Can a piece of writing still be good if one or more of its main characters are terrible and completely unlikable? Do main characters need to be likable? If so, why?

There isn’t a shortage of book reviews out there in which readers bash a book simply because they didn’t like one or more of its main characters. And I find this interesting, but also slightly short-sighted. How and when did having likable main characters ever become a requirement for a novel to be ‘good’? Isn’t it more important that characters be compelling and move the plot and narrative along?

Unlikable main characters are typically compelling and complex, which is what makes them relatable. They are typically not one-dimensional villains either. Instead, they are typically fumbling their way through a common dilemma as most average humans would– with good or neutral intentions but not completely impervious to temptation or doubt or bad advice. They aren’t heroes to compare ourselves against. Instead, they make us feel less alone and terrible about ourselves when we’re going through a tough time or are making poor life choices similar to the ones they’re making.

Over the past few months, I have read and encountered works of fiction that have had incredibly unlikable main characters. At least, on the surface, you would think that they would be unlikable. But they weren’t. Not really. In the end, as a reader, I ended up empathizing with all of them in weird and different ways as a human who also makes mistakes and isn’t happy-go-lucky and optimistic twenty-four-seven. Or I eventually grew to understand them on a deeper level by the end of each novel anyway.

One work I read had con men as the main characters (Confidence). Another one had a young woman who was carrying on an affair with a much older married man (Green Dot). And another had a main character who stole a manuscript from a writer who died (Yellowface). All these main characters were morally bankrupt in one way or another and often made me cringe, yet they were also hilarious, captivating, and very relatable at times. Why? Was it because through their terrible deeds, they seemed more realistic and human? Because they made me feel better about myself? It is important to note that they weren’t categorically bad and still had endearing thoughts and cared about other characters too, which is interesting. Unlikable characters still need to be somewhat likable in the end, as in they need to be motivated by something relatable to most humans: greed, envy, love, fear, etc. They are never wholly bad in the end. If they were, they would be villains. And an unlikable character is not a villain.

I understand that we also need stories about heroes and never-ending love, to inspire us and fill us with hope. And that we need stories to entertain us and distract us at times. But many of the good stories we need to read, stories that tend to resonate with us most as humans, also need characters that are flawed and make terrible decisions, to remind us of our humanity and that we’re not alone.

What do you think about this topic? Leave a comment at the bottom of the page to start or join a discussion. And don’t forget to like and share this post with others while you’re at it 😉

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