Sookie, Buffy, Clark — these are all well-known main characters whose series ran long after their store of audience goodwill ran out. A lot of series' main characters end up being hated by the very audience they attracted in the first place. Of course, some portion of the audience will hate anything that's done with a main character, but there are ways to keep that hatred from spreading beyond the nitpickers. Here are ten ways that TV writers can stop the hate before it starts.
10. Sass isn't everything.
Neither is feistiness or spunkiness. Sometimes, a sassy comeback is an irreverent and witty way of looking at a difficult situation. Sometimes it's not even sass, it's Tourette's. Or it's extreme ingratitude. Or it's lack of self-awareness. Or it's just predictable.
9. No feeling sorry for oneself for more than two episodes at a stretch, or one third of any season.
People watch TV to escape. Escape doesn't always have to feel good, which is why so many TV romances have heartbreaking twists that cause the characters to scream and cry on camera. That intense emotion is its own kind of release. But three episodes afterwards, when people tune in to see the same person weeping and moping onscreen, it doesn't have either the emotional impact of tragedy or the fun of more happy escapism. It doesn't matter if their lover died, they lost their hand, their house burned to the ground, and their dog bit them on the butt so they can't sit down. They need to be up and over it by two episodes later or they are a burden to the watcher.
8. Have your character be his or her own evil twin as often as possible.
Sometimes people will feel more kindly towards a character if they get a break from them every now and again. Everyone from Clark Kent to Willow Rosenburg to Elena from The Vampire Diaries has a doppelganger running around, and all their shows are the better for it. The evil twin is almost always more fun, more engaging, stronger, smarter, and displays a wider range of emotion than the original. The twin allows the show to have a slam-bang action-and-fun episode while restoring the status quo afterwards.
7. Have the character learn things from their evil twin.
This is where a lot of shows hit the rocks. They have an evil twin episode that's full of fun and excitement, only to have the original character return and resolve to be nothing like their duplicate. If the TV show were reality, that resolution is probably a good thing. Since it's not, and none of the watchers have to experience the consequences of the twin's actions, it's just saying, "Remember how much fun this character was? I'm nothing like that." The hero should stay away from activities like murder and extortion, but there's nothing wrong with having them notice how much fun the evil character was, and how effective they were. Ending an evil twin episode with a resolve to emulate the twin's assertiveness, or fun-loving attitude, or daring, but not their immorality, would be a good way to have a character evolve.
6. Characters should work the strengths they have, not develop ones they don't.
Remember the first episode of True Blood, in which Sookie Stackhouse, perky blonde waitress, grabbed a length of chain and crept up behind two meth-head analogs who here torturing a vampire, and totally kicked their asses? That was some good stuff, and it established something: Sookie Stackhouse, with some planning and a little forethought, can kick the asses of at least two people. That's impressive. Since then she's alternated between either being saved or suddenly manifesting a glowing-hand power that can take out a vampire king or a fairy queen, but she was never as badass. If her power is Sudden Glowing Power Hands, maybe I have that too. Maybe I could do it better. But put me up against two meth heads and I'd die fast. So the fact that she can fight is cool. A lot of shows have character suddenly develop the power of flight, or strength, or even just the ability to handle a difficult situation. Suddenly manifesting abilities isn't as impressive, or as believable, as manipulating a situation to play to one's strengths, and audiences know that.
5. Nobody likes long-lost family members.
However the main character reacts to them, they're going to look like an ass. And the long-lost family members themselves are usually a waste of screen time and a drain on the show. Resist them. Resist them with all your might.
4. Find out which character the fans like, and make sure that the main character never crosses them.
A little pandering never hurt anyone. (Unless there was an undercover cop involved. But we're getting far afield.) Fans develop favorite characters, and taking those characters out at the knees won't make the fans stop liking them. They'll make the fans stop liking whoever took them out. Your character doesn't have to like the fan-favorite character. They can even fight them and win. They just can't humiliate them, cheat them, or completely destroy them. They also shouldn't be indifferent. A few moments of understanding between sworn enemies will get people liking a main character far more than the utter defeat of the character they love at the hands of the star.
3. Please and Thank You: They count
Think of the hero you grew to hate the most, in any TV, comic, or movie series. Now think of them coming to a person they need something from and saying, at least once per movie, "Please, help me." And then later saying, "Thank you for doing that." In the name of drama, many favors are coerced, beaten, or blackmailed out of characters, even by the heroes. That gives us plenty of tense and exciting scenes. Other things are just expected, especially from 'friends' of the heroes, and that gives us a sense of the closeness of the characters. But just having a hero coming into a situation and sincerely asking for help, then thanking their helper, can really put a spin on how a character is perceived.
2. When they fall in love, it has to be with a person they can have fun with.
I love long, melodramatic love stories. And I understand that it's hard to maintain their tone and tension when fun or funny scenes are dropped into the middle of them. But love stories that are nothing but overwrought emotional moments, break-ups, and tearful reunions get old when spread out over many seasons. Seeing the couple have fun - not generic fun like playfully having food fights or laughing and cuddling at a movie, but a fun time that's personal to them - is much more interesting than yet another 'romantic moment'. Showing the couple having fun in their own way, whether it's killing people, playing Scrabble, or arguing about their favorite baseball team, does way more for a character than yet another break-up/make-up.
1. It's okay if they're a jerk - as long as its acknowledged that they're a jerk.
What's strange about audiences turning on main characters for being jerks is that most people like shows about jerks. There are plenty of shows about anti-social, mean, and criminal characters that have massive appeal to audiences. The problem is, when the main character of a non-jerk-oriented show acts like a jerk, sometimes for seasons on end, nobody is allowed to say so.
Everyone reading this has friends, and those friends have habits that drive them up the wall. Sometimes, the habits are so pronounced that they even feel the need to take the friend aside and say so. Everyone's quick to point out the faults of their enemies. And sometimes, in their better moments, people see the faults in themselves, and try to correct them, if only temporarily. Characters, as they grow through years of television, develop the same faults. If the other characters in a show were allowed to say that, most viewers would be far more easy on a character who was a brat, or a snob, or too self-involved. Being a jerk, realizing it, and apologizing is actually endearing. It's when a character acts that way and the other characters don't say anything that we start screaming at the screen.