How to Make Readers Love an Unlikable Character—And Hate a Likable One

How to Make Readers Love an Unlikable Character—And Hate a Likable One

This week’s video discusses one important make-or-break way that can influence readers’ opinions in deciding whether you’ve created a likable character or an unlikable character.

Video Transcript:

As writers, we love our characters. They’re like the children of our souls. They’re us. They’re the people we would like to be. They’re the people we’d like to meet. They fascinate us, they entertain is—they make us love them, right? So it may come as something of a shock to realize that this character you love so much has the potential to inspire rabid hatred in your readers. And this travesty can happen for one very important reason.

I recently read a paranormal historical novel that offered up what the author intended to be a relatable, lovable, wonderful human being of a heroine.

But I loathed her.

There were a couple factors at play here, but the biggest reason was simply how dumb this character was. At every turn, she misread the obvious clues about the things that were happening around her. Other characters consistently got the better of her because she could not read their motives. Every single reader could see what was in the wind from a mile away, but this character hadn’t a clue.

Not only does that make for a frustrating plot, it also makes for a character readers have no reason to respect.

Now let’s consider the flipside of this. I also just finished reading C.S. Forester’s classic naval series about Captain Horatio Hornblower. Objectively speaking, Hornblower is not necessarily a very likable person. He’s self-obsessed, he can be cruel, he cheats on his wives, and his social skills leave something to be desired. And yet he’s a beloved character. Why? Because he is incredibly intelligent—not only in captaining his ship and thwarting the enemy—but also in his knowledge and awareness of himself and his own flaws.

So what’s the lesson to be learned here? Unless your character is just plain supposed to be stupid, never let him be less observant and insightful about the plot situation and himself than are your readers.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever been afraid you’ve written an unlikable character? Why?

How to Make Readers Love an Unlikable Character—And Hate a Likable One

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. This is precisely why I couldn’t get past the first book in the Twilight series and loathed the Hunger Games. I had a conversation with a coworker one time (who was also reading another teen fiction series) and I asked her why it is that so many female protagonists are so dumb. She agreed but felt that the appeal to young readers was that they could read the books and think, “Well, at least I’m not THAT stupid.” I don’t know if she’s correct or not, but at least that’s one explanation for it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hah. I doubt that’s what’s going through most Bella Swan fan’s heads. :p Keep in mind that particular target audience wasn’t looking for a scrappy heroine who was smart enough to save herself. They wanted someone who’d get into trouble and need to be rescued by the male lead.

    • I couldn’t stand her… all I wanted was for Buffy to swoop in, kill him and bitch slap her. She is a total waste of skin.

      I don’t want my girls to read about whiny walked-on females unless it is a lesson in how NOT to live life.

    • I’m still trying to work up the nerve to read Twilight, but if the lead character is really that bad… yeesh.

      Anyway, yep, I worry about portraying my characters badly all the time. I don’t want people to think I’m working from stereotypes, and I put a lot of effort into making sure my characters are at appropriate intelligence/ observation levels.

    • I’m with you on Twilight. I couldn’t stand the stupidity or shallow thoughts of Bella “save me” Swan. I think there are so many dumb female protagonists because they’re easier to write than intelligent female protagonists.

  2. I have deliberately written a number of unlikable characters. The trick here is to not make them totally unlikable. One of my most unlikable characters is a British spy-master who blackmails my protagonist into disclosing military secrets. As I was approaching the end of the story where the villain meets his justified end, I realised that I had made him a target of the protagonist’s hatred, and had limited him to almost a cardboard character. I had to modify him somehow. So I went back to earlier scenes and showed another side of him by having him sit down for coffee with the protagonist, and they have a conversation about their respective alliances. It gives the reader a glimpse into his motivation and the drive he has for following his own commitments in life.
    There’s more than one side to every character. It helps to show as many sides as possible.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      One of his best scenes! It’s worth noting – which I know you know – that there’s a vast difference between an unlikable minor character and an unlikable protagonist. Unlikable minor characters can serve an important role. Readers enjoy having someone to hate from time to time, as long as it’s not the guy they know they’re supposed to love.

