3 1/2 Tips for Fixing an Unlikable Character

by Jami Gold on September 15, 2015

in Writing Stuff

Hissing cat with text: Need to Fix an Unlikable Character?

I’ve mentioned several times that I struggle with writing unlikable characters when I first draft a story, and I know I’m not the only one. We often love our characters no matter what they do—even the villains. *smile* So we’re not unbiased readers when it comes to figuring out whether our characters are too unlikable.

In any story, it’s difficult to balance not enough and too much of various elements. Not enough description can leave our readers confused about the setting or action details, while too much description can slow our story’s pace. Same with theme building, subplots, action beats, etc.

On the character side, not enough flaws can leave our characters feeling flat or can make it difficult for readers to relate to them. The other extreme of too many flaws can also make our characters hard for readers to relate to or can push them into being just plain unlikable.

Some genres can get away with flat, unrelatable, or unlikable characters, but others can’t. For those stories that need likable characters, let me share three-and-a-half methods to fix the problem I’ve learned from my way-too-common experience of drafting unlikable characters. *smile*

The 1/2 Tip: Tone Down the Character

I debated including this tip at all—first, because it’s obvious, and second, because sometimes we don’t want to tone down the character. But it would be misleading to go through the whole post without even mentioning this option.

When we receive feedback that a character is unlikable, we always have a choice. The first step I like to take is to remind myself of what I want for the character, behavior, action, scene, dialogue, etc.

  • Can we get the same (or better) reader reaction if we tone down the character, their words, their actions, their thoughts, etc.?
  • Or would toning down the character break who they are?

Just as a query or opening chapter can be “workshopped to death” by removing so many sharp edges that the result is bland, so too can a character. Humans have sharp edges and messy, conflicting emotions. If we remove too many of those messy parts, the character can end up bland, flat, and all those other problems we’re trying to avoid.

Here are two examples from my books, one where I decided toning down the character was best and one where I rejected the feedback to tone down the character.

Toning Down a Character:

In Pure Sacrifice, one minor character starts off disrespecting the hero, Markos. During editing, I changed the dialogue this character uses to express his disrespect because if I didn’t, readers’ attention would be on the dialogue itself and not on the plot event surrounding the outburst.

In other words, toning down the minor character’s dialogue improved readers’ reactions, bringing them closer to what I wanted for the scene (focusing on the heroine’s response, which triggers the next plot event).

NOT Toning Down a Character:

My story of Treasured Claim opens with the heroine plotting to steal jewelry. That can be a recipe for unlikable right there. *smile*

However, contrary to some feedback, I didn’t want to change her behavior. If I changed the story so Elaina was “borrowing” instead of “stealing” (or any of a dozen other suggestions I received to make her theft “acceptable”), the character would no longer be the same.

We know our characters best. We know what we were trying to accomplish with our story and our characters. The suggestions from others aren’t always going to be right—or a good match for our goals.

Because of that, I want to focus the remainder of these tips on how to handle unlikable characters when we don’t want to tone them down.

These tips cover how we can make our characters sympathetic despite their unlikable qualities. I know I’m far from perfect and can be downright difficult sometimes, yet my family and friends love and support me anyway. We want our characters to have the same kind of relationship with our readers.

Tip #1: Make Motivations Clear

In Treasured Claim, I wanted Elaina to steal the jewelry, and I wanted her attitude to lack any remorse. She doesn’t worry if what she’s doing is wrong, and she’s not stealing it to give the money to orphans or any other unselfish reason.

However, during edits, I made it clear why she was stealing this jewelry. Yes, she’s doing it for herself, but her reasons are life-or-death. I exposed her vulnerability, which helps make her sympathetic despite her actions.

So this tip takes advantage of three interrelated writing elements:

  • Use a deep point-of-view so we’re in the character’s head as they expose their worries or goals.
  • Make characters vulnerable to readers. They don’t have to be vulnerable to other characters, but readers need to see their fears (such as through deep point-of-view).
  • Make motivations clear by revealing the fears, worries, goals, etc. driving the character’s actions.

We’re always more sympathetic to someone if we know their struggles. A character might be a big jerk to others, but if we know why—especially if the why makes them sympathetic, such as how they’re a victim of misfortune in some way—we’ll be more understanding.

