Literature is full of these characters. Characters who act like jerks, yet the reader still roots for them. If we encountered such characters in real life, we may not want them as friends, yet we like to read about them.
I’m using “likable” to mean different things, and it will depend on what you want to accomplish as a writer. We’ll discuss that too.
So let’s talk about different ways to make the audience “like” your unlikable characters.
What Do You Want to Communicate to the Reader?
This depends entirely on you. No one can tell you how to do it or what to do with it. But before you venture into the waters of unlikable characters, you need to decide what you want. Now, you can’t dictate how readers feel, never “tell” a reader how to feel. But you do have control of how you present the characters, how you justify why you presented them that way, and how the story feels/progresses/etc. as a result.
Like I said, never try to control how a reader feels. The short answer to this is that you can’t. It’s impossible. If you try to force it, it will become too obvious, it will annoy the readers, and you won’t make the strongest characters you can. It’d be like trying to force a toddler to eat their vegetables. Instead present your characters in a way that gets the point across and let the readers think and discuss it from there. Tell the story, that is your number one goal.
Try framing the question as NOT “What do I want the reader to like about this person?” but rather “What do I want to the reader to understand about this person?”
The reason is because understanding and liking are very different things, but one can beget the other. “I don’t like this person, but I understand why they do those things.” or “I like and understand them.”
If a reader doesn’t understand an unlikable character, they’re going to really dislike them in a way you may not want.
Here are some other questions to ask yourself:
- Do I want to make this a sympathetic character?
- Do I want the reader to root for this character?
- Is this a character that the reader would want to know/meet? If not, why?
- What information am I giving the reader by writing the character this way? How is it important to the story? How does this character reflect the themes/tones I’m trying to get across?
There are dozens of others, but there’s some to get you started.
Strategy I: Tell the Story from their Perspective
This is sort of the “anti-hero” method. If you want this character to be a “bad guy” or otherwise unlikable, do bad things, etc. telling the story by having them as the protagonist is a good way to go. Walter White was the protagonist of Breaking Bad, but he was by no means a “hero”.
But be warned, here be dragons.
If you make an anti-hero character, you must justify their reasons immediately. If you watch Breaking Bad, Walter’s plight is set up in the beginning, even before his cancer diagnosis. He’s a middle-aged chemistry teacher. His students are jerk, his family life is chaotic especially financially and he must hold down two jobs to support them, which he finds humiliating. Later on, we learn about how he was a brilliant chemist, cheated out of success by his ex-girlfriend and good friend, who became massively successful.
He started cooking meth to support his family first, but it became about power. This was set up in the beginning where he was powerless.
My all time favorite “bad” protagonist is Richard III from Shakespeare’s Richard III. We are rooting for Richard, we want him to win, he has the best lines in the play, and he’s a character that every actor dreams of playing. But again, Shakespeare sets up Richard as the bad guy, what he wants, and how he justifies it to himself immediately. The opening soliloquy is Richard talking about that very thing. Richard tells the audience his thoughts and plans: “I am determinèd to prove a villain.”, he says.
Later in the play, we learn more about why Richard is the way he is. The key (for me) being that his mother never loved him. His mother has a ranting monologue about she has detested from the day he was born.
Again, it is all up to the audience to interpret, but there’s a reason these stories are compelling. We follow the story of a very unlikable person, their reasons and feelings set up immediately, and we can clearly see their motivations and in a twisted way understand them.
Strategy II: Save the Cat
The “Save the Cat” tip comes from Blake Snyder, who coined the term in his book Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. What this comes down to is giving an unlikable character, protagonist or otherwise, one redeeming quality or thing that they do that makes them less unlikable.
Maybe your character is very prone to violence, but is very sensitive to the plight of the meek. Maybe they rescue children from starvation by giving them their dinner. Maybe they do a job and let the family in need keep the money.
They key is to justify why they’re saving the cat, otherwise it can read as “why does this mean badass randomly help people?”
If your character is a violent badass, rude and crude, maybe they’re very sympathetic to animals and try to save an abused animal. Why? Maybe it’s because their best friend as a child was their pet dog.
