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How to Keep Readers Happy When Your Character’s Unlikeable

FUMIGRAPHIK_Photographist, Flickr’s Creative Commons

Please welcome Holly Brown [1] as our guest today. Holly is the author of Don’t Try to Find Me [2]A Necessary End [3], and—just this month!—This is Not Over [4]. In addition to being a novelist, she is also (in no particular order): a wife, mother, marriage and family therapist, poker enthusiast, resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, member of the SF Writers Grotto, lover of some incredibly shameful reality TV, devotee of NPR (she owes a debt of gratitude for inspiring more than one novel), and a believer that people should always be willing to make mistakes and always be the first to apologize for them. As a writer, she tends to be inspired by contemporary events and phenomena. She likes to take an emotionally charged situation and then imagine the people within it. That’s where her background in human dynamics comes into play, and where the fun begins.

I like unlikable characters, dammit! Always have, even before I was writing them myself, and they can always use a champion.

Connect with Holly on her blog, Bonding Time on Psych Central [5], and on Facebook [6].

How to Keep Readers Happy When Your Character’s Unlikeable

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl broke the glass ceiling by allowing female characters to be as unlikeable as males have often been in fiction. For too long, women writers in particular were hamstrung by the need for relatability, which could lead to muted characters, dulled at the edges, your stereotypical women in jeopardy, more acted upon than acting. Here are some ideas on how to build vivid, complex characters who are as satisfying to read as they are to write.

First, a disclaimer: I like unlikeable characters. Generally, I like them better than likeable ones. That’s because I enjoy the challenge. With the most charming characters, it’s like, everyone can get into this person; there are no sharp edges for the reader to cut themselves on. But with the thornier characters, I feel just a little bit special for being able to get them. Or if I don’t get them, for being willing to engage in the quest to get them. And even if I never do, I was noble—well, entertained—in the attempt.

But not all unlikeable characters are created equal. There are some you want to pursue, and some you want to close the book and leave behind. While there are no hard and fast rules for characterization, and you don’t want to fall into tropes, I do notice some commonalities in the most compelling unlikeable characters. You might notice that your favorite unlikable characters possess one or more of these:

I’m a therapist as well as a novelist, so I’m used to engaging with folks of all stripes. Some are incredibly endearing, right off the bat, and some are most emphatically not. I’m always honing my empathy skills, which is crucial for a writer. I’m also used to listening for emotional truth rather than literal truth, and that’s something that I think is especially important when it comes to writing an unlikeable character. Make them truthful, in their way. Make them consistent, in their way.

I write psychological thrillers, and if you do also, then one (or more) of your characters might be an unreliable narrator. The unreliable narrator can veer into unlikeability, running the risk of exasperating the reader. If he or she can’t be trusted, then it’s threatening to the relationship with the reader. The reader may, reasonably, ask: Why should I care about you, if I can’t believe you?

That goes to the heart of why I, personally, like unlikeable characters. Because I’m engaged even if I don’t necessarily believe. Because I’m interested in emotional truth, rather than literal truth. Because sometimes I think that emotional truth is all there is, in a given situation.

Now it’s about giving your reader that situation, and creating the corresponding character, an integration so well-rendered that like them or hate them, no one can stop turning the pages. With an unlikable character (the involving kind, that is), the character has to drive the plot; they’re inextricably bound. The things they do have to be connected to who they are. They’re not just stand-ins or surrogates; they’re richer and more complicated than that. That’s why when they’re done well, I love them the most—the ones I’ve written, and the ones I wish I’d written.

What do you like (or dislike) about “unlikeable” characters? Have you written an unlikeable character?