      • I guess I misunderstood the question. It didn’t focus on the protagonist.
        I agree about The Hunger Games heroine. Because the reviews were so great, and because I ‘read inside’ on Amazon and thought the first few pages were well written, I went overboard and ordered the first two books. Couldn’t get past chapter 1 of the first book. I could see the potential for the story, but couldn’t empathise with the heroine (I forget her name…….)

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          The story is amazing, but I have to say the YA genre ultimately did a disservice (even though it probably wouldn’t have been so massively popular in another genre). The author had to sidetrack to fulfill genre conventions and gimmicks instead of unleashing the full power and potential of the story.

          • Perhaps I am too tied up with good vs bad writing. As I recall, I thought the writing was almost mechanical, and very immature. Now, there’s the reason. It was written to the YA reader. There ought to be a warning on the package – maybe like the warnings on TV about ‘content unsuitable for…’ etc.
            I tend to read like a writer. Over the years I’ve become VERY analytical about the words on the page: my words, and those of everybody else.
            Now, if I could only do the same about good structure….
            :[

  3. robert easterbrook says

    I have never created an unlikable character, that I can recall. But I have created things that some people just didn’t like.

    I create flawed, human characters not superheroes and people who pull magic outta their butts. That’s not my thing.

    I like to create characters who don’t know everything, can’t do everything, have some foibles, but can look deep within themselves in a bad situation to try to surmount it, or die trying. I suppose they’re braver than they should be, sometimes. But they’re generally fearful when they aught to be.

    Perfect characters don’t belong in fiction. I want to see characters that struggle and fall, laugh and cry, survive and die.

    I won’t create a character that doesn’t have flaws and can’t die when they’re supposed to. I won’t create characters where there’s like one against hundreds, they’re shot a hundred times, axed into a zillion pieces, blasted into the next century with cannon fire, drowned until they swim with the fishes, hammered into a quivering bloody pulp, speared through fifty times so they look like a sieve, lasered into fifthteenths, squashed by massive granite boulders, and head-blown-clean-off but magically survive every time by healing themselves with some strange blue crystal ready for the next hate-filled onslaught.

    Oh, was that last paragraph a bit much? 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Magically survive *and* still look gorgeous. Don’t forget that part! I’m reading a book that puts its characters the grinder, and it stands apart because the author makes those characters suffer the physical consequences: their scars aren’t pretty.

      • robert easterbrook says

        Interesting. I once reviewed a novel that claimed to be ‘urban fantasy’ – I’d never read one before, so I was interested to know.

        The first chapter was the best, the rest left me scarred for life – I’ll never go near another urban fantasy again!

        It started off with this great sword wielding, tough, seething, warrior princess, protagonist, but by the end of the second chapter, with 50 chapters to go, she was a wimpy, sad ass, representation of some guy’s wet dream, who fell in love with some misogynist dick, a-hole, just because he said ‘you’re pretty’ and soiled his pants every time she touched him. A sick, twisted version of Fifty Shades of Grey it wasn’t, and probably would’ve been interesting, if it had have been. If you like that kind of thing. 😉

        Someone I knew said it was ‘great’. HAHA But they also said, about one of my novels, that one of the minor character’s, the mercantilist, had made a decision to use something from the 17th Century so his boss could achieve victory against his ‘enemy’. That decision was apparently ‘silly’, according to the ‘reviewer’, because people living in a different century would immediately see that the use of something from another century would obviously be a diabolical ‘ruse’, and respond with incredulity.

        I wondered if the ‘reviewer’ had in fact had this response themselves when seeing something from another century? It happens in everyday life, that something from another Century is made a public spectacle, and yet no one responds by saying, ‘Danger, Will Robinson! It’s a diabolical ruse!’

