This writer is willing to bet you know no perfect people. You probably love (at least a few of) them, anyway. Sometimes you like them, sometimes you don’t, but they’ll always have a special place in your heart. This is the root of unlikeable character magic, and casting a spell over readers so they cheer on an imperfect lead grows from there.
Empathy for Humanity
Even unlikeable people have something likable about them. Maybe they genuinely like kids, they practice good manners, or they’re loyal friends. Maybe they just love dogs. The television show Hannibal did this particularly well. Neither the hero nor the villain is traditionally likeable, but the audience cheers them both on, which plays into the show’s convoluted emotional ethics. Hannibal is polite, attentive, and intensely sincere even (especially) when killing. Will is rude, antisocial, and probably a little too into the bad things he studies. But he likes dogs and takes good care of his pack. He suffers for his social problems, too.
That brings us to the second way to humanize your character: pain. This shouldn’t be applied too liberally (more on that below), but imperfect people who sometimes face consequences for their imperfections are just like real people, which is the heart of great character building. It’s an especially important element in building deeply flawed, “unlikeable” characters. Going back to Hannibal, Will’s love for his dogs is as adorable as it is a clear demonstration of his loneliness. They’re his friends. He can’t engage with people, even the ones he likes. On the other hand, there’s Hannibal, whose hidden life and high standards keep the rest of the world at arm’s length. They’re both unlikeable, but they’re both fantastically engaging. And even if they aren’t likeable, fans insist they’re loveable.
Chasing a Goal
If you’ve practiced writing balanced villains, then you’ve practiced writing unlikeable characters audiences are at least tempted to cheer for. You just need to take things one step further. Give the unlikeable character the driving goal. Great villains have understandable ambitions and motivations readers may relate to. They may only be true villains because they serve as the primary obstacle on the hero’s path to achieving their own goal.
If you introduce a character who needs something, you prime your audience to pick their side. Presenting a mission or problem through the eyes of a character – flawed or otherwise – who genuinely believes in their solution is one of the fastest ways to make your unlikeable lead cheer-worthy.
The Pity Party Trap
Readers get special insight into your character’s mind. The less time characters spend doing things, the more likely they are to fall a little too deeply into their own thoughts. Note this is different than a deep conversation with another character. This is the pity party well. The sides are slick with all the reasons your readers shouldn’t empathize with your character, and if you start sliding down, you may end up in the Cesspool of Mope, which echoes with the Song of Misery. Your readers will grow wings and fly away, leaving your unlikeable character well and truly unliked and alone.
It’s a delicate balance, and it takes practice (and editing) to get it right. When you redraft a story with an unlikeable character your audience should still cheer for, look for the slippery slope of mope. You can pull characters back with action and interaction.
Have you written an unlikeable lead character? What tricks did you use to convince readers they were worth cheering for? Are there other characters in your favorite books, films, and shows who fit the bill? What can you – and the rest of us – learn from the writing behind their antics? Share your thoughts with other writers below!