Worried Readers Won’t Like Your Character? This Trick Equals Insta-Adoration

This week’s video talks about the secret sauce you can use when you’re worried readers won’t like your character. All you have to do is add love. Really!

Video Transcript:

Sometimes it’s easy to get twitchy in writing a character who comes off as, more or less, a jerk. We need readers to like this character. We don’t want them to be turned off by his brutal sarcasm, his more than occasional selfishness, or his complete lack of compassion for other people’s needs. We want him to be a cool jerk: someone who calls it like it is, is anything but polite, and ruffles feathers all over the place, but who is somehow absolutely lovable for all that.

There are lots of reasons we love characters like this—everybody from Han Solo to Dean Winchester to Tony Stark—including the fact that they inevitably get all the best lines and that they allow us to vicariously say and do all the things we may have always wanted to do but may not have had the guts for.

Han Solo Harrison Ford Dean Winchester Jenson Ackles Tony Stark Robert Downey Jr

But getting readers to love an otherwise rough-around-the-edges personality can still be tricky—unless you know the secret. And lucky for us, it’s a really easy secret. All you have to do is have this potentially unlikable character love somebody else—and love them so ferociously, loyally, and surprisingly self-sacrificingly that this great love becomes a delicious juxtaposition with the rest of their personality.

Basically, it’s just an extension of the old “pet the dog” or “save the cat” trope, in which you’re supposed to secure reader identification with a character by having him do something nice.

Dean Winchester from Supernatural is a great example. Objectively speaking: kind of a jerk. But his unswerving devotion to his family, and especially his little brother Sam, reveals, at his heart, someone we can all resonate with and root for—despite sometimes “bad” surface behavior.

In fact, it’s the dichotomy in a character like this that ends up making him that much more fascinating and compelling.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Are you ever worried readers won’t like your character? How come? Tell me in the comments!

Worried Readers Won’t Like Your Character? This Trick Equals Insta-Adoration

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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 reminds me of Once Upon a Time, too, with Rumpelstiltskin. His love for his son (and later, Belle) is probably what makes so many viewers adore him despite the sometimes horrific things he does.

    This is a good tip, although I think you have to do it right for it to work. I could see writers just sticking in a character that their potentially unlikable character is supposed to love, but then never actually do any development that shows the unlikable character’s devoted side. But that’s just bad writing, nothing to do with the tip itself.

    • I’m worried I’ve done this with my main character who’s a car thief. Hopefully my alpha readers will tell me if I’ve done it wrong.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        When it doubt, ask the readers! But I would recommend not even mentioning the concern until *after* they’ve read the story. That way, you get a totally objective reaction.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ah, yes, good example (at least through the two seasons I’ve watched). And I agree, this isn’t a band-aid. In order for it to work, it has to be soul-deep within the character–and usually the source of interesting internal conflict.

    • S.R. Hand says:

      I disagree. Yes, he loved his son more than anything. In the beginning, it seemed as though he truly loved Belle, but in later seasons, he wanted power more than he wanted Belle. It wasn’t until the last season that I saw (I’m usually behind a season since I watch on Netflix) did he really did something to make me think he’s remotely redeemable.

      • For me personally, I don’t find his love for his son and, early on, his love for Belle, redeemable in my eyes. And I agree that in the later seasons he did come to love power over Belle. But it seems that a lot of viewers forgive him or like him because he loved Baelfire and Belle, so I was referring to that, rather than how I see it.

  2. I think you’re right on the mark with this post. I don’t know if I’ve ever made the connection you’re pointing out here consciously, but I can think back to all the jerk characters I’ve liked and see that you’re correct. They did love someone or something passionately and pursue it.

    I’ve also noticed that making a character very proactive can also help readers like a character, regardless of their personality. It’s similar to the way people point out that villains are often the most fun characters to read about. In a lot of cases, that’s because they are the ones actively doing, while the protagonist can get caught just reacting. I think if you combine your tip with a proactive character, it would be a recipe for success.

