There’s a common myth in some writing circles that the characters you create must be likeable. That if they’re not likeable, your audience will disengage and never come back.
But was Norman Bates likeable?
Was Nurse Ratched?
Human or animal, those characters aren’t likeable. But they’re believable. We understand their motives. And that just makes them scarier.
So why does writing unlikeable characters matter? Is it really that big of a deal?
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Unlikeable characters are more interesting
No one is likeable 100% of the time. We all say or do stupid things that annoy, irritate, or otherwise provoke negative emotions in other people. Even in the people we love.
If we were 100% likeable all the time, we’d be more perfect than Disney’s version of Mary Poppins, which, frankly, would be pretty scary in real life.
Your character doesn’t have to be nice—or practically perfect—to be interesting.
Instead, they should be layered and flawed. Just like we are.
One of my most popular characters is Trinity Gold. She isn’t the main character in my stories; in fact, if you want to put a typical label on her, she’s the villain.
So why is she so popular?
Because she generates an emotional reaction in the reader.
Generating emotional reactions
Emotional reactions in your reader are key to your story’s success. Strong emotional reactions are what keep people engaged and desperate to find out what happens next.
We’ve all come across a will-they-won’t-they romance at some point, right? Either in real life, or in fiction.
And they’re super annoying, right?
You know the characters (or people) like each other. Their friends know it. The only people who seem oblivious are the couple themselves.
At times, the characters can be so oblivious that it gets irritating to read. But we’re so desperate to know if—or more likely, when—they get together, we keep turning the page.
I read a book like this recently. The characters’ poor communication skills drove me mad. But they were super cute when they weren’t being stupid.
So I devoured the book faster than most I read because I cared about them and desperately wanted them to get their happily ever after.
(It was Our Song, by Savannah Kade, if you were wondering.)
Another example of characters who provoked a strong emotional reaction in me are Rory and Dean from Gilmore Girls. I knew they were going to break up, but that didn’t stop me from crawling out of bed and screaming ‘NO!’ at the TV when it happened, or Nan coming in to see what was happening because my reaction was so dramatic.
I was so invested in them as characters I hated the thought of them breaking up, and hated even more how Dean had been watered down and made boring to make way for ‘bad boy’ Jess.
My character, Trinity, was created to be tragic. But when you read events from other people’s points of view, you only get one side of the story. She’s selfish; she’s aggressive; she’s the villain. However, when you read her backstory in Hollywood Nightmare, she goes from the villain of the story to someone readers empathise with.
Her motives stop seeming aggressive and start seeming desperate and lonely—emotions we can all relate to, and feelings we all fear.
Unlikeable characters are more realistic
Mary Poppins was designed to be perfect; we weren’t supposed to relate to her, but to want someone like her in our lives. We were supposed to relate to the children who felt bored and neglected. This went completely against the original character in the books, who was far from ‘practically perfect’ and far more terrifying.
Soap operas and telenovelas are popular because they’re designed to be heightened versions of reality. Soap operas may look like they happen on your average Northern or London borough, but much of the shit that goes down in them is unlikely to happen in real life. This allows viewers to both empathise with the characters, see reflections of their everyday lives in what happens, and be grateful their lives aren’t as messed up.
You can use a similar tactic in your writing, regardless of what genre you write.
The best stories—the best character arcs—come when someone is forced outside of their comfort zone and forced to change. Whether they do or not depends on you and your character.
We all remember Ebeneezer Scrooge because his arc was so dramatic. He went from cruel and heinous to saving the severely disabled child of his employee. For a character to arc that dramatically, their story has to be dramatic, too.
Because he went through something so dramatic—and we were there with him the whole time—we understand that arc. We understand him. He was shocked into changing his ways because of what he saw of his past, present, and future.
The thought of dying alone and having his death celebrated him terrified him as much as his afterlife being as bad as Jacob Marley’s. If he hadn’t had so much at stake, he may never have changed.
Dickens tapped into fears that we all have—of being alone, of being hated, of being cruel. And he exploited them to create a moral tale that has outlived him.
Memorable characters don’t have to be likeable. What really matters is that they’re believable; that they feel as real to the reader as the person they met for (virtual) coffee last week.
Doing this requires crafting three-dimensional characters with fears and flaws, just like any other human. Get some tips on how to write unlikeable (or likeable, if you prefer)—but most importantly, believable—characters in my free guide, which you can download below.