Four Secrets to Making Unlikable Characters Work

Sat Aug 25 2018

Thoroughly Unlikeable. Utterly Watchable

Most of the time, we writers prefer to work with relatable characters who are easy for readers to like.

Still, some awfully interesting stories can be written around protagonists who are very unlikable indeed.

The question is, how do you write a terribly flawed, generally unlikable character and yet still get readers to invest in the character and the story, and to root for them? Here are four things that help:

Give us something good amid the bad

Your character can be an outright jerk. A complete asshole. And yet, if there's something about the character that's good--no matter how deeply buried it may be--if readers can see that thing then they have something to hold on to.

The character of Dr. House is a fabulous example of that. The man dishes out verbal abuse to anyone and everyone within earshot, and yet we can still root for him to succeed because he is very, very good at his job. He diagnoses the impossible cases and saves people's lives.

That's a good thing, and we can root for it. Episode to episode, we're rooting for him to succeed in the medical mystery of the week. We can see that because of his skills, the world is a better place with him in it than without.

Rooting for him on that level gives the show time to build a slow, careful character arc for him until he's ready to start becoming a better person, at which point we can root for that, too.

(It's debatable whether House ever actually became a better person, but that's ok. Drama lives in failure, and we at least got to see him try from time to time.)

A skill or talent, as in House's case often works well, but you could make it something else. Imagine a character who is an abrasive jerk to everyone he knows, but then when nobody's looking, he does random acts of anonymous charity in such a way that he's sure nobody can ever blame him for being nice. It would be easy to root for that character, because we know there's good in him somewhere.

Give us a tragic backstory

We can root for someone if we know that there's some reason why they're so unlikable, and if that reason wasn't their fault.

House, again, shines. Though the show does not reveal what it was for some time, we can tell that something happened to House in the past. Something bad. Something that has left him with so much pain inside that he has responded by turning into a bitter SOB.

We can feel sorry for him--pity him, even--and on that basis root for him to someday face those demons and overcome them.

Give us self-awareness

There is a vast difference between a jerk who has no idea that he's a jerk (especially the ones who labor under the belief that they're actually super-awesome likeable people), and a jerk who knows he's a jerk.

The first guy will make a lousy protagonist because he has no idea that there's even anything about himself that could be improved--he thinks he's awesome as-is! Hence, there is no realistic hope for change, and thus nothing for readers to root for.

But the self-aware jerk? Well, he knows he needs to change. And that knowledge is a source of hope that he will change, both for readers and for himself. That knowledge allows readers to watch every situation he's in with an anticipation that maybe this is the moment when he'll start to change. Make a different choice. Act differently. And that hope is enough for the character to function as a protagonist.

Give us dreams and goals

Just about the hardest thing to root for is a character who shows zero motivation or inclination towards anything. A character who is just static in their lives.

But, give us an unlikable character who wants something--especially if that goal is something positive we can relate to, even if we can't relate to the person themselves--and suddenly we have a basis for determining success and failure of the character's plans, and once again, something to root for.

Show us that the character envisions a better future, because that equals direction rather than aimlessness.

A character we don't like who also has no direction is just a recipe for 250 pages of more stuff we don't like. But a character we don't like who does have a direction, is a signal that something better is coming.

Give us effort

And finally, give us effort.

Goals and dreams are great, but if the character never works for them then once again, what do we have to root for? What good is a dream if you never act on it?

I come back to the four-part mantra for what a story is:

A story is

The "Taking actions" part is really important. So show us the character's efforts to make those dreams happen, and we'll have no problem rooting for them.

Note, the character's efforts need not be successful. Success is just a bonus. Even if the character fails and suffers consequences, the efforts show us that they're trying and allows us to root for them.