When I see the rule scattered across the blogosphere not to create an unlikeable character,
Is this one of those rules that can be misleading to a newer writer? (Because there were plenty that threw me when I was starting off.) An unlikeable character to me is someone I don’t care about. Not someone who is mean.
A likeable character:
- Does not always mean sweet, innocent, or moral. (Boring!)
- Does not mean everyone in the story must like them. (No conflict!)
- Does not mean they have to make morally right decisions.
- Does not mean they are polite and respectful to their parents.
- In fact, they could even be kind of obnoxious and mean to their peers. (Ramona, anyone?)
- And seriously, it doesn’t mean they have to be the outcast. (Though I suppose that’s the easy way to manipulate your reader into liking them.)
- It doesn’t mean they have to be the one being bullied and mistreated.
In fact, when done well, some of my favorite characters started off kind of like the bad guy. (I heart villains!)
Secrets to creating a likeable character:
- Create a thought life that connects the reader to the character. Major subtext needed.
- Make the reader care about the character even if he’s still rough around the edges.
- Show a home life or life outside of his/her peers that explains why a character is acting unlikeable. (Get straight to the heart.)
- When no one is looking, show the soft side. Have him a save a cat or something like that.
- Show all the areas where this character could grow.
- Show the why behind the character’s unlikeable actions.
- Give him a goal that will force this unlikeable character to change.
- The most unlikeable character to me is the boring character. But show some juicy internal conflict and I’m all yours!
Any other tips? Any unlikeable likeable characters come to mind?
I’m bookmarking this one, Laura! Very good stuff!
This is extremely useful information for me right now. I’m working up character sketches today. Thanks!
Susan Elizabeth Phillips usually writes an unlikeable characters in the beginning–but you understand why they are the way they are because their motivations are clear. Then she slowly shows them changing and then by the end you are totally rooting for them.
I think if the reader understands upfront why a character is acting a certain way then the reader will hang on for the rest of the story to see what happens and to see if that character changes.
Jennifer – Personally, I really like the “Unlikeable” character if he/she is done right.
V.V. – Thanks. I’m constantly thinking about characters!
Katie – Thanks!
Great post! I don’t mind if a character isn’t likeable as long as there’s something there I can relate to. I have to say, though, that characters who just won’t stop talking and have to tell you their opinions on everything really turn me off!
Great post, Laura! I disliked Snape as a character at first in HP but he was so complex that you couldn’t help but feeling for him, especially after hearing about how he was treated at school.
Anna – yeah, there are certain character qualities that will turn me off too. I can see how being opinionated would get annoying!
Kelly – I love Snape. I thought he was so well developed.
Internal conflict is the name of the game I guess. Easier said then done, I need to work on this one.
It’s not so much that they have to be likeable. They have to be sympathetic. I’ve read some great books in which the mc wasn’t nice, but you don’t know that until the story unfolds and you see the real her. But there was something about her in the first few chapters that is relatable. Fortunately by the end of the book, she’s changed as a person and is now likeable.
Great post as always, Laura!
This is very true, but sometimes hard to accomplish. I heart villians, too. I sometimes find writing the villian is easier than writing the good guy.
Angela – Internal conflict is always hard to get right. At least for me!
Stina – I agree, Stina – likeable is about rooting for them, not how they act!
Christine – Me too! Writing a likeable unlikeable character is extremely hard!
Agreed. Great post as always. I especially like the part about showing where they can grow. That’s so important!
I liked what Stina said, it’s about sympathetic, because if you don’t care about the character, you’re not going to invest your time to read about them.
Writing the ellusive “likable” character can be tough. Your list helps so much–especially the point that the reader has to care about the MC.
Another great post, Laura.
I hate boring characters too. Especially the “goody-two shoes” kind. I like characters who make mistakes and do things that blur the lines.
I’ve heard people say that Artemis Fowl is an unlikeable character. I mean, he is a criminal mastermind who kidnapped a fairy and held her ransom, but I absolutely LOVE him!! He has his own convoluted reasons for his actions and throughout the series we get to see him grow and change. He’s not a perfect child, but he’s a fabulous character to read about!
I was going to say “Case in point: Snape” but someone beat me to it.
Great post, Laura!
Some great examples here. Snape, Artemis Fowl! Thanks for commenting everyone!
There are the characters we love to hate. All they need is one redeeming quality. Kind of like snape from HP. He was god-aweful but at the end of the day ‘he did it for love’:) GP!
So glad you pointed that out! Too me the most likable characters are those that have flaws. No one’s perfect. And your characters shouldn’t be either! GIve them room to grow. And, uh, I <3 bad guys too!!
It’s interesting how you say, make him like a cat…I’m reading a screenwriting book right now called Save The Cat! and that’s exactly his reasoning. If you want people to root for a less than perfect character you have to give them at least one redeeming quality.
Elle – That was a play on Blake’s book. I read it and loved it! 🙂
It’s all about making sure the reader connects to the character in some way. A well-rounded character will have flaws galore, but also some redeeming qualities. You’ve summed it up very nicely here.
Good stuff! I always want to bookmark these when you share them! 🙂
McKee made a brilliant distinction between sympathetic and empathetic characters. In short, we don’t have to like a character, we just have to be able to imagine some way, some how, that we could BE that character. A solid internal conflict would do that in a heartbeat (who hasn’t been internally conflicted?). Or a heartbreaking reason why they are the sorry pieces of humanity that they’ve become. Some touchstone that says, “that could be me…” 🙂
Jennifer Shirk makes a great point! S.E.P. likes to keep her books filled with unlikeable characters that you soon don’t realize you hated in the first place.
One of the first things I learned while writing is you don’t always have to like your character but you do have to embrace the feeling you have for them.
I think Stephen King (in his book On Writing) makes a great point with his story Carrie. He hated her but later learned to pity her. So while in writing the story you never truly relate to Carrie you just feel sorry for her. That was a book he never intended on finishing but his wife new it would be a great book so she pushed.
Yup, save a cat. In tons of movies the main character will pet a dog, or do something nice for a kid, early on to establish likability. We might never see the cat, dog or kid again, but we like the main character. Mission accomplished.
Great post, Laura!! I’ve worked on this issue in my own writing b/c some of my characters do bad things!!
I really struggled with this liking your MC aspect at first.I liked my character but others found traits that bothered them enough that it made them dislike her. So I had to work at getting her sympathetic right off the start and then allow her to make some bad choices etc and seemed to work much better.
This post is soooo right on and a mistake I made for years. I JUST finished a big-time novel that for me fell flat because…
I didn’t like the spoiled, trying to be cute character.
You give us great tips for getting it right.
Blessings, dear one.
Great tips Laura. I particularly don’t like the whiny character. That will immediately make me stop reading the book.