How to Make Unlikable Characters Likable

The other day at a school visit, a student writer asked me how to make an inherently unlikable character likable. I loved this question as it was one of my biggest challenges when writing 52 Reasons to Hate My Father, about a spoiled teen heiress who has to take on 52 low wage jobs in order to earn her trust fund.

52 Reasons - Paperback 3DAt the start of the story, my main character, Lexington Larrabee, is a total spoiled brat who has no concept of reality, consequences, or how regular people live. That, of course, is the whole point of the book. I wanted to tell a story in which the hero has a drastic character arc. I wanted her to truly change from beginning to end. And the only way to do that effectively was to bring her as far back as I could. Make her really bratty, really spoiled, really clueless. But, that of course, led me to the problem of also making her likable. How do you like someone who’s so out of touch? Who’s such a brat? Who’s so over-indulged? And more important, how do you get a reader to root for her?

It wasn’t an easy job, but I hope I managed to succeed at it nonetheless. However, until this student asked me the question, I’d never really had to think about how I tackled this problem. And that forced me to really look at my writing process for this book and also analyze other stories that accomplished this “likability” issue very well.

I broke down my answer to the student into three parts or tips. Each equally important in my mind. I’ll elaborate on them here in case there are other fellow writers who might be facing the same challenge.

Tip 1: Give your hero one redeeming quality or action (even if it’s small) at the beginning of the story.

In the popular screenwriting book, Save the Cat by Blake Snyder (which I use to outline all my books and whose method I teach to other novelists), this is actually the writing tip that gave the book its title. Blake calls this technique “Saving the Cat.” When you have a highly unlikable hero, you have to devise a way for them to do something redeemable (preferably toward the beginning of the story). Your hero has to “save a cat.”

For example, your unlikable hero is walking down the street and sees a cat stuck up in a tree. He stops doing whatever unlikable thing he’s doing (plotting a murder, whining about his life, cheating on his girlfriend, etc.) and actually climbs up the tree to save the cat. This immediately softens him just slightly in the audience/reader’s mind. It informs the reader that he’s not all bad. There’s at least something redeemable about him! Of course, your hero doesn’t have to literally save a cat. It’s just an example. But they should do something equally redeeming (preferably that fits their personality.)

These are two of my favorite “Save the Cat” moments:

  • A rather unlikable king.

    The King’s Speech – the scene in which George (soon to be King George) stops what he’s doing long enough to tell a story to his adorable little daughters (who clearly could care less about his debilitating stutter). Up until this point, he comes off as kind of a jerk. He’s arrogant, a bit spoiled, and cold. But after this endearing scene with this daughters, we’re instantly on his side.

  • The Hunger Games (Book) – Suzanne Collins has a unique twist on Saving a Cat as Katniss actually continually threatens to kill the cat that lives with her family. Understandably, he’s an extra mouth to feed and they just don’t have enough food. This would presumably make her unlikable (she wants to kill the cat!) But because her sisteris so attached to that cat and cares about him so much, Katniss doesn’t kill the cat. She perpetually decides to spare the cat’s life (saving him!) because of her love for her sister. This effectively endears us to her.

In 52 Reasons to Hate My Father, I chose to make Lexi’s dog her “Save the Cat,” moment. She’s very attached to her dog and she considers the dog to be her one true friend. But instead of making the dog some designer dog that Lexi carries around like an accessory (as is so popular among heiresses and celebrities), I chose to make the dog a rescue. Toward the very beginning of the story, Lexi talks about how she rescued Holly, the Papillon, from a busted evil puppy mill. I also play up the bond between her and the dog and the fact that the dog really is Lexi’s only ally and the only one who truly understands her. This hopefully gives Lexi one glimmer of redemption as she’s lamenting about her $500,000 Mercedes that she just crashed into a convenience store on Sunset Blvd.

Tip 2: Give your hero an enemy…a really evil one.

One of the best ways to make a reader sympathize with an unlikable character is to have an even more unlikable character to compare them to. Enter: the villain! But remember villains don’t always have to be evil monsters with capes. They can be regular people. But if it’s someone who is immediately pitted against the protagonist from the beginning and we, the reader, can see how awful this person is, it will instantly make your hero more relatable and likable. Because don’t we all have that special someone in our life who we just can’t stand? Who is just out to get us? So as soon as you introduce that person in your hero’s life, your reader will feel bonded with the hero. Regardless of how likable or unlikable he/she is.

