“People Say My Main Character is Unlikeable”

by Barb Ross, freezing her &*$# off in Maine

Recently, Ramona DeFelice Long wrote a blog post called How to Write a Protagonist of Interest. It’s a great post and I recommend it. And it got me thinking about the following:

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been in a writing class or seminar and someone has wailed, “(Friends, my writers group, prospective agents, prospective publishers) say my protagonist is unlikeable. What to I do?” let’s just say I’d have a whole pile of nickels. Usually this lament comes from someone early in their writing career. Sometimes it’s because the author has committed to a protagonist who is relentlessly awful, but often, the writer likes the protagonist just fine, and doesn’t understand why others react negatively.

Sometimes the answer to this question degenerates into a discussion of whether protagonists have to be “likeable,” so lets get that out of the way. I don’t think protagonists have to be nice, good, moral or event decent. But they do have to be compelling and more than anything else we have to care what happens to them. Otherwise, why keep reading to find out? Let’s put it this way, when readers pick up your book, they’re committing to spend six to twenty hours in your world and with your protagonist. Would you volunteer to fly cross country sitting next to someone you found unredeemably irritating, self-centered, shallow, or deliberately stupid? How about a flight to Australia? Didn’t think so. Time is the most precious resource humans have. Don’t unknowingly make it difficult for them to give it to you.

So why might a writer be getting the feedback that their protagonist is unlikeable? I’ve been around the block a few times, and here are my observations.

1) The protagonist doesn’t react to what’s going on around them like a human being.

In my experience, there are several reasons for this.

a) In early drafts, writers can be so busy getting from point A to point B in the plot, events just wash over the protagonist. He never pauses long enough to feel his feelings, much less to tell the reader about them. As a result, the protagonist comes across as cold and robotic, even if that’s not what the author intended.

b) The writer knows too much. The writer knows the protagonist’s mom is going to survive that automobile crash just fine, so the writer glosses over what the protagonist, who doesn’t know that at all, is feeling in the moment.

c) Do I have to say it? The protagonist takes a date to a special meal at a fancy restaurant. The food is terrible, the service is slow and the portions are small. The writer thinks since they “showed” us this, they don’t have to “tell” us how the protagonist reacts to this situation. Anyone would be disappointed, angry, etc. But your protagonist is not “anyone.” He or she is a specific person with a specific background and how he reacts in this situation is going to tell your reader a lot about him. What if he doesn’t get angry at all? That’s interesting. You can “show” his reaction in dialogue, or “tell” us in his head, but you can’t fail to write it down.

Fortunately, the fix for these three situations is “easy.” Go back, read your manuscript and think about what your protagonist is feeling in the moment. Like the reader, your protagonist doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. He only knows what’s happened up to now. Make sure he is reacting to what’s happened up to now like the very specific human being he is.

2) The writer uses their manuscript to air every grievance they’ve ever had.

You’re in the grocery store. The person ahead of you in the ten items or fewer line has 15 items. Now they’re paying by personal check! It shouldn’t be allowed! You’re going to make this point (and many others like it) in your book.

First of all, you are not the first person to have observed this situation, so unless your protagonist is buying diapers and formula having left her baby in the car with her boyfriend while they’re fleeing from the mob, I would maybe skip this observation. But if you must include it, make sure it’s balanced by your protagonist walking out of the grocery into a beautiful day–and enjoying it. Otherwise, she’ll come off like the old man endlessly yelling at the disrespectful kids to get off his lawn. Not someone you want to spend time with.

3) Your protagonist has compelling traits, but you’ve never shown them.

Your protagonist is outwardly prickly, difficult, down and out, but under it all, he adheres to a strict moral code, or she loves her mother, or he is loyal to his friends. You need to show us this early, in a dramatic way, when we can still get attached. Donald Maass says in the first five pages. We need to know, because we need to care.

4) If no one loves your protagonist, why should I?

