Meet Naomi Hughes.
Naomi Hughes grew up all over the U.S. before finally settling in the Midwest, a place she loves even though it tries to murder her with tornadoes every spring. Along with her editing, she writes quirky young adult fiction full-time. Her debut YA sci-fi thriller AFTERIMAGE will release Sep 18 from Page Street. In her free time she likes to knit, travel with her husband and daughter, and geek out over British TV and Marvel superheroes.
If you’ve been writing (or reading, or watching TV) for very long, you’ve probably run across at least one “unlikeable character.” You know the ones—they’re not technically the villains of the story, but they’re still jerks, morally gray, hard to sympathize with, or maybe just a little too relentless in the pursuit of their goals.
One of my personal favorite unlikeable characters is BBC’s Sherlock. He’s cold and aloof and unrelatable and a total jerk at first… until you slowly get to see his vulnerabilities, his uncertainties, and just how much he really does care about the people in his life. But even before we see all that, his fascinating quirks and the show’s cool concept hold our attention and invest us in his story.
I’m here today to talk about tools that you can use to make your own unlikeable characters more relatable. First of all, to debunk a myth: the way to “improve” an unlikeable character is usually NOT to just make them nicer.
In fact, that can ruin what might otherwise have been a powerful arc and a complex, authentic character. Readers don’t need to be BFFs with your antihero or antiheroine. They just need to be able to invest in them emotionally, or failing that, have another reason to keep reading your story. Here are a few options for ways you can achieve that:
Make them funny.
You’d be surprised how much a person can get away with if they make us laugh while they’re doing it. Humor can make the most unsympathetic characters addictively readable. Just look at Loki—sure, he’s an evil would-be dictator with a god complex, but he’s also suave and hilarious.
Show us glimpses of their emotional vulnerabilities
Maybe your character is cold and aloof and relentlessly selfish. But what if he secretly aches to be his parents’ favorite, even though they hardly ever show him affection? That would make him feel more relatable, more human, and allow us to sympathize with him a bit.
Give them a relatable goal
Maybe the protagonist runs her after-school extortion business so ruthlessly because she’s trying to get enough money to pay for her little brother’s meds.
Give them a sympathetic backstory and motivation
How did the antihero get to be so hateful and untrusting? Maybe the person he used to trust most turned on him and it cost him dearly. Perhaps now he pushes everyone away, convincing himself he can’t afford to repeat his mistakes—but deep down he misses the person who betrayed him, and he hates himself because of that perceived “weakness,” which makes him act out even more. Layer emotion into his moment-to-moment motivations; show how his past drives his actions in the present.
Give them a pet-the-dog moment
Readers will let a jerk character get away with a lot if you show her secretly petting a lonely dog, protecting a kid from a bully, or buying groceries for a little old lady in the first chapter. It’s a good way to signal to us that deep down, this is a good person and someone we should root for.
One important exception to this rule: please DO NOT have your character save someone from attempted rape to prove they’re a “good guy.” I see too many stories where an author uses sexual assault as a throwaway plot device without examining its impact or thinking about the weight the topic carries for their real-life readers.
For dual-POV stories, start with the more likeable character
If your story features more than one narrator, try starting with one who’s easy to root for. That way, readers will already be invested in the tale by the time they get to the less-likeable character.
Strengthen another element of the story to keep us hooked
If you can give us some stellar, unique world-building or a super cool high concept, sometimes that can be enough to hold a reader’s interest until the character starts to become more sympathetic.
Hopefully some of these tips will help you deepen your “unlikeable” character while also allowing your readers to emotionally invest in them. What are some of your favorite unlikeable characters, and what made you like them despite their nature?
Her debut YA novel AFTERIMAGE comes out September 18, 2018!