So, we’ve talked about character likability before, but this is a question I’m seeing crop up in the ask box a lot recently.
To start, here’s just a friendly reminder that we have a navigation page.
‘Likeability’ is located under the ‘Character Help’ section, and there we have this response I wrote a while back which breaks down how to present an unlikeable character as likeable.
As a summary, in the case of a character like this, it is more important how you present the information, over what the information itself is. The ‘information’ here, being that your character ‘has a big ego’, ‘needs to be reminded to think about how his actions affect others’, but ‘isn’t hateful’.
Since you’re the writer, you need to feed the information to your reader(s) in a way that makes them feel positive towards the character (as this is what you want). A really good example of this type of character for you to look at is Moses, in Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt. I’ll refer to him throughout, but in general, here is how to write a potential jerk character as likeable:
1. Juxtapose the Good and the Bad
You already have your character’s flaws worked out, so what about the good stuff? We have one to start with: he’s not hateful, which means he doesn’t do cruel things with the intention of being cruel, even if his arrogance leads to him doing cruel things in the first place.
This is exactly how Moses is in The Prince of Egypt.
It helps that the first we see of Moses, is through the eyes of his family as they desperately try to save his life from the slaughter befalling baby Hebrew boys. We see their pain, fear, and worry as they smuggle him to the river’s edge, and release him into the water. So our first glimpse of Moses is that he is helpless and vulnerable, but also incredibly, incredibly lucky to survive the perils ahead of him, and be welcomed into the house of the Pharaoh himself.
The next we see of Moses, however, is him riding through the streets with his brother, Rameses, causing a huge amount of chaos and upset for the ordinary people there. They ruin a temple that the enslaved Hebrews have worked under the crack of a whip to build. What this tells us is that, in his sheltered, privileged life, Moses has become complacent, selfish, and arrogant. He does what he wants, because he can.
Yet… he is also honourable. He readily takes the blame for what they did afterwards, and encourages their father to show mercy on Rameses. This is important because in comparison to the reckless Moses we saw charging through the streets, we now see a fair-minded, humble Moses. He isn’t power hungry. He doesn’t wallow in self-pity over the fact that it will be his brother, Rameses, who will inherit the mantle of Pharaoh. He seems genuinely interested in helping Rameses to gain a better relationship with their father…
Only for him to go straight back to his cunning, childlike foolishness in the very next scene. He wants to help Rameses, sure, but for him it’s funny to see Rameses get in trouble, and to torment Hotep and Huy. This scene reiterates that Moses is carefree of what he does to others. In harsher terms, he’s ignorant and cruel to people in the name of having fun.
But then we have to…
2. Consider the Consequences
The way to remedy the negative effects this type of behaviour would usually have, is to show the reader that either,
- Your character can express remorse, or make an effort to right the wrong he has committed; or
- The wrong is inconsequential, or played down as mere tomfoolery.
Alongside the opening number in The Prince of Egypt, we see the toil and slavery that builds the setting of the story around us. Any sympathy we have after Moses and Rameses damage the temple should only be directed at the slaves who worked to build it.
Yet we don’t see, at this stage, any direct consequence on anybody but Moses and Rameses. Nobody gets whipped or beaten. There are no guards yelling at the workers for what has been done. What we see is the Pharaoh scolding his eldest son, Rameses, whilst Moses is mostly left out of it. Plus, all we have really seen of Rameses at this stage is him as a much younger child, desperately reaching for his mother’s attention after she fishes Moses out of the water. Now his own father is treating him harshly, whilst apparently favouring Moses. It is Rameses we feel sorry for here, because he is the one facing the consequences.
The reason we don’t hate Moses for this, is because he then tries to make things better by asking the Pharaoh to go easy on his brother, which shows he can be sorry for what he has done, and that his aim isn’t to be cruel, even if his actions look that way at first.
We can see this notion of consequences appear again in the scenes afterwards, as Hotep and Huy are one matter, Tzipporah (the captive Midian woman Moses allows to fall back into the water) is another. Hotep and Huy are comic relief characters when Moses drops the sack of water on them. There’s no real consequence to what has been done, at least not to Moses, because 1) it is Rameses again who is stood in the spotlight, and 2) the worst Hotep and Huy can do is run to the Pharaoh, and all the Pharaoh will do is scold Rameses. There’s no real consequence, as Hotep and Huy aren’t injured, and are relatively privileged themselves.
Tzipporah, however, is there in the palace against her will. We see her fighting to be free, and refusing to bend to the will of the elite. Moses’ natural instinct is to protect what he knows, which is the Pharaoh and the people around them. He wants to embarrass her, because to him, her indignance is disrespectful. Of course, what he does do is in poor humour; Tzipporah is degraded and embarrassed in front of a whole crowd of people, and Moses is immediately invited to feel shame about it when his mother shows disapproval. There was none of that in the earlier scenario with Hotep and Huy. It was a much more lighthearted affair in comparison.
So we get to see that Moses can feel ashamed of his actions, and does, as he later helps Tzipporah to escape as a way of making up for what he did.
To summarize, if you can’t have your character make up for the wrong he does, then downplay the wrong to be inconsequential, so that the reader doesn’t have anybody else to feel sorry for, or compare the main character to in a negative way.
Then comes the most important part…
Even if your character has these flaws, you need to show that the more positive traits are able to quell them. Moses doesn’t lose his playful, lighthearted nature, it just grows into a more harmless version of what it was. Instead of belittling and hurting other people in the name of fun, he instead chooses to save the Midian High Priest’s three young daughters from bandits. With age, he calms down, and becomes a hard-working, trusted member of Jethro’s desert village. The rest, you probably know… and if not, I’d highly recommend you watch it…!
All characters should grow throughout the story. It helps the reader to understand who the character is, and where their morals lie. So long as your character isn’t always stuck in the mischievous, arrogance stage, the reader will be able to appreciate his more positive traits as and when you reveal them.
I hope this helps, Anon. As always, keep an eye on follower responses via replies/reblogs, as more helpful information could be added there…!
Best of luck.
This is super interesting. I’ve never thought about this systematically!