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I am often hearing / reading that the main character of your story should be likable or even if flawed should be something about them to get the reader behind them or to "root" for them, or they should learn and be redeemed by the end - whatever happens, the reader should get behind them at some point - at least that's the impression I get.

However, does this really need to be the case? And if so, why? The obvious answer is usually "as long as you have a compelling / interesting / engaging enough story / character then it's OK to have an unlikable character", but this suggests that all other things being equal, your character should be likable. (That you need the rest of the story to be better to compensate for the unlikable character)

In my idea, the protagonist is a bit of a dick - he's selfish, arrogant and grumpy, and tries to find blame in others for everything wrong with his life. He commits one uncharacteristically heroic act at the beginning of the story, where he saves the secondary character's life when it would have been safer for him to just run away, but that's about it - and there isn't a hint of modesty about that, BTW. He doesn't redeem himself at the end, and dies thanks to his own arrogance.

(The secondary character gets a bit of character development and does end up subtlely redeeming herself by the end alright.)

But is this considered bad writing practice, and if so, why?

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    Thomas Covenant (The White Gold Wielder) was supremely unlikable protagonist. I understand the books sold well anyway. I remember I kept reading hoping he would change/improve but he never did... :( – Arluin Oct 5 '20 at 21:31
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    Read "Filth" by Irvine Welsh: there's hardly anything likeable about the protagonist. – IMil Oct 6 '20 at 0:06
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    @Arluin: most people like The Land better than they like Covenant. – jmoreno Oct 6 '20 at 1:35
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    Why would the reader be interested in your book? If people are dicks, we stop caring about them and aren't friends with them in real life. if your main character is unlikeable, why would i want to go on a journey with them? Thats the question you need to figure out. If the journey itself is so interest8ing that I'll stay on despite the main character, fine. But if not, you lost me. On the other hand, if the story is flawed but the main character is relatable, I might stay on to see how it turns out for the fella. – Polygnome Oct 6 '20 at 6:48
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    I stopped reading the Thomas Covenant series after book three or so because I found the protagonist so horrible. It was a compelling world, but I hated the protagonist and found no reason to relate to him. And a protagonist should be relatable. I have a suggestion for your book: make the secondary character the protagonist. – NomadMaker Oct 7 '20 at 13:18
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"He's selfish, arrogant and grumpy, and tries to find blame in others for everything wrong with his life." Other than the blame, he sounds like Dr Gregory House and Dr House managed to engage people enough to survive 8 seasons on TV.

I would argue that the main character doesn't have to be "likeable" as much as "relatable". If people recognize their own traits or those of someone they know then they are interested in them, whether they like / approve of those traits or not. You say the character is selfish - we all have the impulse to be selfish at times, and can even secretly wish we were more inclined to say no when we end up helping a friend-of-a-friend move for the third time in 6 months.

You clearly find something interesting enough about this character to want to spend your time writing about them. Consider why you are interested and be sure that those aspects are the ones that come across. Adding somewhat more "likeable" characters like your secondary character and showing why they are interested / friendly with the main character will also help.

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    Sherlock holmes does not have a likeable personality either. But maybe they put watson in there as a compromise. And with House you have doctor Cameron that kind of fulfils the same roll. – SirDuckduck Oct 6 '20 at 14:45
  • @SirDuckduck Personally I do find Sherlock Holmes likable, which is one of the reasons I enjoy the stories so much. Likability of a character is definitely subjective. – gardenhead Oct 6 '20 at 15:42
  • @SirDuckduck Interesting you mention Sherlock, because Dr House's character was based on him. It was subtle enough that I never caught on until they mentioned it in the pre-finale documentary. They also said his best friend Dr Wilson was the one intended to be our "Watson", though I agree Cameron was much more prominent in earlier seasons. – Harry Tsai Oct 6 '20 at 16:22
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    I don't know about Sherlock Holmes, but I think with House you can always see that what House is doing is ultimately in the best interests of the patient and whenever he does something unreasonable it is in an entertaining way. – DKNguyen Oct 6 '20 at 22:05
  • Yes, House had any number of negative character traits, but he was competent. He liked to cure people, I think because that meant he won. In reality, no hospital would want to be associated with him because of the extremely law suite protection. And I think this level of unreality made the character acceptable. – NomadMaker Oct 7 '20 at 13:25
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The readers need to care.

