Do You Have to Like Your Main Character?
Your main character—do you like him? Do you need to?
By and large, I would say that you do, if only to tolerate being around him while you’re writing the novel. And if you don’t like him, why would your readers? It’s hard to have sympathy or want things to work out for an unlikeable character.
Another way to think of this is as ‘getting’ your character. By that, I mean understanding your hero well enough so that you know how he would act outside the parameters of your story.
‘Getting’ my protagonist is something I almost always need to work on during the course of writing a novel. If I don’t feel I can see the world through his eyes, I have trouble moving forward.
Actually, I don’t like him
After consideration, you decide either that you don’t get your hero or you don’t like him. What can you do?
First, why don’t you like him?
You may find, on reading over the draft, that he comes across as superior or insensitive. The first instinct might be to go back and make him more humble or empathetic.
But I’d hold off for a moment to explore what’s behind these negative characteristics. In particular, ask yourself: Where is his humanness?
He’s superior. But people who look down their noses often are, deep down, scared that they themselves are wanting in some big and shameful way. Is that him? If it is and you can show the underlying fear and uncertainty, your readers (and probably you) will like him more or at least feel more sympathetic. You also create a much more complex character.
Similarly with his insensitivity. What underlies that? Does he walk all over people because he fears that if he doesn’t grab what he needs, he won’t get it? Doesn’t have to be that reason but whatever you decide on, ask yourself further questions. Why doesn’t he trust the world to give him what it needs? What would that look like? How would it come out?
So, although uncomfortable, not liking or getting your main character can actually produce some pretty useful results.
But don’t fall in love
So, now you like your main character. Or at least understand him. But don’t fall in love.
You know new love—the other person is perfect and can do no wrong. So, this is a boring character on the page. Allow the hero his dark side. You can understand him without excusing or explaining away his shadowy side. Makes for a much more interesting hero.
There is another, more pragmatic reason for liking your protagonist but still keeping a healthy distance. When you are editing your novel or having it edited, you or your editor may want/need to make ruthless cuts or alterations. It will be harder to see the necessity if you are convinced you have a perfect leading man.
Do I need to do this with all my characters?
I wouldn’t. First off, it’s a huge amount of work.
You might want to do the analysis of the antagonist if she is to be as complex as the protagonist. Another possibility is when the novel features two people who both figure prominently in the plot.
But I’d keep it to a dull roar. It really is a lot of think time.
Next post: do your readers have to like your protagonist? You may be surprised at the answer.