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:
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.
. . . .
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