Character Building: Likeable vs Unlikable Protagonists


Characters are one of the most important elements of a work of fiction. It’s hard to imagine a novel or short story without one. They connects us to the pages in a relatable, human way (no matter if they’re human or not).  This means that it is also important to get your main protagonist right. In her book ‘Bullies, Bastards and Bitches: How to write the bad guys of fiction’ Jessica Page Morrell touches first on the protagonist, creating two lists – likable versus unlikable.

Likable traits

  1. He (or she) is approachable, someone the reader can understand and come to know. “After all, a person who has secrets is difficult to come to know and trust,” states Jessica. “If your likable character does have a secret as part of the plot, the story events will reveal it.
  2. He is flawed and human. “That does not mean that he is a wacky bundle of neuroses…” states Jessica. “rather, he is imperfect. His flaws are ones that we can all relate to, such as feelings of inferiority, an easily triggered temper, or an inability to get along with family members.”
  3. He has mostly redeeming qualities and positive dominant traits. “These qualities could include stoicism, generosity, compassion and intelligence,” states Jessica. “You’ll want to create fresh traits for your likable characters from the many possibilities you’ve observed in real people or conjured in your imagination.”
  4. He somehow instils hope and belief in the reader so that the reader can take on his cause and goals. “Hope comes in many guises,” states Jessica. “But it is often present in fiction and speaks about the endurance of the human spirit. Perhaps the character is trying to find love, right a wrong, or understand something important about human nature.
  5. He has a certain toughness and courage. “When the chips are down or the bullets are flying, he somehow fights back, even when the struggle puts him at risk.”

“When a likable protagonist appears in a story,” states Jessica. “a reader can imagine being him, taking on the problems and complications of the plot.

“When it comes to unlikable characters, on the other hand, I believe that  although we can sometimes understand their emotions and mindset, we cannot ever imagine being them.”

Yet, it is interesting to note that unlikable characters seem to be cropping up in popularity these days. Still though, it is a delicate balance to get that level of ‘unlikability’ just right.

Some unlikable traits can include:

  1. He (or she) has mostly negative dominant traits. “he might be vain, egotistical, cruel, insensitive, power hungry, devious, promiscuous or any other traits that most of us like to think we don’t possess,” states Jessica. “If your unlikable protagonist is going to be redeemed, he will also have at least one positive trait, such as loyalty, intelligence or ambition.”
  2. He creates pain for other characters, especially vulnerable characters. “His actions, based on his primary traits, and usually somehow linked to his backstory, always cause large ramifications in the story.”
  3. He is his own worst enemy, even though he usually doesn’t possess the insight to understand this. “Like people in real life, he might possess the sort of traits that make us avoid people,” states Jessica. “The trouble is the clueless, unlikable protagonist cannot understand that he possesses these behaviours or traits until the story’s events and other characters slam into his reality.”
  4. He creates uncomfortable feelings in the reader. “He might elicit feelings of vulnerability,” states Jessica. “Especially if he is someone who the reader can relate to because he’s had similar problems with the type in real life.”
  5. He draws in the reader. “While the reader cannot identify with unlikable protagonists, he also cannot turn away when the character is on the screen or page.”
  6. He has complicated reasons for his actions and personality traits. “It’s simple,” states Jessica. “If you don’t know the character’s backstory, you won’t be able to make him convincing. Maybe he experienced a trauma in his childhood; maybe his parents spoiled him; maybe things have always come too easily; maybe he’s never been loved. The trick is that the character’s backstory reinforces his current position in the story.”

So whether it is a likable or an unlikable protagonist you want to portray in your piece of work, keep these handy hints in mind as you flesh them out.

Happy writing, 🙂



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