Tips for writing unlikeable characters

Captain Jack Sparrow

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

At the Midwest Writers Workshop, ​I attended a session on how to write unlikeable characters without driving your readers away. This is tough to do, especially when you consider that different readers have different measures of what makes a character unlikeable, as well as different levels of unlikeable behavior that they’ll tolerate. For me, in order to enjoy a book with an unlikeable protagonist, that character has to be relatable. I have to understand and be able to empathize with this person. Or, at the very least, I have to be invested in the story and the way the narrator is telling it.

So, how do we do this?

1. Save the cat. Make the character do something kind (but still in-character!) in an early scene, and readers will be more likely stick with that character through later unsavory behaviors.

2. Give the character someone s/he loves. Readers will tolerate a lot more nastiness from someone who is fiercely protective of a friend or family member.

3. Allow the character’s bad traits to help him/her. A seasoned shoplifter may be able to put those skills to use when trying to sneak into or out of the villain’s lair.

4. Show off the character’s flaws with humor. Readers will put up with a lot more if you can make them laugh at the same time.

5. Exaggerate bad traits to a love-to-hate level. I’m sure we can all think of characters who are so awful they fit this description.

6. Give the reader someone to hate more. A carjacker doesn’t seem so bad when s/he’s chasing a serial killer.

7. Make the writing compelling. If the writing is good enough, readers will stick with the story for that.

8. Give the character a change to change or grow. This isn’t necessary, and won’t work for all stories, but sometimes the pirate who sets out to steal the city’s treasure may wind up saving the city and returning the gold later.

9. Make the character self-aware. Let your character own his/her dark qualities, recognize that they’re dark, but not care because xyz pushed him/her to that point.

Those are my tips and takeaways from the workshop. Is there anything you’d add to this list? What makes you stick with an unlikeable character?

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