Writing Unlikeable Characters Readers Will Root For

From Jane Friedman:

I’m a big fan of antiheroes. A flawed character is just so much more interesting than your classic Dudley Do-Right. Anyone can like a character who makes the right choices and defends justice all the time. But that just doesn’t feel very authentic.

Can I just say it? True confessions? Traditionally heroic, always-good characters get boring.

Give me a character who struggles. Give me a character with flaws big enough to get in their way. Give me a character with complexity and baggage. This is a character that might surprise me. Perhaps not for the better—but I’ll be on the edge of my seat for sure.

I follow this mantra as much when writing my own characters as I do in my reading choices. Some—okay, most—of my characters are really rough around the edges.

But as my editor is always patiently reminding me, a lot of people don’t like unlikeable characters, on reasons of unlikeable-ness. This can be an especially perilous with female characters, whose margin for likability is even tighter than their male counterparts.

. . . .

Can an unlikeable character still inspire readers to root for them? Heck yes—but it takes a little alchemy.

Here are a few key elements to create an unlikeable character readers will still be willing to root for:

Redeemable qualities

Einstein once said that if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will believe it is stupid. Everyone is a genius at something. Likewise, when it comes to characters, every one has a quality worth respecting—something redeeming about them.

Elphaba was uncompromising. Dr. House was brilliant. Han Solo was charming. Redeemable traits can be found in almost any character if you spend enough time with them to understand their motives and underlying drives.

It doesn’t have to necessarily be a good quality. I enjoy Dr. House more for his wry humor at his interns’ expense than his ability to save lives—it’s just fun to watch, and I don’t have to want to hang out with the character myself to appreciate it.

If you can find and draw out these distinct qualities that make your character admirable (or entertaining), your unlikeable character will become a lot more root-able for readers in an instant.

. . . .

Action-Orientation

This was one warning my editor gave me about unlikeable characters I took especially to heart—a character who wallows and whines through the pages is no good.

A root-able character is a character who takes action. Taking the wrong action is far better than taking no action at all (see above). Action is the momentum that keeps the story moving forward—without it, it’s going to flail, and your readers are going to lose interest.

So when in doubt, keep your character moving. Then, make them wrestle with the consequences, for good or for bad.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

2 thoughts on “Writing Unlikeable Characters Readers Will Root For”

  1. I take a somewhat different view. The one who takes action is the hero. The one who is passive is the anti-hero. The brave one is the hero. The passive one is the anti-hero. Remove the moral component and the character is still heroic / anti-heroic. Anti in the sense of, “the opposite of,” when hero means “man of great strength and courage.”

    Scenario: terrorists are shooting up a school. The guy who runs in to save the kids is a hero, even if he’s also having an affair with his brother’s wife. His brother, who hides in the parking lot because he’s too cowardly to help, is the anti-hero, and he’s also faithful to his wife (let’s grant that he doesn’t know about the affair).

    By default, I’m willing to follow around the first brother’s POV, and would be irritated to follow the second, unless his redemptive arc is compelling enough. But if that first brother isn’t present in the story to save those kids, and the second brother is the only POV, I’m deleting the story from my Kindle. I simply loathe anti-heroic characters, they’re inherently unlikable. I don’t need the hero to be flawed and demon-haunted, he simply needs to be the huckleberry. And, depending on the story, the hucklebearer (explained in the link).

    Does a POV character move the plot? They’re a protagonist. Likable. Is the the primary POV character inert, and does zero to move the plot? They’re an anti-protagonist. Unlikable. And anti-protagonists tend to be incompetent and ineffective, while protagonists are competent and effective once they get a grip on the situation. The protagonist earns every victory. Love ’em. If the anti-protagonist is held up as the hero, and has every victory magically handed to him, chances are he’s a Marty Stu. Hate ’em.

    I guess if a character must have unlikable flaws for some reason, e.g., he’s dishonorable enough to shag his brother’s wife, make sure he is at least competent and useful in times of trouble. I personally don’t want to read about dishonorable people per se, so if your protagonist has such flaws, I’ll tolerate him if he brings heroism to the table. Heroism is a redeeming trait. Props to the second brother for his fidelity to his wife, but he’s not the huckleberry, and his anti-heroism during those moments when he has a moral duty to act is a fatal flaw.

    Also, since the OP mentions female characters: please do not mistake “violent, psychotic moron” for “strong.” I don’t know how those first three traits keep getting mixed up with the fourth, but it’s both annoying and weird. The former traits are not interchangeable with the fourth! They’re very distinct, with unsubtle differences. And worse, the protagonist with these traits rarely possesses a heroic core, which renders her thoroughly unlikable. Not that it matters, because the story will often be unreadable, too, and I no longer finish unreadable stories.

    • One thing I like to remind myself of from time to time is that the original meaning of heroic was “larger than life”, “brave”, or “memorable”, not good or praiseworthy. I prefer protagonists who could be seen as villains if they weren’t the focus of the story. Or even despite it.

      I just finished rereading Zelazny’s Amber series and I was reminded of this by both Corwin and Merlin. They are the POV characters of both arcs but if they weren’t, they could have easily been the villain Zelazny had focused on Eric or Random or someone else. They both act according to their own nature and interests, and are neither noble or self sacrificing. Much like real world folks.
      Too often the hero is presented as doing the moral or socially acceptable thing and the villain as acting purely out of self interest. Morality plays, basically. They can be fun but, push come to shove, I prefer the flawed or unlikeable protagonist, the “hero despite themselves” or by accident.

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