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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