Make your MC likeable, right? Give the reader something to relate to. Give the bad boy a soft spot. Show he has his heart in the right place. A moment of selflessness. Save a cat. Rescue a turtle. Lend money to a chimp.
Which would you rather read about, a dull, tedious, sympathetic character, or an exciting, daring, son of a bitch?
Obviously you don’t have to make it one or the other, but I would suggest when choosing between interesting and sympathetic, the primary area of concern is how entertaining your character is, not how much they give to charitable causes.
Making a character likeable or sympathetic will certainly make him easier for the audience to relate to and connect with. It is a very direct way to win them over, and quite simplistic, which is fine if that’s what you’re after. But not every novelist is aiming for a Dan Brown style blockbuster, no more than every screenwriter is aiming to write a Michael Bay summer tentpole movie. However, most instructional books are aimed at those markets. They’re about how to create the biggest impact in the shortest time in order to make the most money. And if you want to attract the attention of an agent from deep in the slushpile that is definitely a very good way to do it. Reducing concepts to their simplest form makes them easy to understand and easy to sell, but it also makes them unsophisticated and obvious.
If Aladdin steals an apple, evades the city guards, run riot through the market and escapes, and the writer wants people to like this thief so just as Aladdin is about to devour his ill gotten fruit he sees a couple of starving street urchins and gives them his food, then we like this rogue, right?
The problem is that it is corny. It’s obvious what’s going on. If the magic trick is performed brilliantly but I can see the wires holding the magician in mid-air, it’s done. I don’t care how impressive the ‘Ta dah!’ is, I’m not buying it.
I know that many people won’t read a story if they don’t like the main character. Lots of people insist on a happy ending at the movies. But there’s a reason why the term ‘Hollywood Ending’ is considered pejorative. Simple and familiar sells, no dount. Soap operas get watched by millions. Cheesy romance novels sell by the bucket-load. If a comedian drops his pants and has humorous boxer shorts on, he will get a big laugh.
Playing to the gallery is the best chance of success. And when it works, it works big.
Ignatius J. Reilly is the main character in A Confederacy of Dunces. He is thoroughly unlikeable with no redeeming features. He is hilarious but nobody wanted to publish the book and the author committed suicide. His mother finally got someone to read it and it was published posthumously, and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Everything they say about it being hard to get an unlikeable character into print is true. Lots of people still don’t like Confederacy even after it became an acclaimed classic. But a lot of people do.
In The Silence of the Lambs (book or film, they’re very similar) the standout character isn’t the sympathetic, clever and heroic FBI agent Clarice Starling, it’s the devious, evil, psycho Hannibal Lecter. Everything about him is repugnant and yet he’s the one people clamour for more of. Why?
When they first meet, Clarice approaches Lecter’s cell and another inmate calls her a cunt and throws a handful of semen at her (you have to admire his ardour). The next visit that inmate is dead. Lecter talked him into killing himself. I could force that into a Save the Cat style paradigm. Lecter’s warped sense of chivalry is in effect protecting Clarice’s honour and punishing the impolite behaviour of a brute. But, really? Does that win your sympathy?
What Lecter does is interesting. It’s impressive. It’s insane. And it’s darkly comic. But sympathetic? Likeable? Even if you view it as a man with his own moral code and principles that isn’t particularly admirable. How many politicians have you seen with strongly held beliefs that border on stupid? Feel any admiration for them?
Dark, unpleasant, repulsive characters litter books and movies. Not just villains. Dirty Harry may hurt bad guys, but he also hurts bystanders and buildings and everything in between (for the kids out there, think Batman without the wonderful toys). I could come up with examples all day.
What sells these characters is what they do and how they do it. Defying convention, coming up with daring ideas and using outrageous plans to get what they want. If we feel connected or sympathetic towards them, it’s after we’ve already been won over. And they don’t have to feed any orphans to do it, it’s irresistible just by their very nature. Audacity, inventiveness, a lexicon of swears to make your toes curl — these sorts of things have their own charm.
Most people read for escapism. They want the good guy in white and the bad guy beaten with style. Business people want to make money. It’s obvious how to maximise your chance to be the next big thing. And that’s fine. But save a little room in your hearts for an interesting character who behaves badly, he might be one of mine.