Some characters are undeniably likeable; Lizzie Bennet, Scout Finch, Jo March, Ned Stark. There are some that are almost too nice, these are the ‘Mary Sue’ and ‘Gary Stu’ characters, or the manic pixie dream girls (think Zooey Deschanel, Ferris Bueller and the first bunch of Disney princesses); the characters that authors and scriptwriters try endlessly to force you to like, the Edward Cullens, the Bella Swans.
Everybody loves finding a character that you love. It’s one of the things that people frequently comment on when they describe why they did or did not enjoy a book, a television series, or a movie. But is it a necessity to like the main character in a book that you’re reading?
There are several shows or books that I have stuck with purely out of love for a particular character. For example, I only stopped watched Mr Selfridge once it became clear that the endearing Agnes Towler would not be returning to the series. But is likability a prerequisite for a good protagonist? Many of the books, shows, and movies I’ve loved have been led by characters that are not all that nice, or who really got on my nerves throughout the course of the story. While reading Great Expectations, I often wished I could jump into Dickens’ world and beat Pip around the head with a bat (but I did love Estella), and there are, of course, the characters that we love to hate (or simply love), like Cersei Lannister. On the other hand, some characters make me want to abandon a story completely. Chloe Winters in ‘Someone Else’s Fairytale’ drove me up the wall with her prejudiced views, and Mary in Downton Abbey is infuriating.
So what’s the difference? Clearly, what decides whether we enjoy spending our time with a character is whether they are well-written, not whether we think they would be nice to have as a friend in real life. We have to feel like we are choosing to like the character, not like we’re being forced to by being shown how amazing and perfect they are.
It’s why we react differently to characters who appear to have many of the same characteristics. It’s why Jane Eyre is not a boring main character despite not being Little Miss Perfect like Cinderella. Mary (Downton Abbey) and Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones) are both cruel, condescending, and selfish, but Mary drives me up the wall and I can’t get enough of Cersei. Although some people like Mary’s cold demeanour, I can’t see the point of it, whereas I understand what motivates Cersei to be the way that she is. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is not a likeable person, but he is interesting enough to entertain us and keep us waiting for the next series (Get a move on, BBC!), in a way that might not be possible if John Watson was the main character, and Sherlock was his ‘sidekick’. Neither Nick nor Amy Dunne from Gone Girl are likeable at all, and yet they both fascinate us and keep us hooked.
What do you think? Should main characters be likeable, or do you have a favourite character who was not likeable at all?