There is a rule in writing that the main character of a story must be likeable otherwise why would we want them to succeed at all but as a teacher once told me, when you know all the rules you can break them all. When I say unlikable character I don’t mean Sakura Haruno from Naruto, I’m talking about characters like Tomoko from Watamote a anime all about a unpopular High School girls journey to popularity or rather her continued trek into despair or Rick Sanchez from Rick and Morty a series about a grandfather dragging his grandson into multiple of shenanigans and show that is layered with subtext. Each of these characters are terrible in very different ways but instead of repulsing the viewer they instead draw you in like a mosquito to a zapper.
Tomoko spends the entire series trying to get popular but all her plans end up in disaster after disaster after horrifying embarrassment. She doesn’t learn from her mistakes or grows from them, she is exactly the same as at the start of the episode except becoming more traumatised from each of her experiences. Tomoko doesn’t really function as a character she’s more of a symbol of everything that can be wrong with a person, she is packed with so many bad traits with her scheming, perverseness, social anxiety and her ability to get into one bad situation into another one, it’s possible that someone has probably experienced the same things that it at times can be painful to watch, causing empathy in the viewer rather than disgust or hate. While Rick isn’t a character you empathies or sympathies with he’s more of the I wish I was him person.
Rick is terrible, from his drinking, to his nihilistic world view, to how he treats his family as disposable objects but you want to see how his plans work out because it’s a fun ride and the subtext hidden within each episode and uncovering what it means is also a interesting journey.A lot of the time people miss the message of Rick and Morty and only see the surface, that’s why people rioted at Maaca’s in the U.S. Which is why Rick on the other hand is an aspirational figure rather than a symbol because he gives people an excuse to stay where they are not changing in the slightest. Each episode of the series he would go through a life changing moments where he could improve on his flaws but doesn’t, instead he embraces them, his self centeredness, self destruction, he embraces these horrible traits of his personality because he knows nothing matters and lives that way, why should other people matter he is the smartest being in the universe but people don’t like him because of these selfish desires, when people look at Rick they think if I had everything Rick had I would be happy but the thing about Rick is that he chooses unhappiness. Rick can be anything or do anything he wants and he time and time again chooses pain and self loathing then he just spreads it across the universe like a disease. Being smarter or better looking wouldn’t change his situation it cannot be fixed with either of these characteristics, external change does not mean internal change which is why he is still the same at the start of every episode.
When we see apart of ourselves in these characters and it’s usually the worst parts or the parts we wish we had. With characters like these the writer emphasise the flaws the character has and if it’s a very human flaw so we tend to sympathise with the characters more than if it’s abnormal flaw such as eating human flesh.
Rick and his terrible choices. Tomoko and her mountain of problems. Each with there own flaws yet so terrible in so many ways, whether their actions hurt others or themselves we cannot hep but be in love with them as they show parts of our past selves and who we want to be, between empathy and desire you can make any unlikable protagonist likeable you just have to stand still, never change, repeat old mistakes over and over again, while doing terrible things to yourself and the people around you and you might just be the story’s centre focus.