I recently finished the Netflix series Jessica Jones, and I must say that I really loved it. The story was excellently crafted and the villain was both charming and chilling, but most of all, I loved the protagonist herself. Jessica Jones is a rude, crude, abrasive, cynical, self-loathing alcoholic, and she gripped me right away. I love characters that have these strong and unlikeable traits, far more than the blank slate plain-Jane types that pervade a lot of YA fiction.
The likeability of a protagonist is an incredibly complicated trait. On the surface, you have to decide if they are likeable to the other characters in the story, or unlikeable. Then you have to understand how these traits translate to the reader. There are unlikeable characters who are liked for their unlikeability, and likeable characters who are disliked for these likeable traits. Traits such as sarcasm and snarkiness, which generally do not endear characters in-universe, are often beloved by readers. Sweetness and timidity, which are very inoffensive to the surrounding characters, can often be found boring or useless. To complicate matters, these same traits can be found likeable in male characters and disliked in female characters, and vice versa.
Let’s take Supernatural, a series near and dear to my heart. Season 3 introduced Bela Talbot, a thief who uses the supernatural to profit herself rather than help others. Bela is self-serving, opportunistic, sarcastic and witty, shameless, fiercely independent, and morally gray. I instantly liked her for these very traits, and was very sad to see her character killed off at the end of the season. Apparently, this was because she was too unlikeable and deemed “irredeemable” despite her worst crime being thievery to help save her own skin.
Season 5 introduced Crowley, a demon who uses the supernatural to profit himself rather than help others. Crowley is self-serving, opportunistic, sarcastic and witty, shameless, fiercely independent, and morally gray. I instantly liked him for these very traits. And now, six seasons later, he’s still around and an incredibly popular character. Despite having an impressive body count under his belt, few people seem to begrudge him of this.
This is not to point out sexist filters in popular fiction, but merely to help shed light on the difficulties involved in crafting characters, particularly protagonists, with likeability as a consideration. I’ve often heard the advice that as long as a character is interesting, then likeability is a non-factor. I would agree, were it not for the fact that I’ve had multiple people tell me they can’t become interested in the characters problems precisely because they aren’t likeable.
It seems that I keep discussing topics with no solution. The more I learn about writing, however, the more I realize there are no easy fixes. No character is universally liked, and the stronger their personality traits, the more likely they are to be divisive. If your story requires a strong protagonist, no matter how unlikeable, then go hard or go home!