Keep Unlikable Characters From Alienating Readers

Keep Unlikable Characters From Alienating Readers

Keep Unlikable Characters From Alienating ReadersBecause a strong character arc often requires a deep change of personality in the main character, writers are sometimes forced to begin their stories from the rather compromising basis of a main character who is less than likable. In some instances—redemption stories and their ilk, in particular—the main character starts out being a real jerk. So how do you go about keeping readers interested in these potentially unlikable people during the interim before their character arcs transform them?

Memory of Earth Orson Scott CardSci-fi wizard Orson Scott Card offers one option in The Memory of Earth, the first book in his Homecoming Saga.

In this story, his main character, a young man named Nafai, starts out as an immature, mouthy, typically post-adolescent teenager. On the brink of becoming a man but still treated as a child by his older brothers, Nafai often exhibits rude, angry outbursts that irritate, infuriate, and alienate pretty much everyone around him.

In short, he’s not a very likable kid.

However, Card utilized that special feature of written fiction—the ability to show readers what’s happening inside the character’s mind—to keep readers from sharing the common belief in Nafai’s incorrigibility.

Card shows readers that Nafai’s intentions are much better than his actions. We see what the other characters do not: that Nafai doesn’t purposely antagonize people. Indeed, he sometimes goes out of his way to be considerate; he just doesn’t have the knack for making himself understood.

Nafai bears room for growth in his character arc, and because Card lets readers see that this young man has the potential for that growth, they’re willing to bear with his antics along the way.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever written a character you feared readers wouldn’t like? Tell me in the comments!

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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.


  1. I find myself looking at the picture you posted of “Writer’s Block” and going, “Aww… That’s kind of cute…” Where do you find all your wonderful pictures?

    Both the video and the guest post were very good. I’ve used several of the breaking-writer’s-block suggestions, like writing a letter (though not to myself) or, as you mentioned in your post on Variation, working on another story or another scene from the same story to get my mind working again.

  2. Interesting thoughts on getting the audience to like unlikable characters.

    I’m working on a saga where there’s a fair amount of that going on. I’m doing it mostly by showing where all the unlikability comes from and using foreshadowing to hint at the changes to come.

  3. @Abigail: Thanks! I dig up most of my pix, including this one, on Flickr. My sister is a photographer, and I do mooch the occasional gem from her.

    @Mary Anne: Helping readers understand *why* a character behaves badly goes a long way toward gaining their trust. It isn’t so much unlikable characters that alienate readers as it is characters who behave badly for no good reason.

  4. When I first started my current project I did not like my main character but she’s growing on me and I think she will do the same to readers.

  5. Most of us go through bouts, during the first draft, in which we absolutely can’t stand our characters. In my experience, it usually isn’t because the character is so bad, at his core, but rather because he has a mind of his own and doesn’t always want to cooperate with us poor, lowly writers!

  6. Great advice in the video. I’ve read several short stories lately where I said, “I loved the story, hated the main character.” The writer has a lot of techniques available at their disposal to keep the reader interested in a not-so-likeable character. And I think we need unlikeable characters in fiction – after all, that’s real life. 🙂

  7. Goody-goody characters don’t go over well with most readers, and they never work if we hope to present a dramatic character arc.

  8. This is where my biggest struggle with my novels lie. I’ve had readers not love my MC in my last two books. I’m starting a new one and am trying to do as you said, show the inner thoughts even more so they understand their motives for their actions and hopefully will relate and like her more.

  9. Something else that I think helps reduce the alienation factor between readers and a difficult character is complete honesty from both the author and the character. We need to recognize the character’s faults and be honest about them upfront. It’s when an author tries to convince me that a scummy character is really great (or a stupid character is brilliant, etc.) that I get peeved.

  10. If the difficult character is able to convincingly state their case (why are they like that? What is their worldview?), alienation isn’t really a problem. As long as readers don’t become bored of a character.

  11. Exactly. If a character (and his author) are honest about his unlikable traits – and particularly if a good reason is provided for them – readers are generally inclined to be forgiving.

  12. I set out writing my last book, The Deepest Sigh, with a male lead who was a real jerk, an emotional cheater. When I pitched the story to my publisher I was up front with her. I told her I didn’t know how readers might react to his shenanigans, admitting they might pitch the book against the wall. Thankfully, they didn’t, and the reviews have been great. His character required, like you said, “a deep change in personality” (and realistic). Now I have a sequel, and possibly another, all focused on male leads who are anti-heroes in some respect. They are a challenge, yet oh-so-fun, to write. Their internal struggles do take careful handling.

  13. I worry more about agents not liking my MC. My first MC was too passive for one well-known agent. The MC was a young underling, low man on the kingdom’s totem pole, with a pronounced character arc. I can’t very well turn him into Rambo in the first chapter (what many agents request), so I have him pull a stupid trick on someone.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Agents are readers too. If the character is written to appeal to the right readers, it will appeal to the right agents.

  14. The “villain” character in the fantasy Strange The Dreamer was made somehow bittersweet by her guilty conscience about how few of her own people she saved. It really added layers to both the character and the narrative for Minya to feel that way.

  15. I wrote a similar post on my blog. If it’s OK, I’d like to include a link to it:

  16. Ted Marshall says

    I want to thank you for your wonderful blog and podcasts. I’m binge-listening and learning so much from you.

  17. Very good advice… Trying something new with a current project: intentionally gave all three main characters really prominent flaws. One is a cripplingly airheaded little critter, another is almost physically incapable of controlling her rage, and even the most sensible of the three loses all motivation at the sight of a situation for which she isn’t prepared… Hopefully once they all meet up they’ll balance each other out.

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