Being a Better Writer: Likable Unlikable Characters

Welcome back to another Being a Better Writer post! I’ve got a lot to do today (tax season) so I’m diving right into this one as quickly as possible. Today’s topic comes from the request post I made several months ago (which I’ve been slowly digging through ever since), but it’s a topic that I’ve heard brought up before in writing panels as well as in other places. And it’s a good question, one every author will either probably consider or run afoul of in the course of their writing career. The question is: how do I write an unlikable character that the reader likes?

Now, some of you might snicker a little bit at that, but it’s a legitimate question. And, to be clear, we’re not talking about a villain here. We’re talking about a protagonist (or similar character). A protagonist who, for one reason or another, isn’t really the sort of individual we’d like to know or meet. And yet, for some reason, we’re still following the story. How do we craft a character like that? And, on that note, why would we?

Well, let’s take a look at some of the reasons why we would write a character that’s unlikable. It could be for purposes of plot: There might be a scenario or a situation in whatever you’re writing where an individual that was more likable wouldn’t resonate with what’s going on. Or, even more likely, perhaps they wouldn’t get into the situation your story calls for at all. For example, if you’re writing a short story about a disagreeable individual who gets into a fight with a gas station attendant for superficial, foolish reasons, and it’s going to be from the point of view of the disagreeable individual, you’re more than likely going to end up with a protagonist that’s somewhat unlikable. The more foolish their behavior, the more unlikable they’ll become.

You could also be starting with an unlikable character for reasons of character development; either a story that shows how this unlikable individual becomes better, or maybe even becomes worse. Either, way, you can’t have a character progress in that manner without being unlikable at the start if that’s the goal.

Or maybe, just maybe, you want to write a story about the success of other characters in spite of a thoroughly unlikable primary character, and want it to be set from their perspective in order to make the accomplishments and successes of the other characters all the more polarized against their character (Wuthering Hieghts is a good example of this, IMO).

Or maybe you’re just writing about an angst-riddled teenager (Catcher in the Rye, anyone?).

Right, so there are some reasons why you may want to have an unlikable narrator … and make no mistake, there are plenty more. But now, here comes the problem. I mentioned above the book Catcher in the Rye, about a thoroughly unlikable teenage protagonist. Now, show of hands, of those of you who have read it, how many hated it and only read it because you were required to by a teacher?

Right, you can put your hands down now.

Point is, Catcher in the Rye is an almost infamous example of an unlikable protagonist, because it’s rare that you actually meet anyone who likes the book as a result. Most people hate it, having only read it because it’s “a classic” required by their high school or college English teacher.

So then, the problem becomes if you’re going to write a story about an unlikable protagonist, you don’t want the only reason people read it to be “I was forced, against my will” with an added side of  “—and I now hate reading as a result.”

Yep. If your book becomes that, I’d find it hard-pressed to say it’s a success. So, again, we come back to this question that gets raised in panels and classrooms: how do I write a likable, unlikable protagonist?

You give the reader something to like.

Alright, that’s the short answer. And I’m sure a few of you are saying “Now wait, they’re unlikable, so what do you mean give the reader something to like?” So, let me explain this a little more.

You may have an unlikable protagonist, yes. But what if, despite how unlikable they are, their attitude and actions make the reader curious? What if they’re funny? What if they slowly drizzle out little clues as to why they act the way they act, clues that make the reader want to keep reading so they can figure out what’s going on?

What if it’s not even the protagonist that keeps the reader invested, but the world they’re in? Say you’re writing a Science-Fiction novel about a despicable thief that is completely uncaring and has no morals at all about robbing anyone blind. Anyone. Kind of an unlikable character, right? But what about the tools they use? The planets they visit? The way space travel works? The way they plan and pull off their heists?

That sort of stuff can be fascinating. And it can make up for the fact that the protagonist is an individual we’d never care to meet. A reader can be thoroughly engrossed in the world and the way this character goes about things despite being not at all enamored with the primary character.

There are a lot of ways to do this. Ripper, to use my own work as an example,  stars a protagonist who is a serial killer, a pathological man-hater who’s hunting down young courting couples in this steamtech/magic society and butchering them with a knife. It’s dark, and the protagonist that the story is told from the perspective of is creepy, disturbing, and very unlikable.