        I was both amused and puzzled by the reaction. But I wasn’t at all sorry about my reaction to the urban fantasy novel.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Reviews are subjective. Always have been, always will be. The reader is always right – but only for himself. Another reader may have a totally different experience.

  4. I read a lot of manuscripts where the writer has created a very sympathetic backstory for the character, but goes no further in characterization. Sympathy is not enough.

    Nor is situation enough, yet many writers stop there, too.

    I think what helps me to create stronger and more likeable characters is thinking about their relationships with other people. I get lots of characterization ideas from that process because virtually all relationships have both external and conflicts.

    One of the main characters in my current WIP (although you never see into her head, a la the father in Kingsolver’s THE POISONWOOD BIBLE) suffers from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and diminished capacity…she gets herself into a whole lot of trouble because she doesn’t ‘get’ the relationship between cause and effect. Fortunately, I know someone who raised a child like her, and will be exploring the other facets of the FAS personality with that person. I want readers to like her and to care about her, not simply feel sorry for her.

    As for the main character, the grandmother, she’s telling me what she’s like…I wrote out her backstory in her own voice, and now she’s writing her scenes for me! Beta readers love her from the first scene, despite her doing something very stupid. But she’s a smart cookie, generally.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is a really good point. Backstory is a vital tool for character development, but at the end of the day, it’s *telling,* not *showing.* Readers don’t care nearly as much about what happened to a character as they do what *is* happening.

      • I totally agree about backstory! In my opinion, what’s important is what’s not even on the page. Backstory is a fantastic tool for the author as well as foresight, being able to know what happens in, around, before, and after your story, but what’s necessary for your readers is simply that you can communicate that you know all that stuff. By anticipating their own thoughts ahead of them, readers will trust that you know what’s going on behind the scenes…and they’ll thank you for not dragging them all the way through it. 🙂 Extensive backstory, as far as I see it, is largely the author’s job, not the reader’s.

  5. thomas h cullen says

    A year ago, almost now, it had been one of my comments that the more intelligent the storyteller, the then more intelligent the story..

    Which is what prompts me to argue the counter-point: the less abled hero, or heroine, can be precisely what’s the greater achievement of the storyteller.

    Less aware. More aloof.. On the part of the storyteller, this can mean more maturity of thought, and creativity.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sadly, not in the case of this particular book. :p

    • I think you might be thinking of something like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain clearly had to be a certain level of sophisticated to nail a novel with that much colloquial depth, and Huck is sometimes so painfully uneducated on any number of things. If that’s what you’re talking about, I agree completely. That’s skill.

  6. Amen!

    That is all 🙂

  7. Great post, and I love the Horatio Hornblower comparison. He’s one of my favorite characters of all time – steady, smart, enterprising. If a character’s actions or comments elicit eye-rolling (on my part), then I generally stop reading. After that point, I’m looking for reasons to dislike that character.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, it’s like a switch gets flipped in the reader’s brain. He’s looking for reasons *to* like the character up until the point that he feels the writer has betrayed his trust. Then he’s going to be actively looking for readers *not* to like the character.

  8. I don’t know if I set out to make my character likable but I did succeed in getting the reader to sympathize with him, even to the point where he goes and shoots up his school. However, I did have one reader tell me that they wished he would have “manned up” more when he was getting bullied.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Unless you happen to agree with that one reader, I wouldn’t worry about. If you get the same advice from more than one person, that’s the time to start thinking hard about it.

  9. This is the central problem in my WIP, in which the MC is a reluctant serial killer who was blackmailed into partnering with another guy in a series of murders for insurance profit. My guy is a wounded war vet with a horrendous secret from his childhood. It left him with half has face burned. Consequently, he’s never had a girlfriend. He’s pretty much resigned to being alone for life, but sometimes his yearnings catch him unawares. He has the misfortune of falling for the one woman who can unravel his crimes. So even though he’s a killer, because of his circumstances, (I’m hoping) readers can forgive his crimes and feel for his loneliness.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Most people resonate with the need for love. It’s a universal bond we share, which makes it one of the best ways to evoke reader sympathy in even otherwise awful characters.

