Should fictional characters be ‘likeable’?

It’s a common complaint in book reviews that the characters in a book are unlikeable. My question is, do we need to like the characters in order to like the book? My answer is, generally, no. It may depend on genre. For example, if you don’t like the hero of a romance novel, you won’t care how the story ends, while you might enjoy a cast of unlikeable characters in a thriller because as suspects they could all get what they deserve. Besides, ‘likeability’ (if such a term exists) is subjective. If it were not so, surely we would all have the same friends – assuming one likes one’s friends – eat the same food, watch the same TV shows, etc.

The most interesting characters are flawed. Sometimes that makes them relatable and, possibly, likeable, even if they don’t possess qualities considered likeable. A villain can be likeable if the author portrays them as such. An author’s intention can also backfire, if they try too hard to make the hero likeable and in doing so, make us root for the villain instead.

Sometimes, unlikeable characters can contribute to my negative impression of a book, but only if I expected to like one or two characters, or at least the protagonist. However, I don’t think this has ever been the main reason I haven’t enjoyed a book. There are always other factors, such as issues with pacing or writing style. An added complication is when a book is character-driven, rather than plot-driven, in which case the characters are the most important element. They could still be unlikeable but the writer has to work hard to keep the reader invested in the story.

Do you think fictional characters should be likeable? How important is ‘likeability’ to you?

15 thoughts on “Should fictional characters be ‘likeable’?”

  1. I agree, character likeability depends on the genre.
    However, in real life I don’t want to hang around with people I don’t like so I prefer books with characters that I want to spend time with, so likeability is somewhat important to me. The most memorable books and characters I’ve come across have not all been likeable though.

    1. Interesting points, thank you. I prefer to think of hanging out with writing styles I like, rather than the characters. Memorable characters are not necessarily likeable, of course… and I like my reads to be memorable.

  2. This is an interesting question, I think characters should be sympathetic (I do enjoy a tragic backstory) but I don’t think they need to be likeable.

    1. You’re right, sympathetic and likeable are not really the same thing. Thanks for reading πŸ™‚

  3. Unlikeable characters can make a story, it can add to the intrigue and the mystery or add the sense of distrust. I like a good unlikeable character, but if not done right it can slow the story and make it drag.

    1. Great points! It’s interesting that you mentioned sense of distrust – I think if the author intends you to trust a character they are going to make them more likeable and vice versa.

  4. I don’t think characters have to be likable but they do need to be one that the reader cares what happens to them. If they aren’t compelling in some way – for good or bad – it makes for an unsatisfactory reading experience and a very slow one. Interesting question to pose.

    1. I think you’re right, characters should be compelling, whether they are likeable or not. Thanks for reading!

  5. I don’t need them to be likeable, but I really don’t enjoy when the protagonist is unlikeable to the point where I wouldn’t want to spend time in their company in real life. That’s why I get tired of the drunken angst-ridden detective. But if the protagonist is supposed to be unlikeable – like where we see the book from the eyes of the criminal – I’m fine with that if it’s done interestingly and well. I’m more likely to talk about “caring” about the characters rather than “liking” them, I think. If I don’t care, it’s because I’m not feeling any sense of emotional involvement, which makes for a dull read.

    1. Interesting insights, thank you! I know what you mean about caring for the characters. I think it’s very skillful when writers can make you care about characters that you don’t actually like. Moreover, I prefer some realism in characters and pretty much everyone in real life has unlikeable qualities!

  6. I agree. I don’t think characters have to be likeable in order for the book to work, although genre plays a part and I think I would prefer an unlikeable character if there’s something about them some aspect that I like rather than a character with no redeemable qualities, nothing to like at all. There has to be some aspect of liking a certain character, even if you don’t like them, otherwise I’d have a hard time investing time into reading the book. Hope I made sense there πŸ˜…πŸ˜

    1. Thanks! Yes you do make sense πŸ˜€ There are some things that are maybe not traditional ‘likeable’ qualities but which make the character interesting and you’re invested in what’s going to happen to them.

  7. Such an interesting question. In general I prefer it when I like the main character, but sometimes evil or morally grey main characters can make a story very compelling πŸ€”

    1. Thanks πŸ™‚ You’re right about compelling characters. If a story is only about nice people, are they likeable and compelling?! Also I do like morally grey characters as they are more realistic.

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