Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Give Your Readers Someone to Hate

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Sometimes, your novel needs a character readers love to hate.

Last week, Literary Rambles posted a great article about why we need unlikable characters that reminded me of a conversation my husband and I once had.

We were watching Downton Abby and remarking on how much we disliked the characters of Thomas and O’Brien. But if the show got rid of them, then there’d be no one to hate, and we’d focus our dislike on the next least-likable character (looking at you, Mary).

After some discussion, we realized this was common across many shows and even books, both with us, and family and friends.

In order to have a hero, a story needs a villain.

People naturally choose sides, and without someone on the wrong side you risk readers disliking a troubled, yet vital character just because they have some issues.

(Here’s more on Who Hates Ya Baby? Creating Bad Guys Who Aren't the Antagonist)

Having characters readers actively dislike or even hate is a good thing, and here’s why:

Their Flaws Will Make the Rest of Your Characters Look Good

Readers judge by comparison, from the other characters in the story, to other books, to people in their own lives. It’s just human nature.

The worst character in the book will usually be the one everyone hates, even if they’re not a villain.

Think about the shows you’ve seen and the books you’ve read. Someone is always unlikable, and usually mistreats the main characters in some way. But there are also jerks who are part of the hero’s team and we tolerate them despite their bad behavior.

Dr. Kelso degrades everyone at Sacred Heart Hospital, which keeps Dr. Cox as the “tough guy who really cares”—even though he’s a huge jerk most of the time. (Scrubs)

Dolores Umbridge is awful and mean, and the type of horrible person readers run into in their own lives, which lets readers give Draco Malfoy a break for being “just a kid.” Even though he’s bad in his own way. (Harry Potter).

Joffrey was monstrous, did unforgivable things, but so did his mother, Cersei. Somehow, fans wanted his head, but they reveled in her badness. He made her look less horrific with his over-the-top sadism. (Game of Thrones)

The truly awful drew focus off the simply bad, which let readers accept their badness.

Terrible characters provide common enemies.

When things are going wrong, characters have someone to take out their frustration on besides each other. A focal point for anger than wouldn’t work if the main characters started fighting all the time.

It also lets readers and protagonists bind together against a common foe, which helps readers connect to and care about them.

A truly horrible character gives reader animosity a place to go.

The real antagonist isn’t always in the story interacting with the protagonist and other characters, which means the second-best jerk will take the brunt of reader dislike.

What happens when that jerk is your “broken and on a journey of personal redemption” protagonist? Suddenly they don’t look so good.

Let’s be honest—our protagonists don’t always do the right thing, or the good thing, and have flaws and issues that can make them act less than likable. That’s kinda why readers like them. But when everyone else around them is a better person, they look far worse than they really are.

(Here’s more on The Dysfunctional Home Your Flawed Character Was Raised In)

They Can Do All the Things You Don’t Want Your “Nice” Characters to Do

If your protagonist kills a dog or cat, it’s over. Readers will forgive them killing a person before that. Yet terrible things often have to be done in the course of the story. You want your protagonist to do it? No, not always.

Sometimes what we need to do for the story crosses a line we can’t let favored characters cross.

It might be morally reprehensible, or a necessary evil, but it has to happen or the story won’t work. Think about situations where the hero and villain have to team up to serve the bigger picture. Sure, the hero is part of it, but it’s the villain who does the actual dirty work. Bad thing done, hero spared.

Readers expect horrible things from horrible characters.

When a hated character steps onto the scene, readers tense. They know what that character is capable of and know that anything might happen at any second. It raises the tension and keeps readers glued to the page.

(Here’s more on What Downton Abbey Can Teach us About Tension)

They Can Bring a Different Perspective to the Story

You can’t have the light if you don’t have the dark. Joy is sweeter after sorrow, and pleasure more intense after a little pain. The contrast between good and bad can be a powerful tool for a story.

Lessons can be learned from awful people, because they see a side of a situation good people don’t.

A terrible character can show readers the depths of the evil that exists in a story without doing anything about it. Put the hero in the same situation and they’ll be compelled to act on it, which might not be what the story needs.

Awful characters can see the flaws in the good characters.

Protagonists surround themselves with people they like, who also like them. People who like you forgive your flaws as quirks, and see the positive side of those flaws.

But a character who isn’t their friend, who’s not a nice person, might see the truth behind those flaws and know they’re not the “cute quirks” others think they are.

They can be a mirror to the darker parts of the protagonist.

Sometimes you need a terrible character to represent the path your protagonist could head down if they make the wrong choices. Or show what would have happened had the protagonist not gotten a break, or had a mentor, or had the life they did instead of the life they easily could have had.

(Here’s more on Mirroring: An Easy Way to Deepen Your Novel)

We want our readers to love our characters, but that doesn’t mean we have to make all our characters lovable. Dark characters have a place in a story, creating important contrast and providing needed balance between dark and light.

Not everyone is all good or all evil, and we need characters who can play the roles of those closer to the all evil than all good side.

What characters do you love to hate?

Find out more about conflict, stakes, and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.

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  1. Excellent article.
    You'd think crime writers had it easy as there is usually a murder, therefore a murderer who must be a villain. Whereas I think it is actually more difficult. Make the signpost pointing to the murderer to big and readers response is more likely to be - Yeah, big deal, worked that out ages ago - leading to disappointment.

    Lindsey Russell

    1. Thanks! I agree. Either the killer is too obvious, or the red herring character is so clearly implicated we know it's not them. It's hard balance to walk between being a "bad guy" and not being obvious in some way.