    • Proactive for the win. You’ve zeroed in on why I love certain characters. They plan. They go on the offensive. Hermione Granger is an example of this (speaking of female characters). Some people think of her as a goody-two-shoes, but she was pretty cool for going rogue and coming up with Defense Against the Dark Arts class in Book 5. Not only that, she figured out how to rebel under the noses of the evil authority figures.

      Yes, she studied “obsessively” and was one of those kids who always has the right answer in class. She kept trying to help those house elves even though they didn’t want her to.

      But, she 1) was a staunchly loyal friend to Harry, so that she believed what he said about Voldemort even when others turned against him, 2) her ethical system did not allow her to let the other students stay defenseless prey against their will, and 3) she understood that not all authority figures were to be obeyed. She was Lawful Good, not Lawful Stupid.

      She also had the competence factor: Even the older, more experienced Umbridge could not counteract Hermione’s spells, and Hermione was smart enough to anticipate betrayal and came up with spells to deal with it. Even her detractors would have to acknowledge that her “obsessive” studying paid off big time. Her proactiveness was my favorite part about that book.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good point about the proactivity. It kind of goes hand in hand with what I mentioned in a comment below about readers enjoying a character’s skill. Most antagonists are only threatening because they’re very good at what they do–and there’s always a kind of fascination in watching them do it.

  3. I do wonder, with societal double standards for female behavior and all that, whether it’s possible to pull this off with a female character. But that’s a whole separate issue! Maybe someone else will be able to think of good examples of this being done with female characters.

    I find I like rough-around-the edges characters if they have and live by core values or morals. Doc Martin, for example, is hilariously rude and has little regard for other people’s feelings, but he’s also fundamentally moral and gives his all to his job. He also truly doesn’t understand how to be polite, so I feel sorry for him rather than blaming him. And it probably makes a big difference that he does deeply care for at least a few people.

    • I think of Temprance Brennan on “Bones” as the feminine counterpart to Doc Martin (I’ve seen both shows). She has no filter at all, but she’s damn good at what she does. She doesn’t let her social awkwardness keep her from being good to her friends and her love interest (who is now her husband).

      She’ll fearlessly face down the bad guys, either with her brains or her brawn. She’s not as “serious” as Martin, though. In one episode she’s dressed as Wonder Woman for Halloween, and she comically finds out the hard way that her huge pistol is just too powerful for her. She later trades it one for a more manageable one, if I remember correctly.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Skill is another thing that wins readers over. We love to watch people who are good at what they do.

      • I haven’t seen Bones, but one of my best friends loves that character, as well as the pairing between the “hard” but feminine woman and a more emotional man.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Kinda like Kate Beckett and Richard Castle in Castle. I don’t like what they did with her character in latter seasons, but she starts out totally awesome.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I admit I had a really hard time (obviously) coming up with any female examples. Katniss crossed my mind, but she’s not quite a jerk and not quite “lovable” in the sense I’m talking about here. Scarlett O’Hara also crossed my mind, but I don’t think anyone *loves* her in the literal sense.

      • This makes me think of Smilla from Smilla’s Sense of Snow. While she’s tough-edged and prickly, she does fall in love in the book AND she’s fighting to avenge a child’s death. So while you love her toughness, you see glimpses of what makes her tick and realize she’s just multi-faceted, not mean. I think often female heroines like this also become endearing because they are fighting for something bigger than themselves (like Katniss).

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I wonder if perhaps the interesting dichotomies in female characters like this don’t “pop” in the same way, simply because we *expect* women to be caretakers and protectors anyway.

      • S.R. Hand says:

        Regina from Once Upon a Time. She keeps that same attitude throughout the series but you come to understand that she’s really a good person who just went bad. After a while there’s no denying her love for Henry.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          As I say, I’ve only seen the first two seasons, but I have to say: Regina drove me *nuts.* I never bought the show’s attempts to redeem her, and I got frustrated really fast with Snow and Charming’s repeated (and as it turned out totally shortsighted) refusal to bring her to justice. Plus, she was so *good* at being bad!

