The Unlikeable Ones

photo by Fabrizio Russo

Have you ever received that feedback before?

“I just didn’t like your protagonist,” says your critiquer.

Sometimes it’s as simple as using a ‘save the cat’ moment to fix, but what about when your POV character that received the feedback is supposed to be unlikeable or has a job or mission that the story NEEDS them to have but most people will dislike (for example the torturer, Sand Dan Glokta from Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series)? That’s a tougher problem.

One of our members has a series they’ve long cherished, but keeps butting their head against this problem. One of our other members went so far as to take thorough notes on the first chapter featuring the aforementioned character, Glokta, to show how a writer can make an unlikeable character likeable. A lot of the techniques involve making the character relatable to the reader.

Some techniques you can use are:

  • establish a weakness, something that people can sympathise with or empathise with
  • put them in a situation where they are harmed or powerless
  • establish their situation in a way that shows why they must do the unlikeable thing, show it isn’t through their own cruelty but because they have no other choice, are being bribed, blackmailed or coerced(perhaps even doing so to protect someone they love)
  • give them someone they love or cherish who the reader can truly like. If that person loves them back, great this shows the character is loveable by someone ‘good’, if they don’t you could frame it as an unrequited love which creates more sympathy because we’ve ALL been there
  • give them admirable qualities or traits such as intelligence and humor (dark humor can be particularly effective with certain characters)
  • put them in frustrating situations most readers can empathise with eg/ a boss demands an impossible job and expects positive results, or a boss chewing them out over something beyond their control, or even something small like interruptions repeatedly stymying them just an instant before they reach a goal(no matter how big or small)
  • show they are not infallible
  • let them react to bad things happening with bravery and/or wit so we can admire them and wish we had their courage/humor
  • if they do something bad to someone, can you dehumanise that person(the victim)? A good example of this is Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter, a serial killer who kills people who get away with crimes. The first victim the reader sees him murder is actually a paedophile who has gotten away with multiple crimes

This isn’t a comprehensive list, but a damn good start. Is there anything you can think of? is there a special trick you like to use yourself?

About Kirstie Olley

Kirstie is the current President of Vision Writers, has had several short stories published since joining the group in 2012, has been a finalist in the Aurealis Awards and received multiple honourable mentions in the Writers Of The Future contest. She also blogs and has free fiction at her website http://www.storybookperfect.com/

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