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Demosthenes's avatar

How important is it to you that fictional characters (in books/movies/TV) be likable?

Asked by Demosthenes (7694points) August 15th, 2018

I’ll mostly be talking about books because the examples that led me to ask this came from books, but it can be about anything.

I’ve often seen negative reviews of a book cite the fact that the characters (protagonists) were unlikable and that was a major factor in why the reviewer did not like the book.

Rabbit, Run is a good example of a book with an extremely unlikable protagonist. This guy, Rabbit, is the worst. The book worked for me because it’s clear that A) we’re not supposed to like Rabbit, and B) I can’t help but find it fascinating to get inside this guy’s mind and see how the people around him are affected by his behavior.

Clearly if I’m meant to like a character and I don’t like them, it makes the book hard to read for me. Yet if the characters are not supposed to be likable, they at least need to be relatable or interesting enough that I want to know what happens to them. Walter White in Breaking Bad becomes less and less likable as the series progresses, but watching his transformation into a villain is what makes the series enthralling.

How likable do characters need to be for you? Can you think of a book or TV show or movie where the main character(s) is (are) unlikable (for whatever reason) that you still enjoyed?

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12 Answers

Patty_Melt's avatar

I am left wondering if by likeable they mean well suited for the plot.

Mimishu1995's avatar

I think it has more to do with the context of the story the character is in than their personality itself.

Let’s say you have two similar characters. Both John and Mark are annoying attention seekers throughout their life. Both have bits of their life revealed as the stories they are in progress. But John is in an environment where he encounters little confrontation and doesn’t have to face consequences for his action. Mark is in an environment where his personality is actively challenged, and it’s entirely his choice to change or resist changing. And he chooses to continue and face the biggest downfall in the end.

In this case Mark is a much more likeable character although he is basically the same person as John.

It all boils down to how you can relate to the characters. If you see a bad character in a world that completely approves of the behavior and continue to stay that way in the end, then the character becomes hard to relate to.

It also has a lot to do with how the author wants the readers to view the character. Say there is a story intended to be about a brave boy who isn’t afraid to follow his heart and fight back his bullies. But in reality he is a thin-skinned asshole who thinks the world own him something and the “bullies” are actually just people trying to get him to change. This also makes the character very unpleasant to relate to.

Demosthenes's avatar

@Mimishu1995 That’s definitely true. The unlikable characters that I can think of (meaning the ones in stories that I did enjoy overall) are not intended to be liked by the reader, nor are they approved of by the other characters. If a character is going to remain unlikable throughout the story and not change, then I’ll at least need them to get some kind of comeuppance. I don’t want the book to beg for my sympathy. And I agree that characters do need to be relatable and believable. Likable or not, if a character isn’t believable then I have little reason to continue reading.

@Patty_Melt Maybe, though in the examples I’m thinking of, the character’s unlikability is a major plot point. Sometimes a character is just so detestable (to some people) that even though we’re not meant to like him and the other characters don’t like him either, you don’t really care to read on. That’s sort of what I’m getting at here: where the line is drawn.

MrGrimm888's avatar

It’s not. Mimi covered this well. Is the character, or the circumstances they face interesting? How do they interact with their surroundings?

I find a great bad guy, is one of my favorite types of characters.
I “like” them, may not be as accurate as I am “entertained” by them.

Overall, I think roundness, is the most important thing in regards to characters. A character that is flat, or all good, or all bad, is not realistic, and therefore uninteresting.

RedDeerGuy1's avatar

I watched Married With Children and never got into Modern Family. Read into it what you will. My guess would be Kelly and Al Bundy. Christina Applegate and Ed o Neil I loved. Modern family doesn’t have the NSFW content from a hot chick or a mans man from Al Bundy.

rockfan's avatar

They don’t always need to be likable, as long as the characters are interesting.

kritiper's avatar

Not so important to me. But very important to the person who is trying to sell the story.

stanleybmanly's avatar

I revel in the villains. From Richard III through Montgomery Burns, I just love it when evil warps the monotony in narrative.

flutherother's avatar

The important thing is that the characters are interesting and hold our attention. They don’t have to be likeable. They may appear charming to other characters in the story while the reader is aware they are not all they seem. This creates a dramatic tension which makes you want to read on.

It is important that you like the author and share his or her opinions about the characters. If you don’t you probably won’t like the book.

MollyMcGuire's avatar

Not. Not all characters are meant to be likable.

Dutchess_III's avatar

It all depends on how they want us to view the character. If the character goes around murdering children you would not want to make that character “likeable.”

MollyMcGuire's avatar

@Dutchess_III Many times the villain is quite likable, even lovable. Mad Men’s Don Draper was not really a good guy but he was certainly likable.

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