          • I agree. I didn’t think Regina was fun (but I quit halfway through the second season). I also thought her “love” for Henry was more possessive than anything else.

      • Andrea Rhyner says:

        Maybe Ripley from Aliens? She is very rough around the edges and is gruff and rude to most others, but she loves the little girl and wants to protect her. She also wants to save humanity in general. She’s good at what she does and shows off in the beginning when she drives that loader machine….

      • Oh, what about Miranda Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada? Definitely a jerk, and definitely charismatic. And that vulnerable scene after her marriage breaks up, when she isn’t wearing any makeup, elevates her into a real character. Of course Meryl Streep can do anything.

      • Professor mcgonnogal was prickly, abrasive and abrupt. She was always stern to the kids but her imminent likeability I think came from her love of teaching and the school. She was the ultimate “mom” figure – you may say you hate her one moment and be pouring your teen angst soul out to her the next

    • It’s TV, but… In Plain Sight’s Mary Shannon followed this model to a tee. She was fierce in protecting her witnesses and cared deeply about them and Marshal, in spite of being called a snark smirk in a leather jacket.

  4. S.R. Hand says:

    Gotta say that I fell in love with Dean at the beginning of the serious. You have to admire him for his to-the-point attitude and willingness to do/say almost anything. At the same time, he’s pretty immature and selfish. But there’s no doubt of his love for Sam and that nothing will stop him from protecting him.

    I’ve known plenty of jerks and most of them don’t have too many redeeming qualities. But give me a character who acts like a jerk but who has that one quality that sets him apart, and you can’t help but love them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      At this point, as I’m just reaching the last two episodes of Season 1, I’m finding him to be an insanely delightful character. On the surface, he’s totally “cool” and seems to have things way more under control than Sam. But we keep seeing the cracks and how what happened with their mom really messed him up so much worse than it did Sam.

      He’s fun, too, in that he’s really a surprising bit of stereotype-busting. On the surface, he’s the classic smart-mouthed, devil-may-care action hero. But underneath, he’s by far the more conservative and “domestic” of the two brothers. Sam, on his surface, is the stable, responsible one–when, really, within the family dynamic, he’s the rebel and the troublemaker. It’s a great slant on what we usually see out of dynamics like this.

      I’m fascinated to see where they go with them in future seasons.

  5. M.L. Bull says:

    Great vid!

    I have a few characters like this, such as Eric, my character Clara-Marie’s cheating, no-good husband. Lol. Though I didn’t know the terminology of these kind of characters.

    Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That was one of my challenges in my WIP: my bad guy is supposed to be charming as all get out. I needed readers to be charmed by him as (at first anyway), so they would understand the protagonist’s reaction to him.

  6. Great post, K.M. However, I noticed all of your examples were male. I find, especially in romance genres, the readers are much less accepting of a bristly female characters. Do you find that this same trick works for heroines?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yep, I have to admit (as I mentioned in a previous comment) that I wracked my brain for female examples and came up woefully short. Katniss Everdeen and Scarlett O’Hara both came to mind, but neither are quite the same “lovable jerk” archetype that we find prevalent amongst male characters. I’d love to see some examples if anyone comes up with any.

    • Andrea Rhyner says:

      I think Ripley in Aliens was bristly and tough and everyone loves her and the ordeal she faces (while she isn’t charming like Han Solo, she is lovable in my eyes), but there are definitely less females as you said. I can’t think of any others! Maybe that character Agatha Christie played in mysteries? She was lovable, but I don’t remember anything else about her. She must have been tough to solve mysteries. How about the main girl in Mean Girls? She was rough from living in the African bush. She ended up being snobby too, but was lovable. So was the one twin on the old version of the Parent Trap.

      I think it works for females too…..

