Friday, 25 May 2012


There was a discussion recently over in a certain writing forum that I frequent about whether a main character needs to be likable, and of course, the resulting debate was really quite interesting.

We can all point out characters who are grumpy and disagreeable. In some genres, crime for example, this appears to be a prerequisite. And yet as readers we devour these characters and are hungry for more.

Don’t we all just love a good villain? (The number of times I’ve found myself rooting for the bad guy – even though I shouldn’t be.)

Because it’s not all about being likable. These characters are often fascinating – or they touch something deep inside us that we can all relate to. And as a result we can’t help to engage with the surly detective or angst riddled teen. It’s all about empathy.

Now I wish I had some amazing tips to give you at this point – some magic formula that will bring your characters into focus and cause the reader to instantly warm to them, empathise with them and become totally invested in their story.

But I’m afraid I don’t.

And yet it is something so vital. Something we all need to be aware of. And I’m asking myself as I take my new MC or her tortuous journey – will the reader empathise with her enough?


  1. I can sure empathise with you on this one Kate! We get to know our own characters so well after months (probably years!) of writing about them its hard not to worry about what others will make of them. Wishing you lots of luck as you send your character out into the big wide world.

  2. The thing is...what I like is not the same thing as what others like. So I think that I'll just do my best and hope that someone, somewhere will appreciate what I do.

  3. As someone who is also embarking on a new novel, I can empathise with your angst over your new MC. One of my MCs is a thoroughly evil character. But then I do write horror! He is a nasty piece of work through and through. So much so, that he is devilishly attractive. At least I think so. Hope my readers will agree!

  4. Thanks Suzanne - this is a fairly new character so I'm really only just getting to know her myself.

    Hi Michael - I'm not asking you to like her - just to engage with her and be invested in her story. As you say, we all like different things.

    Oooh Catherine - I do so like a bit of devilishly attractive! :-)

  5. I think sometimes we like nasty characters because they do some things that we'd secretly rather like to do but don't because our darker impulses are constrained by social convention, fear of consequences, conscience, just being too nice, or whatever. Even though we disapprove, at the same time there's something vicariously liberating about a character who just doesn't give a damn.

  6. Generally, I'm more interested in engaging with characters than in their moral compasses.

    I'd say that "evil" can be interesting, and even appealing. For instance "Dexter Morgan" from the books and Tv series is a serial killer, but he only kills murderers who've "got off by gaming the system", so it's quite easy to find yourself rooting for him.
    OTOH the lead's in Elizabeth Bear's "Hammered" and Justina Robson' "Quantum Gravity" series are unappealing as people, and hence as characters too.

  7. I think a lot has to do with seeing the story from their point of view. The classic example, from drama rather than fiction, is Shakespeare's Richard III: an absolute monster of a man, but he begins by speaking directly to us, making us complicit. And he's clever, and entertaining. We feel flattered by his trust. Thoroughly good people are so boring ...

  8. Sara, Ken and Sue, thanks for stopping by. Good to see I'm not the only one to appreciate a good villian :-)

  9. This is an interesting one. Even when quite small I used to worry about the baddies, often dispatched without remorse. I'd wonder what made them bad, had they had a terrible childhood. I think empathy comes from the writer gradually drip feeding the readers' understanding of a character's motivation even, or perhaps more so, if it's off their moral scale.

    And then of course there's the alternative morality, take Hannibal Lector who murdered the rude and uncultured, we might not empathise fully but if the victim is made dislikeable enough it insulates us to a degree from the violence. Equally because we see so clearly is wrong with each victim we feel safe and identify with the female protagonist finding him repugnant yet fascinating.


Please share you thoughts, I'd love to hear from you....