And yet that story has been the favorite of several readers of the collection. Why? Because there’s a morbid fascination that comes with it. The reader does not like the main character (reviewer “Papa Pat” Patterson called her “…a nasty little person guaranteed to give you the creeps”), and yet they keep reading it because of everything associated with it. There’s a world being revealed drip-by-drip as they move through the story, along with a very unique and original magic system. Plus, as the story opens, the main character is stalking her next target, and part of the reader is driven forward by the same emotion that would come from watching a car wreck, the sense of morbid fascination of “is this really going to happen? Is it? Is it?” Even if they might be repulsed by the extremely unlikable primary character, there’s a lot of other things going on that pull the reader in and keep them enjoying the story … even if it does give them “the creeps.”

Let’s look at another example of a way to create an unlikable main character that’s “likable.” Ever seen the TV show M.A.S.H.? If you haven’t, the whole thing is on Netflix. Do yourself a favor and give it a watch.

Anyway, M.A.S.H.‘s starring character is a surgeon named “Hawkeye” Pierce. And the thing is, he’s kind of a jerk.

No, really. I love the character, and I love the show (along with a lot of other people), but when you think about it, Hawkeye is a bit unlikable. He’s a shameless flirt and womanizer. He’s an alcoholic. And he endlessly mocks everyone and everything around him, including himself.

The thing is, we’re okay with that. Because at the same time, Hawkeye has a lot of other aspects to his character. Initially, we as the viewer like him in spite of his behavior because he’s funny. He makes us laugh. And we’re willing to overlook the aspect of “Wow, that was harsh” in part because he’s funny. But then as the show goes on, it digs into Hawkeye’s complexities, and we find that a lot of his “jerkish” behavior is a reaction to the horrors of the war around him, of spending hours upon hours every day sewing up 18 year-old kids in what he calls “meatball surgery.” And we start to see that despite all those rough edges that would make us dislike him if we ever met him in person, he’s a person who’s desperately trying to keep it all together and fiercely devoted to saving as many lives on the operating table as he can. And maybe we wouldn’t be so different in the same situation.

If Hawkeye weren’t so funny, I’d bet that a lot fewer viewers would have liked him. Without those jokes to make us chuckle, he’s kind of a jerk (though a jerk with a heart of gold). But that use of humor, of gags and comedy, keeps the viewer watching despite the fact that they’d likely quickly be bugged by such a person in the real world. Then, even as the humor starts to fade away, the character’s deeper sides come out and we start to admire Hawkeye for everything he’s doing and trying to do … even if initially he seems quite distasteful. Humor is a great tool for unlikable characters.

But what if you don’t have those tools? What if you’re not writing a story where humor fits, the setting isn’t some fantastical realm but regular, modern-day, Earth, and you’re not writing a character where the morbid fascination will work to drive the reader to keep moving forward? What then?

You find something else to pull them forward with. Curiosity, perhaps. Maybe an element of mystery (either in the plot or the character’s history). Action. You’ll want something that will offset the unlikability of the character and keep the reader moving.

Now, does this make them a likable unlikable character? Well, no. But you can’t always do that. Sometimes characters just aren’tlikable, like the protagonist from Ripper mentioned above. But the character being unlikable doesn’t mean that the story or the plotneed be unlikable .. and that’s where your work can still succeed, even with a character we hate.

In the end, once more it’s all about the balance. You’re trying to keep a reader interested in your work, but at the same time presenting a character who is unlikable: Something that will make them less interested. The way to keep that interest from falling off is to present other things about the character, world, or plot that will be interesting or intriguing.

A final word of warning: Unlikable characters, even well-written and with plenty of other things involved to make the reader interested, can be highly polarizing. The people that liked Ripper? There were also people who couldn’t even finish it because the main character creeped them out so much. There are people that despise Wuthering Hieghts for its cast of misanthropes. Crud, there are even people who couldn’t stand Borderlands 2 on account of Handsome Jack, because the core thing keeping players invested in his horrible character was his sense of humor, and if that sense of humor didn’t mesh well with someone, there was nothing to make them like such a thoroughly horrid and unlikable character.

Point is, if you take the risk of writing an unlikable character, even if you execute your other steps properly in order to give the reader something to hang onto, chances are that there will be a selection of readers for whom that doesn’t work who will then have nothing to hang onto. And … they’ll hate the character. But that’s just the risk you have to take when writing someone who’s unlikable. There will always be those who just don’t like it.

But at the same time, if you did your job right, there will be someone who will. And if those who do like them outnumber those that don’t, then you’ve done what you set out to do, and you’ve created a character who, while unlikable, still has some aspect that draws the reader in and through your story.

So, there you have it. How do you write a likable, unlikable character?

Carefully.

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