Ah, the old dilemma: when you’re making up characters to propel or occupy your story, you want the audience to like them. Otherwise no one’s going to care enough to read or watch it. But how does one generate affection for people that aren’t real? Writers and scholars the world over have puzzled at this since the craft began. Of course, some of them just didn’t care and gave us outrageously unlikeable characters, some managed to strike the seam of gold between their words and the audience’s empathy, and some found a way towards both. Maybe the trick is not to worry about it too much.
I consider this after seeing a blog post floating around the ol’ Tumblr, discussing A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones’ Cersei, specifically her book characterisation vs her TV characterisation and how the fluctuations in them were going to make one of the biggest moments in the upcoming story fall flat. Book Cersei is much more volcanic, they argued, and much more of a sexual being than the TV series shows, which is going to make it awkward when she’s (minor spoilers) called out, shamed and generally stripped of her manipulative powers. What have they got to strip her of if they haven’t demonstrated these traits in the first place, leaving the show’s version of Cersei as a much softer and more likeable person? A commenter suggested that the head writers (affectionately called ‘D & D’) didn’t know how to make a character likeable without begging the audience for sympathy.
It certainly worked in the case of Daenerys, who quite plainly suffered through most of the first season, making it all the more uplifting when she rose to power and is now having a jolly time setting fire to people who try and oppose or abuse her. Pre-dragons, Daenerys is a teenaged girl sold into wifehood/slavery in an unfamiliar race, with a douchebag brother and a sense of resilience her only companions. Despite Cersei’s own qualms with her arranged marriage, penchant for revenge and other parallels you might scratch out between the two queens, there’s a clear difference that makes one immediately more ‘likeable’ than the other. Daenerys is an underdog, the stomped-on that we are all hardwired to support because we’d hate to see ourselves in that position. Cersei is the one who stomps on people (daintily and seductively), so naturally we’re less inclined to like her.
Yet the world overflows with Cersei fans, and fans of villains and terrible characters in general. Do writers really need to beg for sympathy to make people fall in love with bad guys?
Making them sympathetic is certainly one way to go about it, but there’s a line to tightrope-walk between giving your villain human qualities or a sad backstory to jerk at the audience’s emotions, and making them into a Woobie Destroyer of Worlds, their bad behaviour ‘justified’ clumsily with how much they cry. Voice actor Ian Sinclair gets rather exasperated in a podcast talking about the recent Marvel movies and how Loki is imbued with daddy issues that invoke his villainy. The essence of comic book Loki, he argued, was that he was a complete dick, and that was the fun part. Again it comes down to adaptations, interestingly enough—there was clearly a conscious decision within the Powers That Be behind the MCU that said it wasn’t good enough for Loki to just be the god of mischief.
Which is good on one hand, because characters that are evil (or at least oppose the heroes) just for the sake of being evil (“just because” as seven-year-olds will tell you) is pretty damn boring. The MCU’s Loki is a much more layered and interesting character given his link with Thor, the resident hero of his sphere of space, and his background of betrayal and identity crisis. I felt sorry for Loki, as did many of the fans all over the Intertubes sobbing over the emotional nuances of his facial expressions. But I also hissed “You absolute sonofabitch” at the end of Thor: The Dark World. See? They walked the line. Successfully, I think, in that case anyway.
Because yeah, you want your characters to be likeable, but you also want them to be layered and diverse and still capable of acting like the antagonists they’re meant to be, and you don’t want to sacrifice one for the other. Personally, I think there should be more stress on making characters interesting than likeable, especially if trying to make them sympathetic leads to a sort of writery grovelling within the story where they make them as much of a lost kitten in the rain as they can. Maybe it will work a small way for Cersei, but the main draw of her as an interesting character is how non-snuggly she is. She’s angry and icy and hates the role society’s put her in, but damned if she’s not going to use it to the best of her abilities. That’s what interests me about her, anyway. I liked our Honourable Hero Ned Stark, but he was fundamentally less interesting than some of the total assholes in the series.
Not everyone latches onto characters for how sympathetic they are. Has anyone who’s ever claimed to love the character of Hannibal Lector done so while going “He’s just such a sympathetic likeable guy”? With my limited knowledge of all things Hannibal, probably not. People like him because he’s so unlikeable, represents a concept so abhorrent to everyday society that we’re immediately interested. We can study a character like that detachedly, whether from inside his head or the point of view of other characters. Clarice Starling and Will Graham are the ones we’re more likely to root for, but it doesn’t mean we can’t hold a grisly fascination with the villain (or whatever he may be at that point) of the piece. Just because you enjoy the character, it doesn’t mean you want them to win, because that would likely result in far too many people being delicately eaten. It means you want to see them doing their stuff and playing their part in the story to the full.
Basically, you shouldn’t worry too much about whether your characters are likeable or not, because in the end it’s nothing but subjective and some readers or viewers will find a way to detest even the loveliest of them. And they’ll find a way to love the most detestable of them, whether because they feel sorry for them or simply because they enjoy how much of a little crap they are. Or perhaps a mix of both, an understanding of their gradually revealed inner workings and human, likeable aspects, combined with pure detached joy at watching them be terrible. The opposite of this problem, of course, is the one I talked about a couple of weeks ago, expecting us to like a character and then making them nothing but unrestrained awful in practice. Which is both problematic, bordering on cliched and really just lazy as heck.
Trying too hard to make a character sympathetic can come across as not only ham-fisted from a writing perspective (which, going back to D & D, they’ve been known to be. Look how sympathetic this character is! They’re so clearly tormented! Look how evil this character is! Watch them torture people multiple times even after we’ve long-since established it!!) but downright cruel and uncomfortable to watch. And it can diminish the power of that character, as in the adaptation problems of Cersei and Loki that fans have pointed out. If my advice means anything, I say you don’t need to beg for sympathy to get me to like a character, whether evil or benign. If I, or any other audience member, is going to like them, it will happen naturally and the likeability of a character will depend on the way they’ve been pulled off as an element in the story, as opposed to how much you’ve surrounded them with neon arrows that say “Sympathetic”.