60. Likeable Protagonists

At about 11.30A.M. today, I found myself at the Maxis Center in Sunway Pyramid waiting for my number to be called so that I could pay for my bills.

(as it turns out, I’ve accumulated RM133 in phone charges in the month of August alone. RM133! How in hell did I manage to use that much of credit?)

The man at the counter, while handing me my ticket with the number printed on it, said to me, “You may have to wait for a little bit.”

I looked up at the number on the electronic display, which was 1010, and then down at the number given to me, which was 1011. “A while”, sure. I think I have the patience to wait for 1 number.

And then I ended up waiting for 30 minutes before my number was finally called.

Within the 30 minutes of waiting, I had the opportunity to read an article that was shared on twitter by the NaNoWriMo folks, which had two authors discussing (in separate sections) likeable protagonists. Mr. Hamid, one of the authors, basically said that there is no reason why protagonists MUST be likeable, citing Humbert Humbert, the unstable, pedophile protagonist of Lolita as an example of one such protagonist.

His writeup was followed immediately by Ms. Heller’s thoughts, where she showed the not-quite flip side of the coin, talking about how people (especially those into “serious” literature) tend to criticize people who, well, liked likeable protagonists. It seems that such people assume that if you need a likeable protagonist to draw people into your story, you don’t really have a good story going on – which she thought of as “faux-highbrow nonsense”.

I knew that I just had to make a blog post concerning my thoughts.

I’m not so sure about the universal standard of protagonist likeability, but for me, it is crucial that I, as the reader, like the protagonist, and even more so if I’m the writer.

This is not to say that I detest villain protagonists or mentally unstable ones – no, far from that. I think that a character’s nobility of virtue or heroic nature has little to do with their likeability. If you asked me to define what exactly is a likeable character, I’d tell you that it’s a character that you care about.

Xander Bennett, in his book about screenwriting, talks about the story as a game between the writer and the reader, where the writer has to work his hardest to make the reader give a damn about the story. The same applies to characters, I think – if the reader has stopped giving a damn about your character, you have pretty much failed at the writing of the character.

Note that “giving a damn” doesn’t equate to “having affection for”. Those of you who are watching Game of Thrones want King Joffrey to die a slow, horrible death – that’s giving a damn. Those of you who have been left hanging at the end of Sherlock (BBC)’s 2nd season want to know HOW IN HELL DID SHERLOCK DO THAT? – that’s giving a damn. And of course, to give a more conventional example of a likeable character, those of you who have seen Wreck-It Ralph wanted Ralph to get his gold medal – that’s giving a damn.

I have come across many a character whom I tried giving a damn about, but failed to midway through the story. One of them is Emperor Jagang from Terry Goodkind’s The Sword of Truth series – when is that bastard going to finally die? The length of the story gave me reader’s lethargy, and I’ve stopped reading the books midway through The Pillars of Creation.

Another character whom I’ve stopped giving a damn about is Connor Kenway from Assassin’s Creed 3. The brutal, inelegant combat mechanics of the game aside, I actually found Connor’s stubborn naivety repulsive. You know there are some serious troubles with your video game protagonist when I’m screaming at the screen, “THE TEMPLAR HAS A POINT!”

But that’s my point of view – someone else might find Connor Kenway charming, and Emperor Jagang an interesting foe for the New World. The point is, though, when you write your character, make sure that somewhere out there, there’s someone who would give a damn about him or her.

The bottom line is: I need to care about the characters in the story for me to keep reading. I need to care about what happens to the protagonist if you want me to keep turning the pages.

So if you’d ask me if I think it is important for a protagonist to be likeable, to that I say yes, yes, and yes.

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