Most of the time the characters we create to tell our stories will be likable, but sometimes a story requires a less than endearing protagonist. Today, let's dip into the mailbag for a question about dealing with an unlikable character.
I was wondering about main characters with unlikable personalities? I mean, not classy unlikable, or super smart bastard like Walter White or Dr House or Dexter or the BBC Sherlock (man, there are so many of them! and all males) but more like my main character who is kind of gross, brutal and not particularly clever, despite some interesting strengths and a funny quick response. Also her love interest is a lot like her and not even good looking.The answer is in your question--each of the characters you mentioned have something compelling about them that makes them interesting to watch, even when they're not being very nice. Their compelling trait is also directly connected to the plot of the show.
Of course this is all going to change through the story, but what if the reader dislikes her in the first place? Is there a way to make them root for her without compromising the personality she needs to start the story with, in order to improve along with her (mis)adventures?
Dr. House is Sherlock Holmes in a medical setting. House = Homes. Wilson = Watson. Both are drug addicts and brilliant "detectives" solving cases no one else can figure out by deductive reasoning. Being clever and seeing what no one else can see is what the character is about, and part of the fun of watching them is to see if you can figure it out first. To beat them to the punch. There's no sympathy for a character like this, they're more of a spectacle for the reader/viewer.
Dexter is a slightly different type of unlikable, because even though he's a serial killer, he's trying to do the right thing. He's sympathetic because he's fighting his dark nature and riding the world of murderers instead of preying on innocents. Readers want to see him succeed and overcome his darkness.
(Here's more on how to make a depressed character likable)
Tim Dorsey writes about a serial killer named Serge A. Storms who is funny and creative in how he kills and why. He's also a trivia nut who loves Florida history, and is just as likely to give you a tour as kill you. Sure, he might kill his neighbor for being too loud, but he'll crack you up as he does it.
Keys to Making an Unlikable Character Work
Characters don't need every one of these traits, these are just elements typically found with an unlikable, yet compelling character. Mix and match or use what works for your story and character.
1. They're larger than life.
The "special trait" that makes them compelling also makes them different and not the average Joe. Because of this larger-than-life trait, they can get away with things an ordinary person can't, because they bring something unique to their work, life, etc.
(Here's more on creating character archetypes)
2. They're funny.
Make readers laugh and they'll forgive most anything. If the humor is connected to the unlikable trait, then you mix what readers don't like with what they love and they'll accept it even easier. Do it well enough, and they look forward to bad behavior because they know it'll create the humor.
3. They have a redeeming quality.
Something about this character is worth rooting for, and it's something readers can relate to. They love their mother and go to great lengths to protect or care for her, they always stop to help animals, they cook meals for the homeless--something.
(Here's more on writing scoundrels)
4. They want to become better people.
Readers love an underdog, and they'll give someone who is trying to improve a chance. The trick here is to show that the unlikable character wants to change, but it's outside forces or forces beyond their control (like Dexter) keeping them from doing so.
(Here's more on creating character arcs)
5. They're not as bad as everyone else.
Dark protagonists are great examples here. Even though they're bad, the rest of the characters are so much worse. Show an unlikable character in contrast to how evil they could be, and that character becomes less "bad" by association.
6. They're fascinating.
We're often drawn to what scares us and what we don't understand, so characters who behave in ways that are appalling or frightening to us also fascinate us. How did this person get this way? Will they really do the terrible things they talk about? We want to know, even when we don't want to look.
7. They have someone likeable who likes them.
There's an actor who has a terrible reputation, is usually arrogant in interviews, and typically comes across as a real jerk. He's married to a woman who is sweet, smart, funny, and terribly likable, so it makes you re-evaluate him as a person. If she likes him, there has to be something worth liking there. The same can work for giving your unlikable character a wonderful best friend. However--you also have to show why these two are friends.
(Here's more on why protagonists need friends)
8. What they want is worth pursuing.
For me, this is the foundation of making an unlikable character worth reading about. If readers care about the resolution of the story--be it an intriguing plot, a hope the character learns a grows, a wonder if they get caught, a fascination with how things will turn out--then they'll keep reading regardless of how much they hate the character.
(Here's more on making readers care)
As for the original question...
If you have a main character who is "gross, brutal and not particularly clever," I think the keys to making her compelling to readers is likely going to be in the "some interesting strengths and a funny quick response," and her character arc.
If those strengths are ones that readers find intriguing and worth exploring, and her humor convinces readers to give her a chance, and her character arc shows she's going to overcome these faults in way they find compelling, then odds are you can get readers to stay with her.
I suspect the challenge here will be making readers care about the overall story to give the character a chance. They're probably not going to like her enough to want to see her succeed, so something else will have to hook them until she earns their trust.
Of course you could also employ any number of things on this list to nudge the story or character where they need to go.
Readers? How do you feel about unlikable characters? What makes you "like" one and keep reading?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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