A character’s likeablity is if the work’s ideal reader is supposed to root for the character’s success because they want to see the character succeed.
A character’s empathy depends on the ideal reader being able to understand where the character is coming from or why they act the way they do. An empathetic character will try to change their fate for the better depending on how they define the term. The desire to improve their lot in life will keep the ideal reader reading, even if the work makes liking the protagonist difficult.
A likeable character has an ideal reader who wants to see them succeed and can understand the reason why they act the way they do. While they are the “easiest” character to write of the four, setting a likeable character down a path where something in their life, personality or world needs to meaningfully change if they were to achieve their goal is not an easy story to write. It, too, is just easier to write because the reader will continue to read because they care about the character’s journey.
This is the character that is easiest to have them do something unforgivable within the story’s circumstances. A character who kills the person who killed their dog is understandable. If the protagonist waited a year to plot the death of the dog killer’s family, however, the ideal reader’s empathy for the character can snap.
An empathetic character does not need the reader to like them or hope for their success. But the ideal reader of this work will continue to read on despite not liking the character because the reader understands where they are coming from. The character’s struggle to improve their lot does a lot of the heavy lifting that liking the character enough to follow their story does.
But there is less room for this character to do something unforgivable. All the reader is reading for is at least understanding why the character is the way they are. If the unforgivable act breaks that, nothing keeps them reading to discover what happens. The empathy meter has to be dialled in so the character can act unforgivably but not in the way its ideal reader would give up on the character for it. It’s a tricky balancing act but when done correctly, it creates memorable work.
A sympathetic character is a character the reader is meant to like but makes no effort to change their fate. We feel _____ for them when they experience ______ things, but without a desire to change their fate, the reader has nothing to understand about them. Meaningful work with protagonists who are only what they are is the most difficult.
An unlikeable character isn’t meant to be liked by its ideal reader and doesn’t ask its reader to understand where the character is coming from. It is far easier to create a meaningful unlikeable character in a visual medium where the viewer isn’t asked to empathize with the train of thought that allowed them to make horrific choices and carry through with them.
If an unlikeable character attempts to change who they are, they are an empathetic protagonist even if they fail. An unlikeable character does not try to change who they are.
The problem with “there are no rules” is that it teaches characters have no need to change anything about their life, world, or personality. If a character doesn’t attempt to change anything, the work doesn’t ask the reader to judge those actions based on where the character was coming from.