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Monday, April 20, 2015

Making Unlikeable People into Likeable Characters

Unlikeable people can be a pain to write if they're a main character. After all, our audience needs to like them enough to be around them for the course of the story. If our readers can't stand them, they won't want to read about them. But sometimes our protagonists are meant to be bad. They need to be bad. Heck, sometimes even the likeable people in our stories have jerk-qualities.

So how do we render their bad-qualities without driving our readers to throw our books across the room?

We turn our unlikeable people into likeable characters.

We make them such likeable characters, that the audience forgives, accepts, or overlooks that they are unlikeable people.

Here are six ways to do that.

1. Make their Flaws into Super Power Strengths (NOT THE CHARACTER ARC)

In case you missed the caps, this tactic is not about the character arc. This isn't a situation where you have your unlikeable character overcome their flaws and become a better person. That's part of the problem when writing unlikeable people; we see their flaws as something negative (with good reason). Instead, start seeing their flaws as a strength. Shift that context. Put your character in situations where their flaws and negative characteristics actually help them and maybe even benefit others.

I've been writing about a character who has the compulsion to always tell the truth. He's too honest (but yet, he's not meanspirited). When I first started writing this character, everything that had to deal with this compulsion made him come across as weak and annoying.

So I had to stop and think about how to shift that characteristic to make it more cool and entertaining and seem like a strength. I asked myself, "How could this character use truth like a cool weapon? When he's not meanspirited? How can being too honest work as an advantage, without it being rude? Without creating negative feelings or at best, a 'vanilla' feeling? Without being too saintly (in other words, annoying)?" Let's just say that he's made a lot of improvements since my first draft.

You can do the same thing. It takes some brain power and brainstorming time, but think about situations where you can turn your character's flaw into an advantage. Is your character too selfish? How can that be a good thing? Maybe you can relate it to the importance of being self-reliant and exercising self-preservation. Maybe because he is selfish, he can detect routes that require the least amount of sacrifice possible--routes that self-sacrificing people wouldn't even think of because they don't have that strong selfish motive.

This gets back to the exact thing I was talking about last week. Flip the context to make your character's weaknesses work as strengths. The flaw itself doesn't change, but a situation arises where the flaw becomes an advantage.

In Parks and Recreation, April hates people. She's not friendly. She likes to annoy others and enjoys finding ways to ruin their day and just make them unhappy. But when her boss, Ron Swanson, who hates working and tries to do as little work for the government as possible, needs to hire an assistant, April's negative qualities become an advantage. With them, she is able to keep people away from Ron. She is able to help Ron not work. Her flaw is a strength in that situation.

Audiences love characters who aren't necessarily saintly, but who fit their roles well. In this example, April fits her new job perfectly, so we like her more. In contrast, we get annoyed and tend to dislike characters who don't fit their role, in other words, characters who are made up of plenty of flaws that keep them from ever fitting their role. (Unless we use that fact that they don't fit their role as an advantage, but then, that would be giving them a slightly different role in the story.)

So create situations where shortcomings can be used as strengths to show that your character fits his role in the story well.

2. Make their Flaws Funny

Look at the unlikeable traits your character has and find ways to make them funny. Shows where the "villain" is the protagonist usually do a great job of doing this. For examples, go watch Megamind or the live version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. In Saving Mr. Banks, the writers made Pamela Travers's curmudgeonly qualities humorous and capitalized on that by having other characters make jokes about them. So not only were the qualities demonstrated in funny ways, but then we got hear others say funny things about them.

You can make your character's flaws humorous by having him embrace them. The Grinch revels in being a bad person. He gets excited when his heart shrinks down a size. The irony of loving to be evil is what's funny.

April loves to hate people. She loves everything that is dark and sinister. The idea that someone can love that stuff is funny.

But the writers of Parks and Recreation also put her in situations where her flaws create the joke. Just like how you can put your unlikeable character in situations to make their flaws into super powers, you can put them in situations that make their flaws funny. You usually do this by putting them in "fish out of water" situations, but there are other ways too. Check out my humor post to help brainstorm how to make your character funny.

For my truth-telling character, one of the ways I found humor was by having him bluntly say things about himself that most people would find embarrassing to admit to. My character isn't socially "blind." He knows that society considers these things embarrassing, but he doesn't believe in giving into that aspect of society (so it empowers him). He embraces it (making what could be a weakness into a strength). In fact, he can say these things in dire situations to confound people--they can't figure him out. (So it's also a super power).

