Do Your Characters Like Your Protagonist?

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Does your protagonist get along with everyone? I hope not! How boring.

"No matter what you do, some people won't like you."

During a conference this weekend, I made the above statement. Everyone at my table agreed, but then one person said, "But I want them to like me. I'm a likeable person."

What's Not to Like?

This led to a short discussion on why someone might not like a person:
  • You remind them of someone they don't like
  • You believe differently than them
  • They like different things than you
  • You have something they want and can't have
  • You force them to do something they don't like

Let's face it, if we all liked the same things--or people--there wouldn't be so many flavors of ice cream. How boring!

Yes, we want to be liked, and we want out readers to like our protagonist (usually a good thing), but we miss out on great conflict opportunities when the protagonist is loved by all of the characters within your story.

A Time I Wasn't "Liked"

A few years ago (more than I care to share), I ran a welfare-to-work training program for a local non-profit. One day, a graduate of the program said to me, "I had a chance to talk to some of your new students. I told them you were mean, but it was worth it. They'd learn a lot."


She described me as mean? Her statement stabbed me through the heart. I had poured my soul into helping these women get back on their feet. I cared about them. I saw this graduate as a friend. When I objected, she explained.

My expectations during the twelve weeks they attended the training program translated to "mean" to some of the students. What kinds of expectations did I enforce? Nothing surprising. I expected them to adhere to standards they'd find when they found jobs in the corporate world. Standards such as:

  • Proper dress
  • Acceptable Attendance
  • Participation
  • Professional Behavior (a part of their training)

Not unusual expectations from an employer, yet my students struggled with them. A few students didn't follow the rules and lost their position in the program. Others dropped out rather than follow the rules. Still, I knew they were better off learning these expectations from me rather than losing a job due to these issues later. We had a 95% employment rate among our graduates, so I may have been "mean" but it worked.

What's my point?

Not everyone gets along. Even when we mean well. We need conflict in our stories, and personality clashes are a perfect way to get them. Odds are your protagonist doesn't see himself as unlikable or mean or petty or whatever opinion your characters form about him.

That's what makes him interesting.

What are some reasons your characters don't like each other?


Valerie Norris said…
Thinking about my work-in-progress. Not everyone likes her. So that's a good thing? Lucky.

In my real life I DO suffer from wanting everyone to like me. Unfortunately, I live in an area that doesn't support my political views, and I'm surprisingly opinionated in my old age. Too bad. I spent too many years NOT expressing my feelings and opinions.
Haha! I am surrounded by people who don't always see things my way, either. I'm a little less vocal in expressing a difference of opinion...of course some people might disagree that I'm less vocal. All a matter of perspective.

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