Helping Writers Become Authors

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?

Sci-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!