Friday, February 3, 2012


I've been thinking a lot about unlikable main characters this week, and how they can be done really well. This is partly because of a MS I'm critiquing for a friend, but mostly because of a film I saw last week.

The film was utterly compelling. But the main character was anything but likable. In fact, I imagine even 10 minutes in her company would have me itching to slap her. Yet in the context of the film, I couldn't drag my eyes from the screen.

Why? It all made sense. Everything that motivated her to do the things she did rang true. Even when the things she was doing began to make less and less sense from a rational point of view, they made perfect sense from a character point of view.

And I think that is the key to writing an unlikable character that doesn't turn the reader off. It's hard.

In Chasing the Taillights, one of my critique partners pointed out that Lucy is unlikable for a large chunk of the novel. It hadn't even occurred to me that she could be seen that way, but as soon as it was pointed out, I recognized how her actions could been seen in that light. I struggled to think of ways to change it, to make her more sympathetic, but in the end I didn't. By the end of the book her reasons for acting that way are very clear, and if I'd softened her or changed her in the early part of the book, the impact of the revelations toward the end would have fallen flat. It also wouldn't have been true to the character.

Do you like unlikable characters? What draws you to them?


  1. I like even my unlikable characters because I get their motivation. Eliza Bennett's mother -she annoys me.

  2. I like unlikable characters, if, and only if there is a sympathetic quality about them! Take a look at Die Hard's villain, Hans Gruber. He was a nasty dude. Downright nasty. Yet, something about him draws the viewer. For instance, he's incredibly charming even while telling the CEO of Nakatomi tower he will die if he didn't reveal the passcodes to the safe!

    But I detest the real unlikable characters that have no redeeming qualities. Even though they're necessary for the story, I don't like them!

  3. Definitely! I think there's something appealing in dissecting the psychology of someone unlikable. Have they chosen to be that way? If so, what events in their life brought them to that point? How does their unlikability impact their actions and view of the world? I think unlikable characters are sometimes more complex than the ones who are universally loved. Plus, there's always the potential for redemption which creates tension and keeps things interesting.

  4. Kate, I really like this post. I was told by an agent that one of my MCs was unlikeable from the start. But, as you so nicely stated in your post, there was a reason for her to act that way. I feel so validated now. Honestly.

  5. Oh good! I'm not alone in liking the unlikable...

  6. I think you wrote Lucy perfectly. She is unlikable in a way the reader can understand. As long as there is a reason behind it, I'm all for unlikable characters.