I’ve had many discussions about “unlikeable” characters in movies and books, and whether or not “likeability” is a prerequisite for engaging with a story. Personally, I don’t believe it is. Some of my favorite movies feature unlikeable people doing horrible things.
Further, I think “likeable” is a bit of a slippery phrase that can mean any number of things. For example, people adore Darth Vader — is this because they agree with his moral choices or admire his ideals? For most people, I’d venture to say probably not. So what’s likeable about him, aside from the bad-ass suit, red lightsaber, cool voice modulation, and the ability to choke people with his mind? Well, I guess I’ve answered my own question here.
Let’s move on to a more complex example. One of my favorite movies for character-study purposes is the 2004 Mike Nichols drama Closer, about four horrible people who spend the entire movie hurting each other’s feelings as savagely as they can. The characters run the gamut from the pathetic to the truly loathsome — I’d go so far as to say there’s no one to root for in the story. The main characters are all lying, unpleasant, psychologically broken people. And yet I find their interactions fascinating.
Why? Because Closer is a story about characters being in love, in which each character sees love differently. One sees love like a switch that can be turned on and off at will, a delicate state that shatters at the first sign of trouble. Another conflates love and novelty — for him, losing that first exhilarating rush of a burgeoning relationship and “falling out of love” are the same thing. A third character sees love as possession and an intricate game to be won. The conflict stems from the different ideals each character holds dear and how they run afoul from one another. Like so many romantic comedies, the story derives from frequent and avoidable misunderstandings, except it’s not funny so much as horrifying.
The irreconcilable conflict between each character’s ideals drives them to hurt each other, over and over, and never figure out why — added to which, each of them lies and cheats, often without any apparent remorse. None of the characters are likeable, and yet the story compels, because each of them wants so badly to achieve something they can barely even define, much less share with another person.
Another favorite example of mine is Charles Foster Kane from Citizen Kane. The story follows Kane from the brash idealism of his youth to his lonely, hollow end. Even though I love Kane as a character, I don’t think he’s conventionally likeable. Young Kane is charismatic and confident, but frequently smug; as Kane ages, he sells out his own ideals so completely that he becomes unrecognizable. He treats people like objects to be bought and sold, and uses his power to manipulate everyone to his own ends. Even at the end, when Kane loses everything, his motives are centered on himself:
Kane: Don’t go, Susan. You mustn’t go. You can’t do this to me.
Susan: I see. So it’s YOU who this is being done to. It’s not me at all. Not how I feel. Not what it means to me.
Kane’s story works as tragedy because his younger self was so full of promise and ideals, with so far to fall — and fall he does. Kane even hints at seeing his downward path early on:
Charles Foster Kane: You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.
Thatcher: Don’t you think you are?
Charles Foster Kane: I think I did pretty well under the circumstances.
Thatcher: What would you like to have been?
Charles Foster Kane: Everything you hate.
Conventional writing wisdom tells us to make sympathetic protagonists to whom the reader can relate — and yet great stories seem to flaunt this principle all the time. I don’t think great protagonists need to be likeable; they need to be compelling. A character can have morally hideous goals and still move the reader, as long as those goals can be understood and shared by the reader, even if the reader disagrees with them.
To cite one last favorite of mine: Psycho. Midway through the film, the ostensible protagonist, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), after stealing some money from her employer and then deciding to return it, is murdered by Norman Bates. To me, this is part of what makes Psycho so brilliant. Not only does Hitchcock make the thieving, dishonest protagonist compelling, but he then murders the protagonist in the middle of the story, at the point where she is the most sympathetic.
But then Hitchcock turns it around again. Bates needs to dispose of Marion’s body. He stuffs her in the trunk of her car and tries to sink the car into the lake. The car begins to sink… and then stops.
And the audience holds its breath. It’s an oh-shit moment where the audience realizes Bates’ plight: if he can’t sink the car, he’ll be caught. Does the audience want Bates to get away with it? Well, not really — but for that one moment, the audience understands Bates’ plight and sympathizes with it. The scene compels, despite the fact that it’s the antagonist being set back.
If you can master this sort of thing in your own writing, you’ll have one of the best weapons in the writer’s arsenal for hooking readers. A character who tries entirely too hard to be likeable is often dismissed as a Mary Sue. But a character whose conflicts resonate and compel even when their ends are totally at odds with the reader’s ideals — that’s great storytelling at work.
So what about you? Do you need to like a character, especially a protagonist, to enjoy their story?