There are the characters that you want to drink a beer with, and there are the characters that you fear could throw a beer across the room at any moment.
These are the two types of characters that every work needs: A likable character, and an interesting character. Now of course these two things are not mutually exclusive. However I’ve seen certain people allege that your protagonist needs to be “likable,” other people allege that they need to be “compelling” and I think both schools of thought SORT OF get it but are not quite there.
A few years back I went through a rather intense Scandal phase which helped prompt this revelation. I had two favorite characters on this show: Olivia and Huck. I liked these two characters for two entirely different reasons.
Olivia was a badass. I want her to be a real person who will be my best friend. She’s inspiring. She’s fierce. She’s the exact type of character that made Shonda Rhimes famous.
Huck is different. It’s hard to say exactly why he’s so interesting without revealing some spoilers, so SPOILER ALERT.
Huck likes killing people. Like, genuinely enjoys killing and torturing people. But he’s not evil. He understands how unethical these actions are, but it doesn’t lessen his enjoyment (think Dexter, if you’ve seen that). This causes internal strife within Huck that is matched by very few other characters. All of this is the result of a rather tragic backstory where he was part of a super secret government spy program. Unlike Olivia, I really DON’T want Huck to be a real person. I’d like to believe there is no super secret spy program turning otherwise normal people into psychopathic torturers.
But Huck had something Olivia didn’t. Huck felt like a character I had never seen before, rather than Olivia, who’s amazing but also not terribly different from the Super Publicists of other DC political dramas. Huck made the show as a whole more intriguing. And while I never got around to watching the last couple seasons of Scandal, the desire to know what ultimately happened to Huck would probably motivate me to go back more than my desire to know what happened to Olivia.
Again, it’s totally possible for a character to be both likable and interesting (Olivia Pope is still interesting in her own right, just not to the extent that Huck is.) But I find it helpful to look at these two types of character appeal as separate entities. It can allow you to figure out what’s missing from a protagonist, and make sure that if you want a character that’s only one or the other, at least it feels deliberate. It can also help inform what other types of characters you need in your script. Unlikable protagonists like Rick Sanchez oftentimes only work if they’re interesting, and a super likable but not-so-interesting sidekick like Morty certainly helps balance the equation.
Once you realize that it’s possible for a likable character to be uninteresting and it’s possible for interesting characters to be unlikable, you can ask yourself the important questions. Who do I want to be likable? Who do I want to be interesting? Then take the necessary steps to make it happen.