A friend of mine asked me recently to reread the newest version of her first chapter. Some of her test readers had said that her lead character wasn't likable enough.
I read the new version and I thought it worked better than the original. It was clearer to me who the lead character was and what she was trying to do in chapter one. And she may even have been a bit more likable.
That prompted me to ask myself whether it's really necessary to have a lead character be likable.
So I tried to think of some examples of unlikable lead characters for bestselling novels. It didn't take long.
Vito Corleone, the lead character for much of the novel, THE GODFATHER, isn't likable. Corleone is, in fact, a despicable person who runs an empire built on theft, bribery, and murder. The novel is the story of how his youngest son Michael, the only decent person in the family, is corrupted to become Vito's replacement.
The assassin known as The Jackal in Frederick Forsyth's novel, THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, is likewise unlikable. The Jackal is a professional assassin, hired to kill Charles de Gaulle. As he worms his way toward his chosen kill zone, he casually murders a few people who get in his way or who could identify him. The Jackal has no conscience and you aren't supposed to like him.
Scarlett O'Hara isn't a murderer, but she's a selfish brat, intent on being the center of attention, willing to wreck other people's relationships if it suits her purposes. Scarlett is exactly the person you don't want your daughter to be like. She's the woman you don't want to marry. The one you don't want dancing with your husband.
If you think for five minutes, you can probably list several other examples of unlikable characters in leading roles.
So what makes them work? Why would anyone want to read a whole novel about these kinds of people?
I can think of a couple of main reasons:
* They're fascinating.
* The reader can still identify with them.
Vito Corleone is no two-dimensional villain. He's a "man of respect." He wants (and demands) that his friends show him respect. Anyone can identify with that. Everybody wants to be respected.
The way Corleone achieves respect is fascinating. He does it mostly with words. Corleone doesn't say a lot, but when he speaks, he terrifies people without ever making a threat. He's infinitely polite, but he's also subtle, leaving people to draw their own implications.
But when it's time for action, he's willing to do whatever it takes. If you've read the book or seen the movie, two words will remind you of exactly how far Vito is willing to go: Horse's head.
The Jackal is fascinating because he's able to maintain an air of mystery. Who is this man who knows when prospective employers are reading his dossier? What is his brilliant plan to murder the best protected man in the world? How can he be so sure he'll succeed?
One thing not mysterious is the Jackal's motive. He wants to retire to a life of comfort and ease. Every reader would like to do that. The Jackal is offered half a million dollars. In 1962, that's enough to retire well.
We see the Jackal at work as he builds his plan and executes it in excruciating detail. Yet we don't get inside his head enough to know what that plan is. No matter how much we watch the Jackal, we never understand him. In the final chapter, we learn that we knew him even less than we imagined.
Scarlett O'Hara is selfish, but it's easy to understand what makes her tick. She wants everyone to admire her -- at least the male half of the population. She wants to be the belle of the ball forever. And who doesn't want to be popular? It's easy to identify with Scarlett's motives, even if you hate the way she operates.
If you're looking for a likable character, you've got Melanie -- the girl who gets Ashley Wilkes. Scarlett, for no clear reason, has always had her heart set on Ashley, so she hates Melanie.
But if you're looking for fascinating, then Scarlett's your girl, because she's way more interesting than Melanie.
It would be a mistake to believe that these characters are fascinating because they're unlikable.
That's not it at all. These characters are fascinating because the authors chose to go deep with them.
With Vito Corleone, we go deep into his background. How is it that a quiet, mild-mannered, polite young Sicilian became the Godfather? We see the exact points of decision in his life and we get right inside his head as he makes those decisions. And we wonder how we'd have chosen.
With the Jackal, we go deep into his methodology. He prepares for the assassination with infinite care. We don't understand exactly why he's taking each step.That's part of the puzzle to work out. But we know exactly HOW he's doing it. And we finish the book believing we could do that too.
With Scarlett, we go deep into her emotions. She's not the sharpest brick on the woodpile, that's for sure. But she might be the most emotive, and everybody has feelings. Everybody knows what it's like to want something they can't possibly have.
It's generally a good strategy to give your lead character some likable qualities. But it's not required.
What is required is to make your lead character as interesting as possible.
Find a way to go deep with your character. Find a way to make your reader identify with your character. Make your character fascinating.
If that makes your lead character more likable, then that's all to the good.
But if not, you might still be OK.
About The Author
Randy Ingermanson is a theoretical physicist and the award-winning author of six novels. He has taught at numerous writing conferences over the years and publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, the largest electronic magazine in the world on the craft of writing fiction, with over 11000 readers.
Randy is best known for his "Snowflake Method" of designing a novel. The "Snowflake" page on his web site has been viewed more than 514,000 times over the years.
Randy believes that prepublished novelists fall into four distinct stages, Freshmen, Sophomores, Juniors, and Seniors. Each of these stages has its own unique needs. Have you been a Freshman longer than you think you should? Or are you stuck in a Sophomore slump? If you'd like to move up to that pesky "next level," check out Randy's acclaimed lecture series, Fiction 101 and Fiction 201. Don't settle for where you are! Take action today.
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