Tip #2: Give Them Internal Conflict

Long ago, I wrote about a difficult scene I had to write for Treasured Claim‘s hero. In the scene, Alex does something that would normally be unforgivable, yet I had to ensure readers didn’t hate him.

One of the many techniques I used in that scene was to show his internal doubts and debates. Just this past week, I had to rework several scenes in my upcoming Ironclad Devotion with a similar approach.

While the previous tip focuses on revealing to readers why a character struggles with a certain behavior or trait, this tip is about showing how they’re struggling. With this technique, readers will see characters experience self-doubt or beat up on themselves.

Or maybe characters will argue with themselves about whether they’re doing the right thing. They might rationalize their behavior or justify it for the big picture.

The point is to show readers that while the characters are imperfect, they’re trying to do their best or to be better. Even if readers think the character’s reasons are wrong, a deeper insight into how they debate and agonize will show that they’re not callous or oblivious to the controversy their behavior engenders.

Tip #3: Introduce Doubt in the Reader

This can be a trickier technique than the others, and I frequently don’t get this right the first (or second or third) time through my beta readers and editors. Essentially, for this method, we want readers to doubt what they think they know about the character.

One common way to do this is by hinting at the fact that the character is an unreliable narrator and/or suffering from false beliefs. For example, many people suffer from negative self-talk (the real-world equivalent of internal dialogue), which makes them out to be a worse person than they really are.

In Ironclad Devotion, one of the heroine’s false beliefs is that she doesn’t have the mothering instincts to properly care for her foster daughter. Kira’s internal dialogue presents her as a bit heartless when it comes to the girl because that’s how she thinks of herself. However, that’s not what she’s really like.

One way we can hint at how a character’s self-view isn’t accurate is by having another character state the truth about the point-of-view character, which disputes the character’s self-image. In Ironclad Devotion, a secondary character outright says how good Kira has been for the girl.

We can also have a character’s actions not match with readers’ expectations for how a such-and-such type of character would behave. In that same story, readers see Kira protect and worry about the girl, showing that her self-image is blind to her good qualities.

This method is trickier because it often depends on readers “getting” the subtext. Some readers will simply take the character at face value, believe whatever they’re told, and ignore the hints otherwise. Some readers will think the inconsistencies between a character’s thoughts and actions mean the character isn’t written very well. But when we succeed, we’ve created layered characters and character arcs.

We might need to go back and forth with our beta readers and editors several times to find the right balance with each of these techniques. But they can all help us write those imperfect characters while not sacrificing likability.

If readers can see a character’s flaws and love and support them anyway, they’ll stick with them through the story, just as much as we stick with our friends and family. In real life, we want others to accept us as we really are, and these tips might help our characters find the same fulfillment. *smile*

Do you tend to write unlikable characters? Have you successfully overcome the issue, and if so, how? Have you used any of these techniques? Did they work, or do you have more suggestions for how to make them work? Can you think of any other ways to fix an unlikable character?

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26 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Carradee September 15, 2015 at 6:22 am

One of my books is narrated by the “other” woman in a relationship, who essentially cuts off her nose to spite her face because she’s so angry and bitter. She has reason for her anger and bitterness, but it consumes her to the point that she reads into and misinterprets things—which she eventually realizes, but not after she’s negatively affected more lives than her own.

More than one reader has called her their favorite. And more than one reader has hated her guts—but so far, all due to the anger and bitterness, not due to who she sleeps with. (To be fair to her, the husband makes the first move, and she does consider pursuing another ruler, but he’s the only one she knows, has an “in” with, and isn’t related to.)

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Carradee September 15, 2015 at 7:48 am

Oops. Hit “post” before I finished my thought.

Anyway, it’s my personal experience and observation that you can get away with a character doing anything as long as you have sufficient character motivation on the page. If the character’s conflicted, yes, show it—but not all characters will be conflicted about the situation.

One of my stories, the FMC has been plotting to kill someone for years. She only gets conflicted about it after she and the woman’s husband fall for each other—and the conflict isn’t over killing the woman. No, it’s over the prospect of replacing someone she’s killed.

Not that she or he are fully cognizant of that as the core problem, yet—not in those terms. I suspect identifying that will be at the root of the guy convincing her to marry him. (He knows what he’s getting into.)