  10. Tom Adams says

    The example you give highlights an area I constantly need feedback on when writing a novel. We try to get the balance right between two factors: firstly, leaving clues in our plot for the reader (or alternatively our protagonist) to connect together which, later in the story, might produce a final twist; and secondly, not making these clues too obvious. We often get too close to the story and need another pair of eyes to advise us. Alternatively, we need to lay the story to rest for a while and pick it up again once we have gained a little distance.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You’re right: it is a narrow line, and one most of us won’t get just right in the first draft. When you think you’ve got it right, ask the smartest person you know to read the manuscript and see if he figures out the clues before your protagonist does.

  11. Yeah, true, stupid characters are just a way to solve the plot easily…

  12. Interesting!

    What do you do with a character who is intelligent on some fronts but lacks self-knowledge? He’s going to get over this lack of awareness but until then, I fear he may not be too likable. I find myself making fun of him more often than not.

    I’ve been using Writing Excuses’ three pronged character development tweaking the proportions of sympathy, competency, and pro-activity and found it useful: (http://www.writingexcuses.com/2014/03/30/writing-excuses-9-13-three-prong-character-development/). The short version: a character can still be likeble while scoring low on sympathy if they compensate with the other two. IN theory characters low on all three traits are pathetic and unlikeable, while characters high on all three are too perfect to be real, both of which alienate readers.

    Thoughts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Actually, you’re totally on the right track. The greatest problem with characters such as the one I mention in the post is that the author and supporting cast never *acknowledge* the protagonist’s lapses. This particular character was *supposed* to be intelligent within the context of the story, even though, objectively speaking, she definitely wasn’t. But if your character is supposed to be “stupid” (to whatever degree) and the story acknowledges that, readers will totally roll with it.

      • I think I get what you’re saying – if you’ve set up an intelligent character and have them doing intelligent things, it’s glaringly strange and unbelievable when they do something stupid for no good reason. It’s about managing reader expectations, isn’t it?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Exactly. If you tell readers the character is stupid – and said character then proceeds to act stupidly – readers have no reason to feel betrayed.

  13. Fantastic point! It’s the most infuriating thing in the world as a reader to be made to believe that a character is the most competent private detective in the world, and then watch him walk cluelessly into the deserted alleyway, alone, at midnight, just like the muffled voice on the telephone told him to do. Just noooo.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes! Mysteries *really* drive me crazy when they do this. Here’s the detective studiously running around trying to figure out whodunit, and I just want to turn him around and point out the *obvious* killer.

  14. I had a (lead) character I was working on at one point– highly intelligent and knowledgeable in science/ technology and pretty much all academics, super-strong fighter (superhero, as a matter of fact), loving and kind, good cook, good house cleaner, incredibly organized, clever in so many areas of her life. And for the most part, I made sure to balance out the positive with the negative: she lived a childhood where she was a troublemaker (it still comes out from time to time) and has since repented, her relationship with her father needs a lot of work (from both parties, not just one-sided), she doesn’t always care about other people at the right time and in the right amount. Oh and she has a bad mouth, lol, which I can’t stand personally, but somehow it’s just perfect on her (as a flaw, mind you). But when it came to her fighting skills and other strengths, I tended to make her a little *too* competent. I tried to fix it by making her a horrible aim when she first fired a bow and arrow, but that aspect strongly conflicted with her previously-established near-perfect marksmanship with a gun and generally keen observation/ judging of distance and measurements.

