Every once in a while I get into random conversations with my coworkers about books.  Not many of them are readers so it doesn’t happen often, but I always embrace those rare moments when it does happen.

This week’s topic of conversation was about whether or not we need likable main characters in the books we read, the movies we watch, etc. so I decided to use it as a jumping off point for a long overdue discussion post on the blog.

For me, the short answer to this question is no, but I guess it’s really a little more complicated than that.  Of course I love to read books where I fall in love with the main character.  I’m a huge fan of lovable scrappy underdogs and socially awkward characters that I just want to hug, which tends to be why I’m drawn to YA contemporaries like Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.

That said, however, I don’t need characters like that in books to enjoy them.  I also love characters that are messy and flawed and oftentimes not so lovable.  The more realistic characters are, the more I tend to enjoy them, especially if they remind me of people I know in real life.  It makes them relatable for me and makes a book all the more compelling.  Those family dramas that I love so much, like Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, fall into this category.

I also love books that feature well written villains.  Whether it’s a retelling, origin story, or just a story that has a morally gray character, again it’s all about whether that character can capture my attention.  I especially love a story where a villain is complex so that I can kind of see where he or she is coming from.  I may not necessarily cheer them on, but I at least have some understanding of why they’re doing what they’re doing and that’s enough to keep me invested in a story.  Heartless by Marissa Meyer comes to mind. It’s a Queen of Hearts/Alice in Wonderland retelling and I just loved the way Meyer portrayed the evil queen.

The characters that I actually tend to fare the worst with are characters that I just feel nothing for.  I don’t feel invested at all in anything that they’re going through and instead, feel like I’m just an outsider looking in.  I don’t know if it’s the writing style or genre, but I tend to encounter this issue more with thrillers than with any other genre.  The Escape Room, which I recently reviewed, immediately comes to mind.  As in the case of that book, I can still enjoy the book when the plot is well written and suspenseful, but looking back through my thriller reviews, it’s that indifference to the main character that will make me knock a star or two off a book.

Bottom line:  I need to feel something for the main characters, whether it’s like, dislike, or somewhere in between.  The kiss of death for me is definitely characters I don’t care about at all.

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So, what about you?  Do you need the main characters you read about to be wholly likable?


36 replies
  1. Flora
    Flora says:

    Great discussion post, Suzanne.
    Like you, I definitely need to feel something for the main characters, it doesn’t always have to be “like” but they’ve got to feel real and multifaceted. However, if frustration turns out to be the main thing I feel at their thoughts and actions then that book usually ends up as a DNF. Life’s too short to be stressed out by a character in a book; I don’t need my entertainment continually making me *tut* and rolling my eyes. 😉

    The main male in a story is usually second fiddle in my needs when it comes to characters; the power to hold me is in the females. The female main characters have to be intelligent, resilient, self-reliant, resourceful and have plenty of gumption. It doesn’t matter if they start off like that or grow into these traits through the book.

    I’m looking forward to reading everyone else’s thoughts.

  2. Jonetta (Ejaygirl) | Blue Mood Café
    Jonetta (Ejaygirl) | Blue Mood Café says:

    I used to think I needed to have at least one likable character in a book until I read Gone Girl. That’s the first novel of substance I can recall where no one seemed redeemable and I enjoyed the book. To your point, I still need to have some connection to them, even if it’s intense dislike. If I’m ambivalent, the. I just start to lose interest as I have no investment in the outcome.

    Great topic, Suzanne!

  3. Angela
    Angela says:

    Hmm, this is a tough one! I don’t think I NEED a likable main character, but honestly it often does affect my enjoyment of a book. If the main character is supposed to be a villain (a la Heartless), I’m okay with it, but if it’s just a regular person who’s obnoxious, or pretentious, or a whiner, something like that, it can make me dread reading a whole book from their perspective. I don’t need them to be perfect, but I want someone I can root for and relate to. I recently read Hope and Other Punch Lines, and I liked the secondary characters more than the main characters. I felt like that was a little weird and it affected my rating of the book as a whole.

    • Suzanne
      Suzanne says:

      That would affect my rating as well. It’s always fun when there’s a great cast of secondary characters but they should still take a backseat to the main character.

  4. Aj @ Read All The Things!
    Aj @ Read All The Things! says:

    I don’t need them to be likeable, but I need them to be interesting. They have to have agency and personality. If the characters are dull, I won’t care about them, and I might DNF the book.