Author Daniel Palmer got consistent feedback that Charlie Giles, protagonist of Delirious, his first suspense novel, was too rough around the edges to be likeable. A friend suggested he give Giles a dog. Daniel claims it’s the only change he made (though Monte is a very compelling dog). But it is pretty genius, no? If all of the above fail, give your protagonist something to love, and something that loves him, unconditionally. Maybe the rest of us will follow suit.

Readers, what do you think? What makes a protagonist likeable/unlikeable? What makes us care what happens to a character?

18 Thoughts

  1. All good advice, Barb, and I’m hanging on to this list because this is a complaint this not-so-new writer has heard a lot, too. Sadly, no matter how appealing you make your sleuth, someone will complain, in reader reviews, that she is a spoiled brat, or cusses too much, or is TSTL, or picked the “boring man” to marry. Oh, and that she ought to have been arrested for sneaking into that house! Working in the “why” for such behavior goes a long way toward making most readers accept it and keep reading.


    1. Oh, Kathy–this is definitely do as I say, not as I do in that department. You’ll definitely find a few Goodreads and Amazon comments that say they don’t like my protagonist. And there’s a Shelfari one on my first book, The Death of an Ambitious Woman. Oh my word, hate, hate, hate. But you’ll never make everyone happy, and what’s plucky and smart to one person is impulsive and snobby to another.

  2. All excellent points (and my editor would agree). When we write a protagonist, particularly for a series, we know that person well–but we don’t always share the details. Nor do we repeat those details, even a few, in the second and third book of the series, so if a reader picks up a later book, you haven’t “hooked” her. And it’s always important to balance negative traits with positive ones, or to show why a person has become a bitter, angry curmudgeon.

    I also had a different issue (with the above editor): she thought two of my characters were being “mean” to a third. In my mind, the third person needed to be taken down a peg, and the other two were only coaching her in how to get what she wanted. I tend to gag when everybody in a book is too nice!

    1. A good reminder about hooking a reader on a protagonist in a series, Sheila. I find the whole, “what to include, what to leave out,” in subsequent books issue challenging.

  3. I am deep in the slog of the middle right now, and I thought about this very issue recently. Without tension/friction there is no action. But showing all sides of a person is important. And I appreciate Sheila’s comments about letting people in on all facets in every book, since a reader may start with the second or third book. Great post!

    1. I agree that a protagonist who is in a constant state of reflection will come off a self-involved. But to not react when provoked or when something big happens, that’s the issue for me.

  4. I must admit that I’ve never given much thought to what makes a character likable or not, but this list makes perfect sense to me.

  5. I love the “Get off my lawn!” reference. A character who is too perfect is a snore, a character who is wholly unpleasant is repellant. It’s all about injecting humanity into the made up person so the reader will care. I will quote you again, Barb: Be a person. In this case, write a person.

    I tell so many of my editing clients to consider what a real person in a real life situation would do. Usually that means, when told that Joe Bob down the street died, the real life response is not, “Was he murdered?” so unless it’s set up, it wouldn’t be the fictional response, either.

    Great post!

    1. Thanks, Ramona. Write a person. I must adopt this as my new mantra. I love your “was he murdered?” example. It’s probably the last thing I would ask if ambulances and cop cars were parked down the street in my little Maine town.

  6. I just sent in the first round of edits to my editor for my book, Death by High Heels. In the very early stages critique partners either loved her or disliked her. The dislike shocked me. I went back through and realized I needed to make her more compassionate while keeping her a bit snarky.

    These are helpful tips. Thanks. No matter what you do not every reader is going to get it. All we can try to do is write the best book we know how. I just hope with each book I write, I’m actually learning and getting better. šŸ™‚


    1. Completely agree. No matter how skillfully you render them, there’s no way your main character is going to be everyone’s cup of tea–that’s one reason there are so many books.

  7. I have noticed that sometimes when a writer is having trouble working out why no-one likes their protagonist, it is because their protagonist’s deficits are too close to home. Did I really say that!!

    1. I think you’re right. I think that’s why sometimes there’s a little hurt in the voice when people report this. But of course, it’s not the author people don’t like, it’s the two-dimensional version they’ve created.

Comments are closed.