Liking the Main Character

Writing question of the day: Do you need to like the main character to care about the book?

I don’t believe that liking a character is an essential part of a story’s success. However, you need to care about the character, whether they be flawed or not.

In adult books, many times the opposite it true – the more you dislike a character, the more you may end up being engaged in the story. Vladimir Nabokov’s brilliant Lolita has no likeable characters, but they are memorable. The lead male is a leech, the mother character is a needy person willing to sell out her daughter for her betterment, and even the daughter, Lola, is a spoiled brat. But wow, did those character’s flaws stick with you because of the story.

In children’s writing, I find that the need for a character to be likeable fits with a child’s age. For the youngest readers, characters need to be the most likeable. “Goodnight Moon” is not the place for villains. As the readers increase in age, you might find auxiliary characters who are not likeable, but not the main character. Those non likeable characters are usually placed as the main opponent to the main character – perhaps an obnoxious sibling, a boy who picks on them at school, a mean teacher, or a parent who just doesn’t get it.

As you increase in age to young adult books, you may find that readers attach themselves to the likeable character as much as they do the unlikeable character. There are many fans of Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter series. Probably not as many as Harry, Ron and Hermione, but passionate about that character just the same.

In any case, likeable or not, the character just has to make the reader feel some emotion about them. If we, as readers, don’t care one way or the other about the character, we probably don’t care about the story either. That is the task that we, as writers, have to make come across in our writing.



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