If the protagonist is likable, that is one reason to care.

If the protagonist is not likeable, you need to give the readers something else to care about.

This is difficult, but not impossible.

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    +1. The length of the story matters a lot as well. A longer story is going to need me to care more and the way for me to maximally care is to have a character that it likable enough that we want them to survive/succeed/etc. A short story might replace caring about the character with curiosity about the character -- a mystery: why is this unlikeable character living in this town and why do people not universally hate him, say. But that's much weaker sauce. The key is: don't write a story that's really creative because it breaks the rules. No one cares about that. – Wayne Oct 6 '20 at 20:15
  • @Wayne it also depends on how unlikable a character is. If the character is arrogant, but is good at what he does, and still helps people, even if it's for their own sakes, it still allows the reader to care for them, or to be interested in them. On the other hand, if the main character is a neo-nazi going around murdering people because of their religion, it would be a lot tougher to get the reader to be invested in the story. – user3399 Oct 8 '20 at 13:35
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You can do this, but I think you have to ask what you're hoping to achieve by doing so.

When you say:

The obvious answer is usually "as long as you have a compelling / interesting / engaging enough story / character then it's OK to have an unlikable character", but this suggests that all other things being equal, your character should be likable.

I think this can be true - to an extent at least. People will tolerate an unlikable character if the story is enjoyable in spite of them, but perhaps a better way to think about it is that it's OK to have a deliberately unlikable character if the character is sufficiently compelling, interesting or engaging.

The difficulty bar for pulling that off the main character is particularly high as by definition the reader is going to be spending so much time with them and how we experience a story is going to be inextricably linked with how we experience the main character(s) - I'm fairly sure for example that a substantial factor in my enduring disdain for A Catcher in the Rye is down to how much I loathed Holden Caulfied.

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    I'm relieved that I'm not the only one who loathes Holden Caulfied! When my 10th grade English teacher assigned A Catcher in the Rye, she said we would be able to relate to him... Yeah, no. I was not an angsty teenager with lots of money, a broken home, or a complete inability to face his problems. If I read the book today as an adult, I might sympathize with his plight, but back then, I just wanted to toss the book into the garbage because I couldn't stand Holden Caulfied. – Ohndei Oct 5 '20 at 20:58
  • @Ohndei FWIW, having just read re-read it, I'm less sympathetic today than I was back then. – Strawberry Oct 6 '20 at 10:06
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    @Ohndei: In my experience, the fastest way to ruin a book for somebody (especially a teenager) is to force them to read it. – Kevin Oct 6 '20 at 17:53
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    @Kevin That's true, but it seems like a lot of people who don't like (The/A) Catcher in the Rye really hate it, unlike the usual situation where students just get bored of a required book, or find it uninteresting. (I am one of the haters FWIW) – David Z Oct 7 '20 at 3:37
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    @Kevin I'm sure that effect is real - I can't pin that as the cause for myself though, I read the book voluntarily (as an adult) and ended up incredulous at the pedestal that the majority of world seems to put it on. It's easily in my bottom 5 books of all time, and probably a strong contender for the coveted bottom spot. – motosubatsu Oct 7 '20 at 9:18
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What's important is that the character is comprehensible. A character who does horrible things is one thing; a character who does horrible things for no apparent reason is quite another. It's the former we typically see.

Maybe they think they're doing the right thing; maybe they feel slighted by a perceived injustice; maybe they have an inflated sense of their own importance, or a poor appreciation of what others are going through, allowing them to see themselves as the victim; maybe they've been through horrible things that warped what good was in them before; maybe they've tried to be good, but gave up on it because they were inept at it or it get blowing up in their face; maybe some prejudice in others leads to a presumption they'll be bad, so they just give in.

