you can get away with more than you think

Even if your MC is a jerk, the readers will still learn to love them over the course of the book since they are always exposed to their way of thinking and will quickly accept the way they do things.

I would rather want the MC to be a jerk, than to be boring.

  • 2
    I think this nails it pretty well. A lot of stories have bad guy MCs and we get to see their perspective from time to time and it's interesting. We don't want to be their friend and they are still evil but it's often an interesting perspective. Sometimes, though, a character is just so aggravating, stupid or otherwise annoying that it's hard to stand anything from their POV even if they're the "good guy". I actually stopped reading the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant because I could not stand Thomas Covenant. – JamieB Mar 21 at 22:11
4

Not necessarily, but usually.

Almost any "rule" that one could give about writing has exceptions. If you break the rules and do it well, you can have a particularly off-beat and interesting story.

But most of the rules were invented because people found that following them tends to make a better story.

In general, the reader identifies with the narrator. The reader thinks of the narrator as his friend, maybe even as his own alter-ego. So you want the narrator to be likable. (He doesn't have to be perfect, of course. It's often the character's flaws, and how he overcomes those flaws or succeeds in spite of those flaws, that make him interesting.)

CAN you write a story where the narrator is an evil person? Or perhaps less dramatically, simply a dislikable person, rude or lazy or whatever? Sure. And if you do it well, it could be a great story, turning a common convention on its head for dramatic effect.

But it's hard to pull off. If you don't do it well, the story is simply unpleasant. If the narrator-villain is constantly justifying himself, as we would expect a villain to do, then the story sounds like it's advocating this sort of behavior. If he doesn't justify himself, it sounds unrealistic. The reader won't identify with the narrator because no one thinks of himself as a villain. The reader is an outside observer instead of a participant.

As I say, if you do it well, you might drag the reader in anyway. You might get him thinking, "Yes, that's the sort of person I might have been if it weren't for ..." But it's hard.

4

No

The POV character does not have to be liked by the reader, and lots of examples to the contrary have already been listed in the other answers.

But a POV character needs something else - he needs to be consistent. As we can look inside of him more than non-POV characters (even if we don't get to read his thoughts), the reader will be much more sensitive to any inconsistencies, sudden changes of motive, behaviour inconsistent with previous actions and other details that we can glance over successfully for 3rd person characters.

And internal consistency has a funny effect on most people. We have a special ability of social animals: We can imagine ourselves in someone elses place. We can answer the "what would he do?" question inside our head. We have empathy. And if we follow someone for some time, experiencing the world from his perspective, we typically develop sympathy for him. This is not the same as likeability, but unless you are a psychopath is an automatic effect that is difficult to avoid. Proverbs such as "to walk a mile in someones shoes" refer to this.

Because of this, the POV character does not have to be liked by the reader, but he needs to be able to derive some sympathy for him.

3

I think the reader has to like the POV character. Everything is seen through their eyes and thoughts and feelings. If those are repellent to the reader, they cannot identify, and without that, I think they will give up on the story.

Maybe there are writers out there that could pull it off. I know I've seen alternating chapters from an evil antagonist's point of view, but these just raised the stakes for the MC, let us know the villain had anticipated their plan and the MC was walking into a trap. But you see, in that case, we began with a likable MC, and that is who we cared about, and that is who we wanted to see succeed.

I don't think an entire novel from the villain's POV would ever let us engage with the innocents or heroes in the story and see their personality enough to keep going. At least, I would not be the audience for that.

3

An example of an interesting story with an unlikeable/unsympathetic POV character is The Stranger, by Albert Camus. The POV character (Meursault) is fairly detached from the action - there's no emotion there. There's nothing for the reader to relate to. He just bounces from one situation to another, apparently feeling nothing.

The book starts with Meursault attending his mother's funeral. He doesn't show any sign of grief, or any emotion at all. He doesn't even know how old she was. Just "I'm tired and my legs are cramping." He goes on to commit a pointless murder - again, no emotion.

Which makes his trial interesting - he's basically convicted for being unsympathetic, rather than for having committed murder.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.