Writing likable characters isn’t always the goal of a writer. Characters are catalysts; they serve many different functions, and sometimes, a story requires readers to dislike a character.
Although writing a likable protagonist can help readers sympathize and remain engaged, it’s not always necessary. Sometimes, it is simply more powerful to write a character who is not likable, particularly if you’re trying to illustrate the dangers of a traditionally negative quality, such as greed. Remember: “protagonist” does not always mean “good guy.”
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More common is an unlikable antagonist, as readers often root against forces that oppose your protagonist.
The difficulty is that, to make an interesting novel, all your characters—protagonists and antagonists alike—should lie somewhere on a likability spectrum. A conflict between someone completely good and someone completely evil can be compelling, but by assigning flaws to protagonists and redeeming qualities to antagonists, and then causing readers to relate to each, the story becomes much more complex and well-rounded.
Controlling character likability is very important, as it ensures you are writing diverse characters and conveying conflicting forces.
One way to manipulate likability is through narrative distance, the proximity between characters and readers. Much like a camera, you can zoom into a character’s point of view to create closeness between characters (subjects) and readers (viewers), or you can zoom out to create distance.
Just as adjusting the camera’s focus allows you to change the physical distance between the subject and the viewer, adjusting the narrative’s focus allows you to change the emotional and psychological distances between the character and the reader.
Consider John Gardner’s novel The Art of Fiction, which illustrates narrative distance from far (1) to close up (5):
- It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
- Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
- Henry hated snowstorms.
- God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
- Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul.
As you can see, unlike point of view, of which there are only a few different kinds, narrative distance exists on a spectrum, and you can keep characters as far or as close as necessary to control their likability.
However, character likability is a bit fickle. Liking anything or anyone is subjective, so it’s impossible to use narrative distance to force all your readers to like or dislike a character. Still, you can manipulate a wide readership’s perception of a character using narrative distance.
Character likability is inherently linked to a reader’s sympathy for a character. When a reader can sympathize with your character, it’s more probable he or she will like your character, as the reader can put himself or herself into your character’s shoes. This is true regardless of whether your character is shy and compassionate, hardworking and intolerant, or determined and vengeful. If your reader can identify with characters, even their negative qualities, readers may grow to like them.
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Thus, by focusing closely with your narrative camera, you can encourage readers to like a character, as readers will understand your character’s point of view and be more likely to sympathize.
In Henry’s case in the examples above, we may be more inclined to pity him in the freezing snow the closer we zoom in; thus, we may grow to like him more than we would have from a far narrative distance. Similarly, you can guide readers into disliking a character by zooming out, as they are less likely to sympathize with a character at a distance.
However, it’s possible we may like Henry less the closer we zoom in, due to his pessimism. Whether we sympathize or grow annoyed with Henry can depend on the reader’s personal preferences, which obviously can’t be controlled. It can also depend on your characters’ personalities. If you think readers might be annoyed by a character’s negative qualities but you still want the character to be likable, you should zoom out. Conversely, if you think your reader can relate to your character, you should zoom in.
Remember that, since narrative distance exists on a spectrum, you can zoom in and out as you please—between the character and reader, as illustrated here, between the narrator and character, or even between the narrator and author. Here are other ways to play with narrative distance:
- Zoom in and out at pivotal story moments to manipulate likability and character actions (e.g., when the protagonist makes a crucial choice, zoom in to help readers understand why he or she made the choice and the desired outcome).
- Use different narrative distances for different points of view (e.g., if you are telling a story from a child’s perspective, stay zoomed in for accounts of other children’s actions, but zoom out when relating adults’ actions. This will create separation between the two types of characters and help readers relate more to the narrator’s perspective).
- Change distances according to the scene’s mood (e.g., zoom in during an intense scene to reveal how a character deals with stress and to prompt a similar sensation in the reader).
Playing with narrative distance, and thus character likability, can result in limitless narrative choices. Your choice of narrative distance can dictate whether readers root for or against your characters, whether they care about your story’s climax, and even whether they continue reading to the end. Understanding how to manipulate this proximity will help you elicit the desired response in readers and propel your story in the right direction.
You’ll appreciate this book if:
- You want to know how to write a novel with artfully crafted character
- You need help choosing point of view, developing dialogue and bringing characters to life
- You’re interested in weaving in antagonists and second characters into your story
- You want value by getting 40 chapters and eight sections on creating characters in novels and short stories.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.