Likable characters don’t need to be nice

Cheetah with popcorn

Thank you for smoking movie posterI recently watched the hilarious movie Thank you for smoking, the 2005 satirical film about a tobacco industry lobbyist, and I got to thinking about the common writer advice to create likable characters.

‘Likable’ is, I think, kind of a misnomer–it’s too close a cousin to ‘nice’. And ‘nice’, in turn, can edge dangerously close to ‘boring’. Nice friends–bring them on. Nice characters–meh.

Nick Naylor, the protagonist in Thank you for smoking, is not nice. Or how about this quote from the movie:

Career day in school:
Kid : My Mommy says smoking kills.
Nick Naylor: Oh, is your Mommy a doctor?
Kid: No.
Nick Naylor: A scientific researcher of some kind?
Kid: No.
Nick Naylor: Well, then she’s hardly a credible expert, is she?

It’s just so wrong and yet so funny. 😀 Who could get behind him in real life? No one. Nick is the furthest thing from politically correct. And yet, the movie sucks you in and pretty soon, you’re cheering and laughing with this guy. Because, despite his moral agility, he’s just so darn charming and energetic and smooth-talking. And the fact he is those things while simultaneously representing  a cynic, dubious industry is fascinating. He is not nice. Is he likable? Maybe. Certainly he isn’t wholly unlikable. But what he definitely is, is interesting.

And that, in my opinion, is way more important.

Do you have any favorite “unlikable” protagonists?

2 thoughts on “Likable characters don’t need to be nice

  • January 6, 2015 at 8:32 pm

    I think this is absolutely right. “Sympathetic” doesn’t not mean likable, (nor does it mean pathetic!) and that really is more important than likable. Case in point: Mr Darcy. There’s not much to like there, but when we see how vulnerable he is, we love him and root for him. Sometimes just being funny and a smartass is enough for us to root for a character. Look at Sherlock, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch. We really don’t like him as much as we enjoy watching the cleverness of him. In real life, none of us would want a friend like him.


Leave a Reply