Three of my favorite examples of this technique used well:

  • Evan: A tongue-tied nemesis

    Evan: A tongue-tied nemesis

    Bruce Almighty – This is one of my favorite movies because of its excellent story structure. Even though we all love Jim Carrey, his character in this flick is not instantly likable. Yes, he’s funny. But he’s also a bit of whiner, insensitive, self-centered, and blind to the fact that Jennifer Aniston (his girlfriend) is pretty much amazing. The result being: he doesn’t treat her with the respect she deserves. He’s not exactly someone we immediately root for. That is, until we meet…Evan. Played so brilliantly by Steve Carell. Evan is even worse than Bruce! He’s arrogant and mean and we instantly despise him! Because Evan and Bruce are established as enemies, we instinctively root for Bruce to beat him.

  • Evil on Privet Drive

    Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone– Although Harry is not necessarily an unlikable hero, J.K. Rowling does such an excellent job at employing this tip, I felt it was worth mentioning. I mean, how much do you just hate the Dursleys from the moment you meet them!? They’re downright horrible! And by chapter 3 of the book, you are so firmly cemented on Harry’s side, so sympathetic to him, so willing to do anything to see him win, it wouldn’t matter what he does. We’re wrapped around his finger.

 

  • Two villains for the price of one.

    Legally Blonde – Another one of my all-time favorite movies and definitely a source of inspiration for me when writing 52 Reasons to Hate My Father. Let’s face it, Elle Woods is a bit of a ditz when we first meet her. A little self-centered. A little self-absorbed. And very superficial. All she seems to care about are clothes and celebrities and marrying her perfect boyfriend. And yet we totally love her! Why is that?

    Well, because from about minute 12 of the movie, it seems the whole world is against her. Despite how beautiful and popular she is. Villains are thrown at her left and right! She gets dumped by Warner (who is pretty much a huge jerk!) and then when she gets to Harvard, she meets Warner’s new fiance  Vivian Kensington who is just plain nasty to Elle. Those are essentially two big “villains” who instantly make us fall in love with Elle and join her plight. (Even if she doesn’t realize Warner is a villain right away, it doesn’t matter because the the audience does!) Not to mention, how mean everyone else is to her at Harvard Law School (more “villains”). And finally, a less obvious villain in the story is “society” and our stereotypes about blondes, which is essentially what the movie is all about. Proving your worth despite what society expects of you. All of these elements and villains put together make it very easy for the audience to relate to Elle and overlook her other less appealing characteristics. In fact, we learn to love them!

In 52 Reasons to Hate My Father, the villain was always clear to me, even before I began writing: Her father. But when I started facing the “likability” challenges, I knew that I had to make him even worse than I originally thought. To really get the reader on Lexi’s side. So I just made him downright awful. He’s cold, insensitive, unloving, and has never been there for her in her entire life. He’s basically a stranger to her. And it seems as though every time he is in her life, it’s to scold her for being such a screw-up.

Lexi and her father in the 52 Reasons to Hate My Father Book Trailer

I made sure to introduce Richard Larrabee by chapter 3 and I also made sure his first impression was a lasting one. Which is why he actually never says a word to Lexi in the entire chapter. She’s just had this major screw-up, everyone is working on “fixing” it, and in walks her dad. He talks to everyone in the room but her. My intention was to make it even more effective than telling her she messed up and scolding her. I did this purposefully. In an attempt to get you on Lexi’s side right off the bat. Because I knew that her personality wasn’t exactly charming in the beginning of the story and I wanted to create a reason for you to sympathize with her and root for her throughout the story. Of course, in the end, Lexi (and the reader) start to understand why her father is the way he is, but in the beginning, at least, he was an excellent device for hopefully bringing the reader around to Lexi, despite her glaring personality shortcomings.

Tip 3: Make us “love to hate” them.

This final tip on making an unlikable character likable is probably the toughest one to implement. Because it requires the most creativity. And it is the least specific, making it harder to teach or explain. Essentially there are numerous reasons we love to hate certain characters. And it’s often hard to pinpoint why we love to hate them. I think the trick is to find a unique flaw about your character that you can exploit and exaggerate. And the key to that sentence is “unique.” It has to be something that readers/audiences have never seen before in a character. At least not in the form you present it. The sheer novelty of the unique flaw is what keeps us hanging on for more.

Let’s take a look at some good examples of characters we love to hate. I’ve chosen popular TV shows as I believe TV writers do the best job at creating these types of characters (namely because we spend so much more time with them than we do with movie or book characters).

