“She gets on my nerves…”
A reviewer wrote this about the protagonist of my first novel, Occidis. Nice, huh?
I’ve also received feedback from many readers who appreciate the very characteristics of the protagonist, Sophia, that seem to annoy others.
Several writers that I know have experienced this same situation. It’s hard to create a main character that everyone in your audience will fully appreciate. For every person who goes for the classic supernaturally athletic and brave protagonist with the aesthetic of an undiscovered model, there’s going to be a person wishing for someone who wasn’t quite so athletic or brave or ridiculously attractive.
But does every protagonist need to be likable?
Let’s take a look at a modern protagonist who doesn’t fit into the classic mold of, “likable.”
Katniss Everdeen, the ultimate dystopian heroine. She’s a beautiful character; in possession of so many rough characteristics, but also of strength and determination. Readers everywhere went crazy for Katniss, and the heroine was endeared to millions of people.
But even though The Hunger Games received millions of 4 and 5-star ratings on Goodreads, there’s still a significant number of people who have rated it as low as…
*Gasp* 1 STAR.
Now, this isn’t entirely dependent on the appeal of Katniss. After all, not everyone is going to like your book, likewise…
Not everyone is going to like your protagonist…no matter what you do.
And guess what? That’s OK!
Even typically “likable” people in real life are hardly ever liked by everyone. Different characteristics appeal to different people. Again, that’s ok!
Flip side: I’m not saying having an appealing protagonist isn’t important. It is. Character likability is a huge draw for many readers. You need to make your character relatable and sympathetic. Readers should want to root for them.
If the main character annoys your reader to no end, then there’s a big chance they won’t finish your story. If everyone absolutely hates your protagonist when that wasn’t your intention, then you probably went wrong somewhere.
But even if you like your character, your character doesn’t have to be loved by everyone. Mixed feedback is indicative of the character’s realness. Flaws are what make your character real and relatable. Relatability = Emotional Investment from Readers.
Plus, there are those who actually like stories centered around unlikable characters.
I can recall many main characters of classic novels that are really, quite devious. There’s Gwendolen Harleth from Daniel Deronda, Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair, Dorian Gray from Dorian Gray, the list goes on.
All the above characters are fascinating in all their selfish complexity. Seeded in these novels, however, are the occasional glimpses of a good deed done that implies the character might not be past redemption. That is relatable.
So, what’s the verdict? Do you have to make your protagonist likable?
I would say yes, to a certain extent…but it’s your decision. There’s an audience for every protagonist. Your character is the center of your story. If you feel that certain aspects of the character which might be particularly dislikeable are essential to the story – then keep them in.
After all, it’s your story. You can do whatever you want. What are your thoughts on likability in protagonists?
Guest Post author, Aisha Trittle
Katniss – Credit: Lionsgate
Becky Sharp – Credit: Focus Features