3. They Embrace their Evilness OR They feel Convincingly Guilty About it

I touched on this one already, but it doesn't have to be just for humor. This plays back into what I was talking about earlier, about how audiences like characters that fit their roles. If your character wants to be something--evil, powerful, the best thief in the world--and we see them striving to be it, we'll like them more.

Being unable to connect emotionally with other human beings doesn't sound like a weakness when your character chooses to cultivate it.

Maybe they want to be powerful, and they see (or we as an audience see) that lying, cheating, and stealing are a way to reach that goal. Or maybe your character is so focused on becoming powerful that they are blind to the fact that they are lying, cheating, and stealing. That works too. The point is that they are embracing a quality and aiming to fit or maintain a certain role.

Alternatively, you can write an unlikeable person who feels guilty about their evil ways. And they can feel so bad about the way they are, that we do too. Your character can be self-deprecating.

Some people might be saying, "Well, what else is there? What kind of tip says to make your character embrace her evillness or to feel bad about it? Doesn't that include everything?"

But the point is, whatever you pick, you've got to take full advantage of that route, have control over it, and be conscious of it, in order to turn an unlikeable person into a likeable character.

4. Make their Flaws Entertaining

Again, this can kind of overlap with humor, but they aren't necessarily the same, so, I wanted to separate them. Jack Sparrow is a character with a lot of human flaws (liar, thief, selfish, traitor), but he's as entertaining as heck. And not only is he entertaining, but he makes all the situations he's in entertaining too. He walks on screen and it's like "Crap, I got to watch this. What's going to happen?"

Similarly, look at Peeves from Harry Potter (the books, since regrettably he was cut out of the movies). He's an awful human being (poltergeist?), but every time he shows up in a scene, we're like "Holy heck, what's he going to do? Is he going to get Harry in trouble? Is he going to do something that indirectly helps Harry?" Peeves always makes the scene more entertaining, and when he does something that benefits Harry, we like him more. (In contrast, when he does something that hurts Harry, we dislike him more.)

Third example. The other day Iron Man 2 was on t.v. and I watched a few minutes of it. Tony Stark was being a total jerk to people in it. But it was totally entertaining. I wanted to keep watching, because even though he was being rude, it was amusing.

It's April's negative attributes that make her an entertaining character. Her comments and perspective make situations more amusing.

5. Show that there is Camaraderie around and an Understanding of this Person

Even if your character is an unlikeable person, you can make them a more likeable character by showing that others like them. For April, her husband Andy obviously loves her, but one of the important things that the writers did was make Andy a character who regularly expresses his love to April.

Leslie, another character who regularly, openly expresses her love to people, also loves April. Even Ann, whom April hates, cares enough about April to want to be friends with her. Everyone on the Parks and Recreation staff likes and is accepting of April despite her negative qualities.

So you can give your unlikeable person someone who loves or admires them.

6. Show that they (Grudgingly) have a Good Side

Despite April hating hugs and openly hating people, there are times where she, grudgingly, tells people she cares about them. More often than that, her actions show she cares about people even when she claims the opposite.

Even if your character embraces being bad, you can show he does have a good side that he tries to keep hidden. We see this with the Grinch. Often the fact they try to keep their good qualities hidden makes them more likeable.

Snape did the same thing. And yes, Snape is completely an unlikeable person whom Rowling made into a likeable character. In fact, she made him into such a likeable character by the end of the series, that people forgot he's actually an unlikeable person. A lot of the good things he does for Harry, he does somewhat grudgingly because Harry reminds him of James Potter. Snape hides his good actions. When he promises to protect Harry, he tells Dumbledore that no one can know.

Frankly, the contrast between how unlikeable a person Snape is and how likeable he is as a character is freaking huge, which I think is why many people feel like he's the best character ever written.

In Parks and Recreation, April grudgingly shows that she care about others. When she decides to tell Leslie what she really thinks of her, she makes Leslie face the other direction so she doesn't have to say it to Leslie's face. It's amusing.

So those are six way to make an unlikeable person into a likeable character. For more insight, check out my post about creating likeable characters in general. 


  1. Unfortunately, I found the article too hard to read with all the animated gifs distracting my attention.

    1. That makes sense. This is an older post--I should probably update it and take that out. I'm used to Tumblr, where people do this sort of thing all the time, so I don't find it distracting. But it makes sense that people elsewhere do.

  2. Great article..
    I agree with your 6 ways. And #4: Make their Flaws Entertaining is the best.
    It makes total sense to make the protagonist's action entertaining. The audience will want him to be bad just to watch his scenes.
    It is the first time that someone mentions making the flaw entertaining (at least I have not read anything like that).
    So thank you for adding this!


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