    There were other flawed flaws (lol) as well that I’ve had to work on, and so far I’m pretty satisfied with the results. She doesn’t cook for herself as much, she hires help for house cleaning (though she’s not bad at it), and she struggles with history and politics (which gradually enter into her life more and more as the story unfolds, much to her dismay). I definitely don’t want people to hate her and grow bored because she’s so good at too many things. The point at which I got exasperated with trying to keep up with some of her skills was my warning to me that I was overdoing it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      She sounds like a good character! The thing we often forget about flaws is that they’re a ton of fun. I’m working on a superhero story of my own right now, and I’m having so much more fun with the side effects to his powers than his actual strengths.

  15. Amen. Creating a believable make-believe character requires passion, patience and purpose. Thanks.

  16. I’ve read a few books with seriously stupid heroines (and why is it always stupid heroines? Where are all the stupid men?).

    The last one I read had the same heroine as yours (only it wasn’t paranormal, so definitely a different book). Made some *really* stupid decisions despite the advice of everyone around her. This character made Forrest Gump look clever (okay, there is one stupid hero). I read the whole thing, thinking, “surely no one is this stupid”.

    Then I got to the end and found the twist: the character and all her dumb choices were based on the real-life experiences of one of the author’s close friends. Yes, people really are that stupid. Sigh.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hah. That’s funny. Sad, but funny! And this definitely isn’t a heroine-centric thing. I can think of quite a few male characters who qualify.

  17. “…the biggest reason was simply how dumb this character was.” Ha! Exactly! So true. My wife can’t stand these types of characters. Ironically, she always points them out before I do (and I, the writer, am supposedly more sensitive to that). Maybe I’m just more patient with the dumb characters. But once I realize how dumb their decisions are, it makes all the more sense why I find it so difficult to relate to those characters.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s great to watch movies and television with insightful non-writers. Their perspectives are always enlightening. They cut straight to the heart of the story without stumbling over technique.

  18. My major protagonist through four historical novels is a German cavalry officer who eventually if one of Hitler’s generals in WW II. How unlikeable can you get? Furthermore, he’s a bit of an idiot about his wife’s fears and needs, he’s scared of upsetting the apple cart of his marriage, yet manages to do so quite often. He’s not very interested in travel or the arts. He’s not a reader, but a mathematician – and you know how boring that might be… and a genius with numbers. None of this was planned ahead (I’m a pantser), he just developed that way so insidiously that I didn’t see it happening. He is who he is.
    The best thing about him is that as a cavalry officer he’s a magnificent horseman and almost made it to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He’s good with his men and a natural leader – so natural that he rarely thinks about it… And when the time comes he’s deeply opposed to Hitler and Nazism – yet he continues to serve and obey.
    Yet despite all his negative attributes, and despite the historical timeline of his full story (1912 – 1947) Schellendorf is thoroughly likeable. I think.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I guess he is kind of an idiot about his wife. :p But it totally works because his wife is such a complicated, messed-up person herself that it’s relatable for him to be unsure of how to deal with her and meet her needs, when she’s so unable to meet his in return.

      • One of the most difficult problems with this character was that, as he progressed in his army career, he became more distant, more controlled in his emotions, more secretive, more in command, and tougher. It was so difficult to keep him ‘human’. The way I did it was to harken back to his early roots, so that he slipped out of the harness at moments when it counted. And by his inner thoughts, to show why he decided to do the things he did.
        I love this character more than any other. Can’t shake him off, even now, two years after finishing the fourth novel.
        Does this happen to other writers? That the character continues to haunt our minds? I’m thinking of a fifth novel. Can I get away with it? (Stupid question…)

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I daresay most writers feel this way. For me, though, I actually find that when I put a character on the page it “frees” me from them and allows me to move on to new stories.

          • I have three new protagonists started in three different new novels, but none of them has grabbed me by the throat the way Schellendorf has done. *sigh*

  19. tessa lofgren says

    When you are interviewing your character for the sketches, are you interviewing them before the story starts? Are they affected by the story yet? Thanks!

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