4 things authors should consider concerning unlikeable characters

1148655_vintage_fountain_pen_3What makes an unlikeable character unlikeable? Especially a main character? Why should we authors care?

I’m taking a brief break from preparing my second edition of the Herezoth trilogy to reread the twenty pages or so I’ve written of a prequel, which focuses on a character who’s a pretty miserable human being. She’s kind of petty and self-centered, and makes a huge mistake at the start of the book out of fear and a desire for revenge.

In this character’s case–her name is Verony–what makes her unlikeable is fairly obvious. It’s her attitude to life and the way she focuses entirely on herself, at least at the start of things. I can’t wait to see her grow and change as I get to work more on this story. I have no idea what will end up happening to her or what role she might take in supporting or opposing a grassroots resistance movement against a sorcerer dictator.

If readers aren’t going to like a character, that’s not a problem necessarily, but that reader response is something we need to anticipate and adjust for as authors. There are several things we can do to make a reader’s experience fun and engaging even though they don’t like one or more major characters in our story.

  1. USE THIRD PERSON NARRATION OVER FIRST PERSON.  Third person narration gives much more distance. And if you’re worried about a character’s obnoxious personality being overwhelming, distance matters. Distance greatly quells that “overwhelming to the point that I want to stop reading” factor. Unlikeable characters tend to be more tolerable the less exposure we get to them, both in quantity (page time) and quality (how close are we when they’re present?).
  2. MAKE IT CLEAR YOU DON’T LIKE THE CHARACTER EITHER. Third person narration helps here too, but this can also be done in first person. Having another character stand up to the unlikeable character, or call him or her out, is SO important. When that happens, you’re telling the reader, “I get it, I promise. I know this character is hard to take. That’s for a reason. I’m not an idiot, I’m not blind to it, and you can trust that I know what I’m doing.”
  3. IF THE CHARACTER IN QUESTION IS YOUR PROTAGONIST, CONSIDER USING ANOTHER PROTAGONIST. You don’t have to rewrite or change protagonists–in fact, maybe you shouldn’t–but just considering the swap can give you so many great ideas…. From having co-protagonists that switch every other chapter, to finding ways to add other characters to scenes in order to dilute the impact of the unlikeable character’s presence.
  4. FOCUS ON THE CHARACTER’S GOOD POINTS AS WELL AS VICES. We all have strengths as well as weaknesses. So unless your character is a psychopathic hitman/murderer a-la Javier Bardem’s character in “No Country for Good Men,” you can probably find ways to demonstrate the good points your taxing character possesses. Think about what makes that character human…. Whom does he or she love? What good things is he or she passionate about? Where is the soft spot in his or her heart?
  5. SHOW PROOF OF ONE GOOD POINT AS EARLY AS YOU CAN. Having that glimpse of goodness and that moment of strength in a weak character not only rounds the character out to make him or he feel real. It gives the reader a reason to keep reading through hope that that character will learn to let the good points shine brighter.
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22 responses to “4 things authors should consider concerning unlikeable characters

  1. I’m really glad I read this post, as I happen to be struggling with writing such a character right now. Thanks for sharing your insight!

  2. Funny how I do the ‘good points’ thing with most of my villains. The one that is truly unlikable is talked about with fear and hate all the time too. I do find one part of unlikable characters interesting. At least for me, I never know if the character will be like that in the eyes of the reader. There are some heroes I have that I think are noble, but flawed. Yet their flaws only get noticed by some readers. It’s a lot of perspective that an author needs to either factor in or accept.

  3. A great list of tips, Victoria! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Hi. Blake Snyder, in his book “Saving The Cat” offers up a film technique you hit on. As it turns out, he calls it ‘saving the cat’. He recommended giving our characters some kindness or graciousness to perform, very early. If our readers see Ms snobby nose doing something kind, we will be more disposed to view her sympathetically.

  5. Great advice! My sister and I were just discussing the other day how concerned we were that several of my characters may be too unlikable. I’m glad to know third person narrative helps. I do make a point to have other characters call them out, but it still concerns me. I’ll try some of your other tips.

    Again, great post! Sharing on Twitter!

  6. I’m writing a kind of anti hero right now. I think your rules apply, and I’ve followed them without necessarily having rules to follow.

  7. When ever you write about unlikeable characters, I’m always reminded of the crafting writers did for the character of Regina in the series “Once Upon a Time” – How I felt myself helplessly pulled towards liking her and being sympathetic, even though I really wanted to hold onto her being the bad guy – 🙂

    As a reader/viewer, I’m most often ‘swayed’ into liking the unlikeable when I’m given the backstory – the ‘why on earth would someone do such a thing or be such a way?” portion – If backstory is done right, I’ll always be sympathetic – 🙂

    • I. LOVE. REGINA. 🙂 She is such an intriguing and multi-faceted character!

      • Yes! I love her despite wanting to hate her – 🙂
        And I can’t help but say, wouldn’t it be grand if we could we choose to see our real life characters the same way? If only we knew the back story they never tell us as to why they are as they are – THAT – to me – is the gift and beauty of script and fiction writers – you provide the perspective for the audience to navigate the unlikeable characters in every day life! and, in the end, give us the perspective to see how to love one another – sans the back story – because we have been indoctrinated to believe – through the arts – that a backstory we love actually exists! LOL

  8. Great post – thanks! I have made my villain unremittingly bad – with a clear set of characteristics to demonstrate his villiany – he never blinks, he is described as ‘snake-like’ and he is always wearing black or grey. However, I have also tried to make him charismatic, in order to explain why people follow him – so when he engages with someone, he gives them his full and complete attention, and when he is in front of a crowd, he knows exactly how to whip them into a frenzy. I think it makes him a more interesting and rounded character, even though you’re rooting for him to get his come-uppance at the end!

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