Empathetic vs Likable

Comments in a previous post got me thinking about the kinds of characters who pull us into a story.

They're not always likable.

You probably saw my comment, but the first guy who came to mind was Melvin Udall (aka Jack Nicholson) in the movie As Good As It Gets.

Not the kind of guy you want in your family, or even in your apartment building, but he was portrayed in such a way that the audience (moi) felt empathy for him. Who wouldn't feel bad for a guy who's trapped by his self-made limitations?

Not likable, but I rooted for him, as well as the other characters, and though it's been years I haven't forgotten them. Still not sure whether I like Melvin though.

Can you think of a character you didn't really like, but you rooted for anyway? Ever wrote one of those? And if the character is both likable and empathetic, does that make the story stronger?


Scarlett O'Hara comes to mind. I didn't like her because she was snotty, self-centered and manipulative, but I wanted her to win and be happy.
Tabitha Bird said…
Hmmm.. I know I have rooted for the unlikeable underdog before... but I can't think who. I tend to like those characters that are difficult, but for valid reasons. Makes for a colourful story.
Jody Hedlund said…
I like characters that are complex and multi-demensional. I think it's tricky for us to protray an unlikable character that readers will be able to empathize with. Especially when we often only have 15 pages to grab an agent or editor's attention! We would be wise to study how these other authors accomplished the feat!
Unknown said…
Heathcliff and Catherine. Neither are likable characters really. But you sure to hope they somehow end up together. I love Wuthering Heights!
Jessica Nelson said…
Donna, I thought of her too. I wonder what it is that makes us root for her?
Jessica Nelson said…
Tabitha, I agree. It does make a more colorful story.

Hi Jody, studying these writers is a great idea! It takes talent to make someone root for an unlikable characters. YOu're so right that it's wise to study them.

Hi MaryBeth,
It's been really a long time since I read that book, but I remember not liking them much either. Hmmm...I might have to break it out. Thanks for mentioning them.
Rita Gerlach said…
Scarlett. Ah yes, the heroine we love to dislike. Donna is right. She is snotty, self-centered, and manipulative. The only time in the book I rooted for her was during the Civil War, when she and her slaves were all going hungry, and when she had to help Melanie birth her baby. I had hopes for Scarlett when she helped with the wounded soldiers, thinking perhaps she was going to change. But no. She went straight back to her conniving ways. Other than that, I thought she got what she deserved in the end when Rhett left her.

I never liked Heathcliff, and I can't seem to rally sympathy for him. He is cruel, obsessive, and controlling...and curses God as I recall.
Katie Ganshert said…
Julia Valerian in Mark of the Lion trilogy by Francine Rivers. She's horribly spoiled and selfish, but I root for her. Same with Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. :)

I've written some not-so-likable characters as well.

I thinkt he key is to give them at least one redeeming quality.
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Rita,
Hmmm, it's been so long that I don't know about those two characters, but I have heard lots of people rooting for Scarlett. As for Heathcliff, can't remember much about him.

Hi Katy,
Oh yes, Julia. :-) I rooted for her too, kept hoping she'd change somehow... Great example!
In the movie "Sense and Sensibility," i loved to hate the character Emma Thompson played. She was a buggar, but you knew she just needed someone to love her, and she'd be okay.
Same with the main male character in "Pride and Prejudice."

Hop over to my blog today to enter a book drawing!
Angela Ackerman said…
I've heard this character called the 'unlikable hero'. I think they are among the toughest to write because if it isn't done well, the reader will probably grow frustrated with the book to the point where they decide not to finish it.

I think House is an unlikable hero. Some of the things he does drive you nuts but in the end you root for him, especially when there are opportunities for him to become a little bit more human or a pathway to happiness opens up. You want him to take it, but in the end he rarely does.
AngeliStarr said…
LOL Angela Said exactly what I was going to say before I said it. House is the "unlikable hero." Theres another term for this but I dont remember it. I want to say its the antihero but I feel that might not be it.

I do like when these characters show up in any medium. They create a sort of distaste for everyone else and makes you want to follow them. I guess it makes these folks in some sort of way charismatic. Charisma and charm does pull people towards who normally most people may consider aholes.
anita said…
Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Sometimes I outright hated him for the way he treated people, but I could empathize with one thing: his deep loyalty to Catherine. So I still found myself rooting for their doomed romance, even though he could be a top-notch jerk.

As for my own stuff, I'm writing an Irish character right now that although he's the antagonist, is so darned charming I find myself rather liking him, until his evil side comes to surface and I remember that he's a slime. But I'm not rooting for him; I still want the real hero to get the girl. :-)
i recently read mary connealy's MOntana Rose and her villain, while doing/thinking some bad things, was really someone you could empathize with. his dad was terrible to him and gave him his multitude of complexes. now i never really LIKED him...but i understood him better.
Dara said…
I was going to say Scarlett O'Hara, too. There are a few times in the movie where you can actually see why she acts the way she does, but throughout most of it you just don't like her. By the end though, I feel bad for her and her poor choices and it seems like she finally sees it too.

Of course, my mom and sister said they just didn't like her at all and couldn't connect with her. Guess it depends on the person.

I am writing a character that I think I will have a hard time liking. As a human, she's a bit on the self centered side and can be a bit obsessive too. Of course I don't like her in her "monster" form, but knowing her history, especially what happens to her before she becomes the Yuki-onna, I can't help but feel bad for her and understand why she turns into what she is.
Stephanie Faris said…
Interesting you mention that. I found it hard to believe Helen Hunt would have fallen for Jack Nicholson in that movie. I know it needed a happy ending but I didn't feel it was a happily ever after when she ended up with him.