  5. ShootingStarsMag
    ShootingStarsMag says:

    I do not. It’s nice when I like a character or can relate to them, but I don’t have to like the character to like the book. Sometimes their unlikeability makes the book better.


  6. Tanya @ Girl Plus Books
    Tanya @ Girl Plus Books says:

    Interesting topic, Suzanne. My first thought was to say yes but after some thought I realize that’s not quite true. I guess really I just need a character that catches my interest. One that has something that pulls me in. Whether it’s because I relate to him/her, or because I want to know more about them, or they have a quality I like. So there has to be *something* but I suppose they don’t necessarily have to be likable.

  7. Sophie
    Sophie says:

    What is important for me is that I can understand and empathize with the main character. I don’t need to love him but I do need to feel connected to him or it won’t work. My favorites are flawed characters and I adore when an author can make me fall for the villain because I can see why he is acting like that!

  8. Greg
    Greg says:

    I’d rather the main character be likable but it’s not a dealbreraker for me if they aren’t. It depends on the book, I guess. And the genre probably. I’m more tolerant of an unlikable protag in a thriller or suspense read probably. Just because you know people are a mess in those kinds of books haha!

    And I agree so much about villains! I need to at least understand their motivations a little bit, or see a little nuance there. If they’re just utterly bad with no context I think they’re boring.

  9. Dini @ Dinipandareads
    Dini @ Dinipandareads says:

    Great discussion question! I think the more I read, the more I realize how important it is for me to have characters that I like in a book, especially when it’s a character driven story and less plot focused. I think it’s subjective though because what I like in a character might be something someone else really doesn’t like. They don’t necessarily have to be ‘likeable’ in the sense of wholesome, perfect etc., I do like flawed characters because like you said, that’s more realistic, but for me it’s important to recognize redeemable qualities in the characters? Maybe it’s idealistic (lol) but if the character is flawed I like to see growth or potential for growth by the end. But yes, characters and connecting with/relating to them in some way is definitely a big part of enjoying a book for me!

  10. Nicci @ Sunny Buzzy Books
    Nicci @ Sunny Buzzy Books says:

    I prefer to have a likeable character. They don’t need to be perfect or to everyone’s liking but something about them has to click with me… I can handle books where I don’t like the character too if they go on a journey. You’re 100% correct that it’s the books where you feel nothing for the character that have the kiss of death. There’s just no point.

  11. Erica Metcalf
    Erica Metcalf says:

    I don’t need to like the main character, but there has to be a little something that I either can relate to, or some feature I enjoy. Otherwise, I kinda tune out. I’ve found that unlikable characters in books with varying POV’s can totally derail my enjoyment of the book as well. But I’m very specific about the types of “unlikable” that I don’t enjoy. It’s bratty kids/teenagers, entitled adults, characters that just love stirring up unnecessary drama, or anyone who cheats on their partner. 🙂

    • Suzanne
      Suzanne says:

      Exactly. If something about the character doesn’t capture my attention, then I’m probably not really going to enjoy the read much.

  12. Jennifer Tar Heel Reader
    Jennifer Tar Heel Reader says:

    I completely agree, Suzanne. I just need to feel, too, and truly, if the storytelling draws me in, I can get completely connected without necessarily connecting to a character. Wonderful discussion question.

  13. Sam@wlabb
    Sam@wlabb says:

    It’s pretty important that I like the character. I tend towards slice of life books with little plot, so if I didn’t like the character, I wouldn’t be invested in their story at all. I think it’s easier to be ok with unlikable characters in plot heavy books. I thought Gone Girl was fabulous, and it contained not one likable person.

  14. Verushka
    Verushka says:

    I think it sort of depends on the genre: when i read thrillers, I don’t mind if the characters aren’t likeable, but I do need to feel something about them — even if it’s dislike, there has to be something in the book and the story that keeps me reading. If i am reading chick lit, YA or romance, I need to like the characters i think, to be able to buy into the genre & story

  15. Brittany
    Brittany says:

    Characters can be messy and flawed and still loveable! People love all sorts of villains 😀 (I know that isn’t what you were saying haha I just really love messy and flawed characters 😉 )

    For me I have to like the main characters or I won’t like the book. Though I also won’t really like the book if I feel nothing for the main characters either.

  16. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction
    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction says:

    While I don’t necessarily have to like a character’s actions and I do want them to have realistic flaws, I’ll confess that a truly unlikable MC will most likely turn me off. I want a character who I can root for, even if I don’t love everything they’re doing. I do agree, though, that a character I care nothing for at all is the worst!

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