      • I think it does work, but with some modification. I’m afraid female characters suffer from some of the same biases women in general do — that stating one’s opinion bluntly is taken as being abrasive, while the exact same behavior in a man is seen as admirably assertive. In real life and in fiction, men who are blunt without actually being cruel are often perceived as funny and charming, and people’s positive reactions to them makes them feel confident about themselves. And this easy confidence is part of why we like these men. I worry that it’s harder for women to feel so effortlessly confident in real life, and unless a fictional story is set in a different society (which it could be), it should deal truthfully with these difficulties. All that to say, I think this tactic for building a likable jerk can work for women, but I don’t know that a female character can be a likable jerk in precisely the same way as a male character.

  7. Thanks, K.M. W…. I’m desperate to find the key to making my curmudgeon lovable… but loving family members strikes me as being all too easy. I mean who doesn’t love their mother or kid sister? In fact, one hallmark of a psychopath is that they love their friends and family to death. “You touch my dog and I’ll kill you!” that sort of thing. The loved one is no more than a ‘thing,’ a belonging.

    I’m thinking now of a scene in the film “The Drop,” where the bartender/protagonist regularly serves a little old lady at the end of the bar — freebies — she can’t afford to drink. Now that’s the kind of love that doesn’t derive from self interest. Maybe it’s the small acts of kindness rather than the big obvious acts of so-called love. What say ye?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’d say it’s a valid point. I think though that in the characters I’m thinking of (haven’t seen The Drop although I want to), it’s the juxtaposition between their general curmudgeonliness and this selfless love they have for someone else–but that they, more or less, try to hide. They don’t wear it on their sleeves. In some ways, they’re even ashamed of it, but they can’t hide it or stop it. It just shines out of them.

      That said, I *do* adore characters who offer those beautiful little selfless moments for no other reason than “just because.”

    • S.R. Hand says:

      I think it really depends on the character. Yes, a bartender who slips free drinks to an old lady is sweet and shows that there’s more too him. But to me it’s not about psychotic love for someone. It’s about what you’re willing to sacrifice to protect that person. Would the bartender give his life if it meant saving the old woman? He might, he might not. Would he jump in front of a gun if it meant saving his wife or child? Most likely yes. Like I said, it depends on the person and the situation.

      One way to look at it is the way me and my husband put our children above anything and anyone else (which, hopefully, is what the majority of parents do.) We have openly agreed that if it comes to we would let the other one die if it meant protecting the kids…usually, though, this is in context with the zombie apocalypse and me getting bitten. Still, same principle applies.

  8. Curtis Manges says:

    The character of Debra Morgan, in “Dexter.” Rude, incredibly foul-mouthed—can’t help but like her.

  9. S.R. Hand says:

    Wait until you get to later seasons (I’ve seen up to 10. Eleven is either not out yet or is just being released). I won’t give any spoils but both of their characters get a lot more complex throughout the series.

  10. There is another female example, if you watch Hong Kong cinema. It’s the Thief Catcher character from “The Heroic Trio” and the sequel, “The Executioners.”

    Chat/Thief Catcher is a much-in-demand bounty hunter. Very much like Han Solo, a scoundrel who is in it for the money. You see hints that she might have redeeming qualities after she accidentally gets a baby killed while on a mission. Dorothy/Wonder Woman (Chinese version, played by the late Anita Mui) tests her sense of decency by throwing another baby at her. Chat reflexively catches it (it turns out to be a doll).

    Like Han, she refuses to fight at one point, even though there’s a baby-stealing demon on the loose. Eventually she agrees to team up with the noble-hearted Wonder Woman and the reformed San/Invisible Woman to take down said demon. Through it all, she strikes cool poses while wielding her shotgun.

    In the sequel she calls *herself* out, admitting she’d been an a-hole (her words) because she was unwilling to help Invisible Woman on an altruistic mission AND she was willing to work for the evil regime.

    Yet, she also protects Wonder Woman’s little daughter, after the evil regime has imprisoned WW. She has a hate-at-first-sight romance with a man who is on Invisible Woman’s mission (I suppose he’s Leia in this), and it’s this mission that shows her the error of her ways.

