January 29, 2023

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Do main characters have to be likeable?

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I’ve always liked stories that ended well. Once, when I was about 15, I threw a book across the room because the main character stepped aside so her best friend could marry the man she loved because her friend loved him too. (This book turned out to be a retelling of Jane Austen fan fiction, so the pairing was preordained. But that’s beside the point.) I loved the main character of this book and was furious that she had an unhappy ending. I’ve always been overly used to the heroines of the books, and for a long time I thought that meant I liked them.

For my 18th birthday, a friend gave me a copy of Geek Love. I was fascinated from the first page by the Binewski circus family and their adventurous children, in love with this strange family and with Oly, the narrator. Geek Love is not a pleasant book; it’s ugly and mean, and my tendency to like all of the characters wasn’t helped by how cruel they all were to one another. Arty started a cult. The Siamese Twins… maybe I won’t say what happens to them. Miranda is portrayed as a character we can like, but even she isn’t exactly likable.

But I loved every single one of them while actively disliking most of them. And that’s when I asked myself: do book characters have to be likeable? Do main characters in particular have to be likeable? For many people, the answer depends on who that character is. A reader may love Patrick Bateman, the actual (fictional) serial killer, but hate Bella Swan, the (fictional) teenager. Sure, that’s because of sexism, and I’m not going to argue that it’s something else, nor dismiss that as irrelevant. Of course it’s relevant, but I’m wondering if it matters that Bella Swan is universally hated – she’s also universally loved, or at least Twilight. (That’s probably American Psycho, too.)

Geek Love led me to the idea that I don’t have to like someone (fictional) to love them, that a complex and terrible character can be better than a simple and good character (see above, on Twilight). It also taught me, in hindsight, that I’m a simple fool who convinces myself that I like someone because I like their story or because I think I should like the main character simply because they are the main character .

My other favorite book besides Geek Love is We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I like Merricat very much. She tells her own story, as Oly does in Geek Love, and that closeness to the character certainly adds to the sense of intimacy and makes the reader (me) like her. Both are unreliable narrators who withhold information that might make us dislike them until we get too deep. (Again, when I’m talking about us or a general reader, I really mean myself.)

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I think it’s safe to say that I tend to like main characters because I want to like them, whether that’s because I feel like I should, or because I’m happier doing it, or a secret third option. I form parasocial relationships with main characters just like I do with celebrities, and unlike these real people I know who don’t know me like I know them (that’s how I feel), characters in books don’t have them Feelings and lives are not quite far from me; they only exist in the book and maybe in an adaptation if we’re lucky, so I know them all.

Humans are prone to fandom. We read, we watch, we discuss, we dissect, we write fanfiction. We’re doing the latter for many reasons, not the least of which is that we need more of the characters. Is that the same as liking her? Once in a while! But liking someone doesn’t mean they’re “likeable” per se. Being likeable means having positive traits that outweigh the negative ones, but sometimes we like characters who aren’t like that at all. Sometimes we like the Olys and the Merricats more than the “good” characters.

Do main characters have to be likeable? Absolutely not. They have to be interesting, they have to have stories that draw us in, they have to make us like them or at least root for them.