As an author, you should know what the reason is; put it in your literary iceberg. The deeper your own understanding of the character, the more organic their flaws will come across in the writing. You may even find the character becomes morally greyer as you continue. This is especially likely if a first-person narrative lets us see the thoughts behind vile actions. I remember writing a character I intended to come across as evil and dangerous and frightening, only for a beta reader who didn't know that to praise me for how sympathetic they were. That kind of happy accident is when you know you're on the right track.

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  • Just to add, one facet of being comprehensible is that the character behaves in a way and does things that "reasonable" in the sense of the character and in the eyes of the audience's perception of the character. If they do something unreasonable, then it has to be entertaining or charismatic because if it's not then it's just repugnant. – DKNguyen Oct 6 '20 at 21:55
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I recently read through the short story Trapalanda by Charles Sheffield. In the 25-page or so story, the main character is rather unlikeable. He is selfish, sexist, and jealous of another disabled character. These are all bad traits, but they, along with the premise, make the story interesting regardless.

What's more, over the course of the story, we learn why the main character is the way he is. And although these revelations don't change how we feel about who the character is, it does help justify why he is. And these revelations, coupled with the fact that the story is written from a first-person perspective, mean we grow to understand and relate to the main character even when we may not agree with his choices.

Finally, without going into too much detail, the main character does not really complete his journey. The story leaves off on a positive note, but putting some thought into what lies ahead of him makes it seem pretty futile that he will achieve his goals. That being said, there is a narrative arc, and we see the completion of the journey through the lens of the other characters in the story.

I think these points definitely prove that a main character can be unlikeable, especially at first, but over the course of the story, if we get hooked by the premise, learn to relate to the character, and see the completion of the journey, then it's still a good story. If you ask me if I enjoyed reading through Trapalanda, my answer is yes, even if I didn't like the main character.

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Psychologically, people like stories that have a conclusion or resolution - this is why books ending entirely on a 'cliffhanger' (other than as part of a series or other longer storyline) are relatively uncommon.
In this case, a lot depends on how irritating your character is to the reader. The two best options are either a) a largely likeable character with a couple of failings (that probably make him more relatable to), or b) a character so horrible that the reader doesn't mind when he dies. Anything in between those extremes won't be impossible to write about, but subconsciously the reader will be looking for a solution that involves overcoming the bad character traits, so his death won't be a satisfactory ending at the end of the book as he never 'redeemed' his character traits.

Another possible way of gearing the story would be to have others slowly discover that this character is bad over the course of the story, so that their final discovery and his death at the end are the solution. However that calls into question whether or not he's the main character.

TL;DR Your main character doesn't have to be likeable, but it helps a lot if by the end of the story he's either liked or disliked to a pretty strong extent.

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No.

He can actually be a monster with very little redeeming features and be completely unrepentant, and it can still make for a gripping story.

Consider Hannibal Lecter.

He is noted as the main antagonist the first novels, and becoming a protagonist in the third only, however, in all the novels he is much more of a main character than anybody else in them.

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In tales well told we should see two main elements: the raw story and the writer’s skill, linked largely by the characters… the more so in fiction. That makes needing the rest to be better to compensate for the unlikable character axiomatic.

Never ye mind no Jack Sparrow nor Long John Silver, Jim Lad. Cast your eye on real pirates like Drake or Raleigh, Morgan or Lafitte. Thieving cut-throats, one and all yet seen by history as heroes who risked everything to save their people.

In fiction, what about Flashman, elevated to serial stardom precisely since his progenitor saw the selfish, bullying rogue as more interesting than far-more famous but milk-soppy, Goody Two-Shoes antagonist Tom Brown?

What d’you make of Lady Macbeth or her poor husband, or Hamlet allowing himself to rot away in the state of Denmark? If you’ve no taste for Hannibal Lecter, consider the Corleone Godfathers or play with The Sopranos. Seize a second to see Servalan not as the unscrupulous scourge of Blake’s 7 but as a woman with the will and skill to become Supreme Commander in a deeply dark dystopia.

Take the time to morph The Master from Dr Who’s eternal enemy into a man superior to most he ever meets, with no greater power to bind him.

Back in real life were Bonny & Clyde “likeable”? Were Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid really comparable to Robin Hood? Were Frank & Jesse James more than murderous bandits? Was Wyatt Earp much better?

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