    I should point out that the backstory for Chat and Invisible Woman is that they were trained by the demon in their childhood. Chat took a while to regain her humanity after she escaped, and Wonder Woman helped her complete the journey.

    So yeah, I’m convinced unlikable female characters are possible. I think you have to do with them what you do with male scoundrels: 1) Give them someone to love, yes indeed. Also, 2) Give them a worse character to contrast against. Han vs. Darth Vader, Chat vs. the demon. And 3, give them something they’re insanely good at.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Oh, they’re definitely possible. But I’m wondering now if perhaps the model is different. Unless you have a character who is following a basically male arc or fulfilling a stereotypical male role (such as Chat’s bounty hunter), I’m wondering if the archetype is different for women. Going to have to mull on this some.

  11. Does it still work if the character loves an animal, like a literal pet?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Or even a plant. The lonely assassin Leon in The Professional is one of my favorite examples.

  12. Great advice. I constantly struggle with the fear that my characters are unlikable and I think you’re definitely onto something with this. One think I’d ask, however, is does the character need to actually love someone or could it be something instead. The (possibly) unlikable main character loves a watch his now-deceased father left him, or something like that.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I would say to get maximum effect out of this, the love definitely needs for something *living.* Love of a memory is good, but isn’t proactive enough.

  13. Andrea Rhyner says:

    I love this post!! This is such a simply thing to apply, but makes a character so deep. Han Solo is so charming but also a pain in the butt. Everyone loves him. As you mentioned, you found male examples, but I am sure it works for females too….. like Ripley in Aliens, or the gruff, tough twin in the old parent trap movie, and others. Thanks for posting this. It’s very helpful as I’m working on my characters right now.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ripley’s a decent example, although I definitely don’t consider her a jerk (in the first movie anyway; haven’t seen the others). She’s just smarter than everybody else on the ship. :p

  14. Excellent article/video – very thought-inspiring comments!

    So, as I’m understanding it, creating a character as an instantly likable, “lovable jerk,” seems much like generating an imaginary see-saw in the reader’s mind, with “jerk” qualities/behaviors on one side and “lovable” qualities/behaviors on the other. Then, it’s up to the writer to tilt that see-saw – again, in the reader’s mind – towards one side or the other for the desired effect. As you mentioned in different posts, the love-aspect, in the tension between those two opposing qualities, needs to reflect a love that’s “soul-deep within the character–and usually the source of interesting internal conflict” and “the love definitely needs [to be] for something *living.* Love of a memory is good, but isn’t proactive enough.” I suppose that could be considered the “tilting” of the see-saw in favor of the love-aspect?

    As for how this applies to male and female characters differently, it could be that the reader’s expectation of a female character pre-weights the see-saw before the writer even begins tilting it away from the “jerk” element. As to what depth and degree, it’s hard to easily say. It’ll certainly produce unresolved tension, however it’s used.

    Of course, to complicate matters, there’s the starting distance between the “jerk” and “lovable” ends, plus their respective starting weights on each end, as well the direction the see-saw is initially leaning and where you want it to eventually stop tilting. (I may have to map this in an Excel pivot chart?).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good thoughts. I think you’re spot on all the way through. And good point about the female characters possibly being “pre-weighted” as “lovable” (or at least “loving”).

  15. Kinza Sheikh says:

    Just started watching it and binge watching at that. I just can’t get enough of this series, although I am not much of a TV show watcher. And Dean really is one of my most fav characters of all time.
    I really like the way everything jerky he seems to be but while, the real issues are with the younger one. Who according to Dean’s own words, use his puppy eyes and win every heart. And the fun fact that most of the brain manipulation entities always seem to be using Sam as a bait. Because his mind kind of has it’s own weaknesses. I really wish to see the angers inside Dean sometimes get rioted too. But so far, even the ghosts seem to have a liking on Sam. -_-

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