  • Late night work out for Gabby Solis

    Gabrielle Solis in Desperate Housewives – When this show was on, she was hands down my favorite character. Even though she was a bit mean, spoiled, superficial, self-centered and had no consideration for others. But her hateful actions were so cleverly crafted and so deliciously unique, we loved to watch her to see what she would do next. In the pilot episode, Gabby is cheating on her husband with the teenage gardener. Not exactly an endearing trait. But then, when we see her running home from the party and mowing the lawn in her cocktail dress (in order to keep from getting caught), we are instantly in love with her and we actually root for her to get away with the infidelity! It’s these types of distinctively “Gabby” moments that make us fall in love with her.

  • We can’t help but love this savvy bad boy sleuth!

    Sherlock Holmes in Elementary – This is a new show this year and I fell for it instantly. Not because Sherlock is such a nice, sweet, even-tempered guy who loves everyone. He’s exactly the opposite. But I love him (and I suspect others do as well) because he’s so darn brilliant and observant. I love watching him catch things that no one else catches and tripping up the criminals in their testimonies. But beyond that, he’s actually a bit of an “arse.” But because of his unique intellect and haughty way of displaying it, he’s easy to love.

  • You’ve just got to…wait for it…love him!

    Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother – Who on earth doesn’t love Barney Stinson!? But the question is why on earth do we love him? We have every reason not to! He’s a narcissistic womanizer. He lies to girls in hideous ways to get them into bed, then leaves in the morning. At one point he even left a woman in the middle of the woods at night with no way home! And we all laughed about it! Under any other circumstances, we would despise a character like that. So why do we love to hate him? Because his flaw is so dang creative! He doesn’t pick up women in the normal clichéd way with cheesy pick up lines. He has a whole “playbook” full of creative ways to pick up women. And every single one of them is brilliantly crafted by the writers of the show. We keep tuning in just to see what Barney does next. Because his character and his flaw is so uniquely drawn. Not to mention all of his witty remarks about sex, women, and relationships. We may hate what he does to these women. But oh how we love to watch Barney doing it.

Heiress Lexi strikes a pose

With 52 Reasons to Hate My Father,  I attempted to exploit Lexi’s spoiled “heiress-ness” as her unique flaw. She may have been bratty, but she was over the top bratty. And her remarks on things and her reactions to situations are hopefully humorous enough that you enjoy reading them and want to see how she’ll respond to the next negative thing that comes her way.

For instance, when she first gets into Luke’s Honda Civic, she remarks about how much she hates the color of the inside and complains that it’s making her car sick. Then when he fires back with a sarcastic, “Not all of us were lucky enough to receive a Lexus for our sixteenth birthdays,” she replies, “Eww! Like I’d ever be caught dead in a Lexus.”

She is just so out of touch, it’s comical. And I attempt to play this up as her “unique” flaw.  The reader understands how naive she is, but she doesn’t. And hopefully you enjoy reading her voice because of it.

So there, you have it. My three tips on making unlikable characters likable. I hope you found this helpful. If you can come up with more examples of the three tips, I’d love to hear them! And if you have any tips of your own, comment away!

Happy writing, writers!

 


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  Comments: 6

  1. Christina (A Reader of Fictions)


    Confession: I usually don’t read author posts on how to write particular things, but I love this one. I like the way you used examples from other works as well as your own, and I haven’t read anything on precisely this topic before. Nor have I given much consideration to why some unlikable characters work and others don’t. I’ll be keeping an eye out for “cat-saving” in the future!


    • Hi Christina,

      Thanks so much for your kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the article! I hope it’s helpful to writers!

      Jess


  2. Hey Jess,

    I have been thinking about this topic a lot lately. I’m in the midst of writing an unlikable character I want to have the kind of arc we don’t expect. However, I don’t want her to be so unlikable that the audience will never be on her side. This post really put it into perspective for me. Your examples were on point. Thanks for posting!

    -Natalie


    • Hi Natalie,
      Thanks for writing. I’m so glad you found the post useful. Making the character grow but still be likable is a tough line to walk – you’re right! Keep going with your writing!


  3. I came across this post when I had been tossing around in my head the idea of if J.K Rowling had gone with the spoilt and big headed Harry Potter who grew up a celebrity in the wizarding world, with the personality Dumbledore was worried about when dropping the boy off with the Dursleys, instead of the actual story. With the new story revolving around Harry’s character redemption arch and forming relationships with the people around him.
    Of course then I was very interested in how such a story would be done since Harry is such a lovable character and it was hard for me to twist his personality in my head. It would be difficult to endear him to the audience, especially since Voldemort doesn’t exactly show up until the end of book 1, and this would have to be a gradual process over several books.
    But I’m glad I found this post! It was very clear and descriptive, I loved all the examples you gave, and it was very easy to understand. Of course, putting it to paper would be difficult but I feel more confident now that if I ever wanted to write an unlikable hero I’ll be well prepared for it. So thank you for this wonderful post!

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