Ask This Before You Make An Unlikeable Character Your Point of View Character

Aut1382050_book_lookhors, have you really considered the risk it is to choose an unlikeable character as the lens through which your readers view your story?

Whether this character is a first person narrator or the character your third-person narrator most closely follows, giving access to his or her thoughts and plans, the choice to make this person your point of view character can work.

So many great tales have unsavory or odd choices as narrator. I don’t want you to  finish this post thinking that I’m saying, “Don’t tell your story through an unlikeable character.” That’s not at all my point.

What would American literature be without Holden Caulfield or Ignatius G.Reilly?

You can definitely make great use of such a character…. Just remember to contemplate this question first:

Is making this character my point of view character going to help readers understand and connect with him or her? Or is exposing the character’s inner workings going to make him or her even more grotesque and off-putting?

That last scenario is a real possibility, and worth considering. Not every gruff or awful character gets better and more “like us” the closer we get to him or her. And when that is the case, the more distance the better.

I think the Sherlock Holmes stories are a great example. Why is Watson our narrator? Why not Holmes?

Beyond the obvious answer–the fact that Holmes is the genius, the one with all the answers, and that if we were in Holmes’s head, we would have no mystery to read–lies another fact. Holmes is incredibly off-putting.

I love the BBC version of Holmes portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch because it reveals some very stark truths about Holmes that come through in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. There is something inhuman about Holmes.

For instance, in one story, he pretends to be someone else and makes a housemaid fall in love with his alter ago, just to get information. He has no qualms whatsoever about abandoning her once he solves his case.

He is cold and calculating. He doesn’t understand or feel emotion, for all his ingenuity and drive. And that’s terrifying.

Holmes has been able to become iconic partly because of how he is presented to us: through Watson’s eyes. Watson appreciates him for who he is, and is always willing to admit where Holmes is lacking, where he isn’t perfect: something Holmes himself can never really do.

Watson tweaks the way we see we see Holmes so that we can admire his strengths without focusing too much on the aspects of him that, on further inspection, would make our skin crawl.

So just consider who your character is before you let your characters get close. Will they like what they see?

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15 responses to “Ask This Before You Make An Unlikeable Character Your Point of View Character

  1. You know, this didn’t help me. I wanted you to give me a perfect answer! One of the later books in my series has a rebellious character who the story revolves around, and while he redeems himself near the end, I worry about him being too obnoxious in the meantime for people to care about him.
    I’ve been debating his character for a while. It’s important for him to be a jerk, to then fix things, but that balancing act is so very, very tricky, isn’t it?

    • It is. one that that I like is when an author gives a glimpse of something good in the character at the start. That way, when he’s not so likeable for a while, I understand there’s more to him and feel like I have a reason not to give up on him (or the story).

  2. trishmercer it is very tricky, isn’t it? Are you in his POV or other POVs too, because I think readers forgive a dislikable character much more readily if they know the author knows s/he’s dislikable. It’s like giving people permission to love to hate someone. The other flip side of this problem is that I find if you crawl inside most characters’ heads, even the dislikable ones become kind of likeable, because we see the logic and desires which shape them. And I’ve seen that criticised too, that characters who do terrible things are given too many excuses / rationalisations for their behaviour.

    • I wrote an entire post about this, Alex… how it’s important to let readers know you share their frustration. I agree 100%, it’s so important to let readers know you understand the character isn’t likable.

  3. I’d say it has a lot to do with the genre/story/plot. If the main character is a psycho and you’re trying to get inside his/her mind, then you might have to go places you’d otherwise not care to go! As a rule of thumb, however, our protagonists should be flawed but likable.

  4. The Poetry Channel

    Reblogged this on Writing In Black and White.

  5. My “Scrolls” series revolves around the perceived villains in my world, But I have also blurred the lines between good and evil to create a spectrum of greys with no true black or white.

    • I like to think there’s some gray in my first published novel. It’s a good versus evil classic battle, but the good side isn’t perfect by any means, and the bad guys have their virtues.

  6. A great point, and I loved the Holmes/Sherlock analogy. Sherlock does come out as a high-functioning sociopath, doesn’t he? I think he says as much in the last episode of the BBC series.

  7. That’s so true, Sherlock is a perfect example! ^-^ I think another brilliant thing about having Watson as the POV is that Watson is so relatable, we almost automatically like him. Then when we see the obvious admiration he has for Holmes, despite his off-putting characteristics, we are more likely to like HIM as well. We are trusting Watson’s judgement, and there is almost this feeling that there must be something infinitely more human under the surface which we can’t see, but to which Watson is privy. I think that is a great tool for an author. ^-^

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