But we all experience conflict at some times. If your characters never experience conflict, it means they’re not thinking.

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Jami Gold September 15, 2015 at 11:10 am

Hi Carradee,

Exactly! Some of these tips will work in some situations but not in others–that’s why I wanted to share the different options I’ve come across.

As I mentioned, I didn’t want Elaina of Treasured Claim to be conflicted about the jewelry theft (she’s conflicted about other things, but not that), and she’s a loner, so Tip #1 was the only one that applied to her situation. But other characters have different situations, so it’s good to have a choice of techniques. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Jami Gold September 15, 2015 at 11:05 am

Hi Carradee,

Yep, I can imagine that being a difficult character to make likable! It sounds like you managed to make people view her as she really is, though, rather than for stereotypes, and sometimes that’s half the battle. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

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Leticia September 15, 2015 at 8:16 am

I’m struggling a bit with it at the moment. The thing is that all my characters are a bit selfish, none of them is a 100% good person. They all make now and then bad things to bad people to survive, this is part of the plot and I can’t change that, so it’s complicated to make the readers to empathise with them at the moment. At a certain point my protagonist decides to stop doing bad things even if her life is at stake, she will die a painful slow death with the decision of stopping her past course of action, but this will happen only in the end of the first book of the series. So, appart from showing her inner struggle I am searching for other things to make her more likable.

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Jami Gold September 15, 2015 at 11:36 am

Hi Leticia,

I understand. 🙂 Let me go deeper into some of these tips with more examples.

Another way of introducing doubt in Tip #3 is to show the character being nice so readers will be more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt elsewhere in the story. There’s a reason that a “save the cat” scene is a cliche in the writing world. The idea is to show an unlikable character doing something nice to build up trust with the reader that it’s okay to root for this character.

Also, as you said, no one (in real life either) is 100% a good person. So we can make those flaws work in our favor by helping them make our characters more relatable to readers–especially if we turn the flaws into vulnerabilities or universal problems.

Related to Tip #1, let’s look at an example of a woman arguing with her coworker and saying something that’s a low-blow. But if her internal dialogue is used to show that this coworker dumped a bunch of work on the woman’s lap earlier in the week, causing her to miss her son’s first Little League game, readers will get it.

We’ve all experienced having extra work dumped on us because someone didn’t pull their weight–that’s a universal problem. The guilt she feels from missing out on being there for her son is a vulnerability, and we understand when that transfers into anger at the coworker.

Readers can forgive a lot if they understand why a character is behaving the way they are. Flaws are to be expected, and especially if readers can relate to those flaws–either through a universal problem or vulnerability–they’ll make the character more relatable too. 🙂

I hope that helps! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Leticia September 17, 2015 at 7:32 am

Thanks Jami, this was very helpful. 🙂

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Jami Gold September 17, 2015 at 8:39 am

I’m happy to help, Leticia. Good luck! 🙂

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Davonne Burns September 15, 2015 at 8:34 am

I really like the points you brought out. I used the internal conflict for the protagonist of my YA sci-fi Sorrow’s Fall. On the surface Sorrow was nothing more than a mindless killer and did things that would turn a lot of readers off from the very first page. Yet, I must have done something right since he’s been a consistent favorite with many readers telling me they wished they could just hug him.

In my current WIP I have a character who at first is someone readers will (hopefully) hate and distrust. By the time we get to his POV the reader should have what they think is a sound opinion of who he is, which is then completely subverted in one scene and serves to complicate the plot and move it forward. By revealing his true motivation and internal conflict a lot of his earlier actions can be seen in a new light. At least I hope that’s what I’ve accomplished.

I’ve sort of tried to accomplish the opposite too; going from having a character readers can like and identify with, but whose true motives are revealed to be selfish and spiteful.

Personally, I think a story is so much stronger when each character has good and bad points to them, even the villain. I’m a big fan of grey areas and greyer motives.

Do you have any tips on how to work in successful subtext?

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Jami Gold September 15, 2015 at 11:42 am

Hi Davonne,

Ooo, I love when our opinion of a character gets up-ended because of a single revelation! Those are some of my favorite twists. 🙂 And I’m with you in enjoying playing in the gray areas. LOL!