A LOT of movies I end up not liking because I find the characters unlikable. Did you ever see Tropic Thunder? I felt like everyone in that movie was disgusting and completely unredeemable...and thus, I hated the movie. It ended up getting huge critical acclaim and even being nominated for some Oscars but I just couldn't get past the characters.
Darcy in Pride and Prejudice didn't really come off as good until well into the book, but the chemistry between him and Lizzy had me routing for them to make it.
Tana said…
I have one in my new WIP. He's my MC's love interests brother. I'm having so much fun with him, even I'm swooning a little ;)

regarding a novel I've read, I'll have to think about that.
Jessica Nelson said…
Hey Jeanette,
Didn't Emma play the serious one? It's been so long since I saw that movie. Definitely need to see it again! I'll be popping by your place later. :-)
Jessica Nelson said…
Ooooh, Angela I adore HOuse!!! He's not even that unlikable to me, but my sister can't stand him. LOL I see what you mean though. He's definitely empathetic and the writers (and actor) do a good job of showing the viewer his vulnerabilities.
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi AngeliStarr,
Hmmm, antihero is close but I'm not sure it's the same either. Although an antihero would def. be empathetic. I read somewhere that Batman is an antihero.???
Thanks for stopping by!
Jessica Nelson said…
Hey Anita,
Okay, now that everyone's mentioning him I know I'm going to have to reread the story. The first time I read it I didn't like it. We'll see how it goes this time around.

Hi Jeannie,
Ooh, I'm jealous you got to read that! I love how Connealy writes. :-)

I've seen the movie but never read the book. I wonder if she comes off as more likable in the novel? Interesting about your character.
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Stephanie,
I thought it was gross that she was with him. I liked the characters of each, but I didn't think there was a good chemistry between them, not to mention the age gap.
I've never seen Tropic Thunder, but now I want to go look it up. An unlikable character has to be empathetic, I think. If we don't feel for them, then we hate them.
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Eileen,
I didn't know Mr. Darcy wasn't likable at first. I've only seen the movie. :-)

T. Anne,
Isn't it fun when we fall for our characters? LOL!
Keli Gwyn said…
One of my secondary characters does rotten things to my hero, but the hero knows the reasons why and wants desperately to restore their friendship. Understanding why the villain is the way he is makes him a sympathetic character, but he's not likable at first. As the story progresses, the heroine comes to see the redeeming qualities in the man and finally understands what the hero sees in him.

One character I found sympathetic but not immediately likable is Sarah/Angel in Francine River's Redeeming Love. She treats Michael Hosea terribly, and I ache for this incredibly godly man. However, since I know her past, I understand why she's acting the way she is. In the end, through God's redeeming love, she becomes a very likable character.
Terri Tiffany said…
I totally agree about HOuse. Love him and hate him and feel sorry for him. Can't wait to see this season:)
Jessica Nelson said…
Hey Keli,
That's a great example with Angel. It made me cringe for Michael, but at the same time Rivers' did a really good job of letting us into Angel's pain. The prologue was probably set up for that too.
Jessica Nelson said…
I know Terri!!! Eeekk! They left us hanging last season and I really want this one to prove that House isn't crazy! LOL
Hi, Jessica, Blogger seems to be working again! No Worries!
Jennifer Shirk said…
Hannibal Lector comes to mind for me. (More so in the movie than the book, though) LOL!

Whenever I read a Susan Elizabeth Phillips book, I almost always hate the heroine or hero--or both! It's a given that I'm used to. LOL! Then... she spinkles her magic dust on the pages and I suddenly love those characters about half way thorugh until the end.
She's amazing.
Jessica Nelson said…
You know, you're right about Lecter. I didn't even realize that I never didn't like him.
denise petrovich said…
How about the main character in French Kiss, Luc Tessyier. He was so grubby looking and a con artist and yet the writer wrote him with a softness that was compelling. On the surface, not a likable character, but underneath, utterly lovable. love Mom
Jessica Nelson said…
OOoh, mom he is one of my faves!!! LOL Yes, he's definitely an empathetic guy.
Victoria Dixon said…
Thank you, Katie Ganshert! You gave me an idea for possibly saving a short story in which I did this. I've got a heroine who is young (sympathetic) widowed (more sympathetic) and so selfish she's keeping her dead husband's ghost tied to the mortal plain because he promised her he wouldn't leave her. Now I have to find her a more redeeming quality than her basic situation. LOL!
Victoria Dixon said…
Thank you, Katie Ganshert! You gave me an idea for possibly saving a short story in which I did this. I've got a heroine who is young (sympathetic) widowed (more sympathetic) and so selfish she's keeping her dead husband's ghost tied to the mortal plain because he promised her he wouldn't leave her. Now I have to find her a more redeeming quality than her basic situation. LOL!
Jessica Nelson said…
Yay Victoria! I hope that short gets picked up. :-)
Deb Shucka said…
Scarlett came to mind first for me, too. And Rhett. I like complex characters whose warts show and for whom there is hope of redemption.

I really like your new picture. You beam.
Jessica Nelson said…
Thanks Deb! It's actually from last year, but we were at Sea World and I was with my hubby. I guess I was happy. :-)

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