Mr. Spock from Star Trek is sometimes a very intolerable person. He’s blunt, is the smartest person aboard (and knows it), and sometimes comes off very judgmental of his human companions. As the series goes on, we learn why. He’s half-human, from a world where humans aren’t thought incredibly highly of. He’s insecure about where he belongs since he fits in neither with humans nor with vulcans completely. Later on, we know that he loves his friends who do accept him for who he is (no matter how much they tease him over it) and does things to save them repeatedly. That’s him saving the cat.
Strategy III: “I don’t like you, but I hate the villain more!”
Again, pretty common, but common for a reason. It’s compelling. Give the unlikable character an even more unlikable villain to work against.
You don’t have to make them “pure evil” in the dark lord way, but having someone or something that is arguably “worse” than the unlikable character is compelling.
In The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, Hannibal Lecter is a serial killer who also eats his victims. Lecter is incredibly compelling throughout all the books for many reasons, but for the purposes of this example, we’ll stick to one. The main villain in the story is Buffalo Bill, another serial killer who also does terrible things to his victims. We want Clarice and pals to get this guy so bad that we come to actually like Hannibal, who is still a serial killer.
There are tons of other examples in many variants. It’s good story telling. You could even extend this: have two arguably villainous characters go head to head. That’s pretty cool.
Strategy IV: I Love to Hate Them
Again common. Again compelling.
I loved hating Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter. I love hating Cersei Lannister in A Song of Ice and Fire. Why?
In Harry Potter, Draco Malfoy starts as a snobby, spoiled brat. He’s a bully, he’s mean, and so on. We love seeing him whine and cry when Harry and pals give him a taste of his own medicine. As the series goes on and things get darker, we come to understand why he is the way he is. He is a product of his background, of his father. He gets wrapped up in things that are too big for him and is terrified. He’s not the villain he thinks he is. He also has Harry to work off of. Harry being the hero is the one we root for, but at the same time, he does antagonize Draco a lot. He pushes back, he assumes Draco did things that he didn’t do, and so on. It reaches a point where Harry, albeit unintentionally seriously wounds Draco.
Cersei Lannister is a lying, scheming person who acts in terrible ways toward characters we like. As the story goes on, we learn more about her (I’ll be using her as another example in a minute) and it almost becomes of a way of seeing “I can’t wait to see what this crazy woman does next.” as the tension builds and the story goes on.
If you want to communicate that these are characters we should hate, make us love to hate to hate them.
Strategy V: Justify Them
This maybe shouldn’t be a strategy, but more of “You should do this no matter what.” However, it can fit here, so I’m going with it.
You don’t have to justify your unlikable characters in a “this is the morally right thing” way, but you should explain to the reader why it is they do these things.
Using Cersei Lannister again, we see her do terrible things over and over. We see her slowly lose her mind more and more. But she’s a brilliant character. Why?
Cersei is a product of her background: She lives in a society where she can’t inherit, she’s been at the mercy of the men in her life (her father and husband mainly). She has seen her brothers inherit the family wealth, be groomed for power by her father, and so on. Meanwhile, she’s sold off to forge alliances and make royal babies with a man who was obsessed with another (deceased) woman. Now she has to cover her lies, her incest, her scheming. She tries to be her father, even though part of her hates him. She has two solaces: her brother-lover and her children.
So even though Cersei is arguably a villain, a bad person, etc. we see why she is this way. We come to understand her even though we may not like her.
What this does is create sympathy. It adds depth and complexity to a character. It gives the reader conflicting emotions regarding them.
Strategy VI: Rain Shit on Them
Back to Draco. Man, did we hate him when he was a snotty little brat in the beginning. However, as the series gets darker we can see the position that he’s ended up in and think “damn…that sucks. He doesn’t deserve that.”
I’ll use A Song of Ice and Fire as another example, mainly because Martin is very good at making all his characters unlikable in some way. Theon Greyjoy is a seriously unlikable. He’s a jerk, he’s arrogant, he’s a womanizer, and on and on. He ends up betraying the friend he swore loyalty too and murdering people. He can barely keep it together, and by the end he is captured. He ends up being horribly tortured and losing his identity completely. As much as I couldn’t stand him as a person, I really felt for him. I knew that he didn’t deserve what he got.
Again, you’re gaining sympathy here. You can extend this to a redemption arc.
Think of what your goals are as a writer of these characters. Use every advantage in your arsenal that makes sense to your work and creating compelling characters.