Screw-up Characters and Admirability

An easy way to make a character likeable is to make them competent at their jobs/hobbies/anything really. The common wisdom is that we like characters who are talented.


Katniss is a pretty obvious example. She’s not warm and cuddly, but she slays, literally, with her bow.

Of course, being competent isn’t the only way to make a character likeable. One of my favorite character types is the screw-up, i.e., the opposite of the competent character. I especially love screw up characters in comedies.


Kristen Wiig’s character in Bridesmaids can’t catch a break. She had my sympathy.


Community: a whole cast of screw-up characters

Why do I like them. Whether they’re loveable losers, too dumb to live, or can’t catch a break…I want to hug them all, or laugh if not at then with them.

Thinking about this the other day, I wondered how well screw-up characters work outside of comedy. Spoiler: they can work in any genre.

harry potter exam takers

A compare and contrast in character competency.

Harry Potter, with the notable exception of DADA, isn’t particularly talented at school or magic. However, Harry is courageous, loyal, and good. Oh, and Ron too. Ron’s humor makes him pretty damn likeable.

What I realized, unsurprisingly, was that even though these characters weren’t competent at their “job” there was some big trait to admire. So if I can’t admire a character’s competency, then I admire another trait: their humor, their bravery, the way they’ve overcome their past, etc. Harry Potter serves as a great example of that. Somehow, in thinking about how to write a screw-up character whose shoes a reader may still want to fill, that’s the realization I came to.

However nebulous “likeability” really is, in fiction “likeable” characters are characters we can admire.

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