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.