Should your main character be reliable and likeable?

It’s often thought that it is important to have main characters, especially protagonists and narrators, to be both reliable and likeable. What do you think?

I was asked this question in a creative writing class a while ago, and it helped me to clarify why I believe a protagonist or narrator has to be reliable, even if it is reliable unpredictability.

When you craft the world of make-believe that is any story, you are asking the reader to trust you, to step inside the world and spend time with your characters and their story. When the reader takes this leap of faith and becomes invested in your characters and their journey through your story they have certain expectations. One of these expectations is that they are not wasting their time with your characters and your story, because they could easily be spending this precious time doing something else.

When you create a main character who reports what is happening and what they believe about what is happening, the reader expects the character to be telling the truth, i.e. the truth of the story. If the character turns out to have lied, it feels like a breach of faith and will leave the reader feeling dissatisfied and even angry. This can be especially true if there is no indication that the character is untruthful until the very end (which happened in a story I read and I’ve not read that particular authors work again because I was so irritated by the deception).

On the other hand, if the main character is saying one thing but the other characters are saying something different, or the main characters words and actions are contradictory, the reader will anticipate that there are secrets that have not been revealed yet, that the other characters are lying for reasons of their own or that the main character is not telling the whole truth. This can add suspense to the story as the reader waits for the truth to be revealed or the character(s) to be caught in a lie or called to task over their deception.

This is why I believe that your main character has to be reliable, even if they are only reliable in their unpredictability – because being unpredictable is a human condition. You may even know someone like this – if this person were to suddenly be predictable, it would be very unsettling. You may start to believe that this person has been taken over by aliens (which are a whole different kettle of fish). It’s a delicate balancing act but can be a lot of fun to create reliably unpredictable characters.

What do you think? Are your characters reliable or reliably unpredictable? Or do you think main characters can be unreliable?

Next week I’ll talk about why characters should be likeable but not so likeable that they are just ‘meh’.

One thought on “Should your main character be reliable and likeable?

  1. My characters are usually reliable. However, I just read Bad Monkeys and I was really drawn in by the main character who was “unreliable”. But she told you she lied so if you believed that she was telling the truth about herself, then you understood that you needed to read the novel that way. Was an interesting use of that kind of narrator. So am wondering how I might use that more. Carolyn

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