Let’s look at some characters that linger in our memories.
In Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the wizard Gandalf is introduced as Gandalf the Grey and returns from death as Gandalf the White. Unlike Merlin, Tolkien’s wizard is not neutral to events, nor is he morally ambiguous or even infallible. But as with the elf Círdan who gave him the Ring of Power, those characters that people Gandalf’s world regard him as "the greatest spirit and the wisest.” Even when predicting doom, Gandalf manages to bring an accompanying calm to the situation. Like the best characters in fiction, Gandalf is contradictory. In Tolkien’s own words, Gandalf "seemed the least, less tall than the others, and in looks more aged, grey-haired and grey-clad, and leaning on a staff" (Unfinished Tales, "The Istari", p 390–391). And yet the wizard is a force to reckon with.
Anne Tyler’s Macon Leary from Accidental Tourist works as travel guide writer, though he can’t find his way around his own stomping grounds and hates to travel.
Nigel Molesworth, the protagonist narrator of Geoffrey Willans’ Molesworth, is a fearless critic who has daydream adventures. The comedian, subversive, and part-time philosopher discusses Camus on the football field and makes references to Huxley and Proust, though he can’t spell to save his life. But unlike typical satirical protagonists who wallow in naiveté, Molesworth is too in the know to pretend to be a loser.
Zeno Cosini, Italo Svevo’s protagonist from Confessions of Zeno, stumbles on success by chance or, more often, irony. He has a marvelous penchant for self-sabotage, marrying the one homely girl in a family of beauties.
Benjamin Trotter in Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club is both a dreamer and a prig.
Frank Richards’ obese and short-sighted Billy Bunter of the Greyfriars stories has unbeatable optimism and a knack for ventriloquism. While he’s selfish, dishonest, lazy, and mean-spirited, he wins readers over with an ill-fated humorous disregard for the authority of the British school, Greyfriars.
Patricia Highsmith manages to make the talented Mr. Ripley so sympathetic, even while she’s coolly enumerating step by step the eerie processes that lead him into murder.
Thomas Harris gives us an erudite barbarian in Hannibal Lecter, an uppity, high-brown sadistic cannibal with otherwise impeccable taste. No sooner dabbing the blood from his chin, the psycho killer sits in his dignified surrounds to read the works of Aurelius.
But the serial killer in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho amounts to a coward whose opinions are more caustic than his crimes.
Louisa Pollit of Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children is a woman you simultaneously hate, pity and admire.
Jane Austen’s well-meaning do-gooder Emma falls headlong into social faux pas, forever erring in the ways readers long to err, like when Emma tells the garrulous bore Miss Bates to shut up. Emma’s kind self, then, bubbles up from her heart to her brain and plagues her with remorse, empathy, and shame.
And even in a somewhat perfected character, Jane Austen’s Elinor, from Sense and Sensibility, defies stereotype, demonstrating consideration without becoming fulsome or patronizing, wit that veers clear of sarcasms, and intelligence that doesn’t lend itself to contempt.
Imperfection is perfection. We relate to flawed characters, furthermore we like them.
“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”
Who lights your fire? Have you ever read a novel that somehow rekindled your inner spirit?
Likeable people are many things. They’re confident, have a positive outlook (even if it’s purposely delusional), and are passionately engaged in life. Instead of jumping to conclusions, they assume goodwill in others. Maybe they’re willing to try new things or consider other viewpoints. And they’re generally philanthropic. Likeable people are generous with their resources and emotions. They don’t compare themselves to others. They make us feel better. Better still, they make us feel. And best of all, they make us laugh. And everyone knows, the people who make us laugh—now, those are the folks we want to hang out with.
But wait a minute. That sounds like perfection.
It sure does. Let me reel myself in.
Your protagonist can be Debbie Downer, but she must have a redeeming quality. Something must endear her to us.
This might sound obvious, but with the agenda of a tightly wound plot on your mind it’s easy to forget about the first impression. Introducing a protagonist in the midst of a dilemma, like a good many of us, may have him coming off as inept, a know-it-all, or a drudge. Ask yourself: Is he likeable? What makes him likeable? How have I shown him as likeable?
- He may be exceedingly depressed, but he’s kind.
- He may be the antithesis of generous, but he’s funny.
- He may be a tyrant, but he has a hope in the future bigger than the great outdoors.
- He may be as dumb as a slug, but he’s teachable.
- He may jump to conclusions, but he puts us in touch with our own insecurities.
This goes for protagonists and antagonists. You, the writer, must create a point of contact. However thickly it’s veiled, there must be some winsome quality that makes him human, even a human for whom we can scrounge up a bit of empathy.