How to Make Any Character Likable
I recently read a novel with a main character I just couldn’t stand. Every time the narrative got around to her I wanted to put the book down. She was stupid, and irritating—and I just didn’t like her! The weird thing is, this hardly ever happens to me anymore in real life; I am fascinated by people and almost always want to get to know the people I meet better. So I kept wondering, as I read this novel, why the character of this woman repelled me so much. It’s not the first time I haven’t liked a character in a novel, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. But the experience made me wonder:
Must we like the main characters in a novel?
It would be too simple to say we should like the good guys, and not like the bad guys. We often find ourselves secretly cheering for the bad guy in a novel. Take Hannibal Lecter, for instance. Here’s a guy who eats people. Yet Thomas Harris manages to make us kind of like him, in a weird way. Lecter’s cool; he’s a genius, he’s an epicurean, he’s wickedly clever, AND if that weren’t enough, he lets Clarice live because he likes her honesty and decency.
Or how about Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley? Here’s a character who goes through life ripping people off, lying and cheating his way into his victims lives before totally offing them. But somehow Highsmith makes us sympathize with him.
How does she do that?
I’ve read that Ripley series of hers several times, often with the intent to watch how she does what she did. I usually just end up getting sucked into the vortex of her subtle brilliance, but when I can manage to keep my analytical wits about me it’s plain she does it by making me relate to Tom: he’s an underdog, he’s vulnerable, he wants what we all want; acceptance, love, money, happiness, to live a life that means something. And so, despite the knowledge – after that first kill – that he will murder those who get in his way, if he has to – we find ourselves actually hoping he gets away with offing yet another person who is getting too close to finding out about him. Being the sneaky and clever sociopath he is, he does get away with it, and it’s . . . admirable, in some messed up way that we really don’t care to look at too closely.
And then we have Dexter.
I admit I have yet to read more than just a sample of Jeff Lindsay’s books, although I plan on reading them all, at some point, but like many of you, I have watched the series. If you’ve seen them, you know how Dex draws you in. He’s a sociopathic serial killer. But; dude’s got a code. A stepfather with the understanding to see what Dexter is, and the foresight to do the only thing he thinks might mitigate his son’s killer tendencies, he instills a code in Dexter. Dexter only kills people who are killers like himself. Aside from that, Dexter is brilliant at his job, and often unintentionally funny, by his lack of people skills and his hilarious and awkward attempts to appear to be like everyone else. And he does care for his sister, and his son. We are given these redeeming qualities to love.
So it would seem to me the way to make a bad guy acceptable to the reader—nay, dare I say endearing, is to show us how he is both like us: vulnerable and wanting the things we want; and how he is special in some way that makes us actually admire him.
Another key component of the magic here is that all three of these writers make us first dislike the person the bad guy kills. Well . . . most of the time, anyway. They’re snobs, or obsessed, or callus, or merciless killers themselves. Even Dickie rejects Tom Ripley in a pointed way that is both justified, but socially brutal—right before Tom bashes his brains in with an oar.
It seems to me as a reader that, as a writer, I better make sure my main characters are likable, if I don’t want readers like myself to loathe them and toss aside my novel. Could it be those characters we dislike are lacking in the area of arousing our sympathy, that we are unable to see ourselves in them? Would making them both vulnerable and also special in some way that makes us admire them do the trick? Can we use the same techniques with our ‘ordinary’ characters these writers use to make us accept such extreme bad guys?
Readers: how do you feel about this; do you have to like the main character(s) in a novel?
Writers: are you concerned with making your characters likable?