I love subtext, but I often don’t get it right the first pass. I’ll have to think about that problem. :/ If I come up with any advice, I’ll let you know or write a post about it. 😉 Thanks for the comment!

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Davonne Burns September 15, 2015 at 1:19 pm

You’re welcome, and thanks in advance. ^^

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Jami Gold September 17, 2015 at 8:44 am

Hi Davonne,

Thank you for the great question!

And to anyone reading through these comments later, here’s the post. 🙂

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Emerald O'Brien September 15, 2015 at 1:30 pm

Great post! For the most part, when readers don’t like my characters, it’s because I don’t want them to (or at least don’t mind one way or the other). There have been times when I want readers to like one of my MC’s (which means more to me) and they end up liking the other more without me even trying. I agree with what you said, readers like to relate to characters by their beliefs, personality, or motivations. I find from the readers I know, they tend to like my MC’s because they relate to them in one of these ways, so your #1 tip works best for me. I’m excited to try the others a bit more deliberately though. Thanks, Jami!

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Jami Gold September 15, 2015 at 3:31 pm

Hi Emerald,

LOL! Your comment reminded me of how much beta readers/editors loved one of my secondary characters–even though I wasn’t trying. 🙂 He stood up and called the hero on his bad behavior, so characters that push others to be better are often “likable,” even if they’re being “mean” by arguing.

I hadn’t consciously tried to make that secondary character likable, but I think the subtext of what his outburst meant for him, the hero, and the story/heroine all worked together to make readers cheer. Thanks for helping me connect those dots. 😉

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Emerald O'Brien September 16, 2015 at 10:53 am

Isn’t it funny how characters can turn out to shine brighter than you ever intended due to one (or a few) words or actions?
Thanks again, Jami!

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Kassandra Lamb September 15, 2015 at 2:05 pm

This post is reminding me of one of the characters in my first book. He is the police detective who is convinced that the two main characters are lovers trying to knock off their spouses, so he’s doing very little to investigate other leads. I intended him to be a jackass but I did too good a job. Readers and editors kept saying he was too stereotypically bad. But no matter what I did to try to make him seem more human, he seemed to refuse to go there. He wasn’t a POV character so most of these tips wouldn’t have worked. But I did tone him down in some places.

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Jami Gold September 15, 2015 at 3:34 pm

Hi Kassandra,

I have that trouble with many of my villains. In my head, they’re layered, nuanced, have reasons for their actions, etc., but because they’re not a POV character, it’s hard to get all that across to readers. I’ll let you know if I come up for any tips for that (but first I’d have to figure them out for myself–LOL!). Thanks for sharing (and letting me know I wasn’t alone)! 😀

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Glynis Jolly September 15, 2015 at 2:08 pm

After reading this, I realize that my villain is flat. The way I’ve written him, he’s over confident and narcistic. Any good that he shows is an act to get what he wants. I’m thinking giving him some vulnerabilities, but what kind or type would work for someone like this?

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Jami Gold September 15, 2015 at 3:44 pm

Hi Glynis,

As I just mentioned to Kassandra above, I have a hard time with villains too, because they’re often not POV characters. In my various stories, I’ve been able to add a few lines here or there to hint at how they have their own motivations, but it’s tricky.

Specifically regarding vulnerabilities, I’d recommend checking out Angela and Becca’s (of Emotion Thesaurus fame) Negative Traits book. That’s full of ideas for flaws that we can make nuanced (such as a trait that could be good except for when taken to the extreme). Becca has a guest post here on how to use their trait books.

We could also make the villain a reflection of the hero in some way. I hope that helps give some ideas. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee September 17, 2015 at 6:35 am

Does he have a phobia? A skill that he’s good at, like painting? Either one or both could provide a vulnerability.

And in my experience, people who are overconfident are compensating, because they actually feel vulnerable. Everyone has a fear, even if it’s just that others won’t like them or that their plan will fail. What’s his?

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Jami Gold September 17, 2015 at 8:42 am

Hi Carradee,

I love that point that everyone has fears or feels vulnerable about something. I talked more about the villain issue in today’s post, and I hope you’ll mention this over there too! 🙂 Thanks for sharing that insight!

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