The dreaded unlikable character.
When Yves Santiago, my main character from The Lust Diaries, first came to me, I knew she would be what folks like to call “an unlikable character.” I crafted her that way intentionally. Why would I want my main character to come across as unlikable in a book written completely from her point of view? Well, after reading god knows how many books and equally as many reviews, I noticed that readers were willing to accept pretty much anything from the hero as long as he was able to redeemed in the end. He can be promiscuous, gruff, mean, and sometimes, a downright asshole and readers would still titter about how they wanted him to be their book boyfriend on Twitter. I 100% admit to enjoying romance novels with a gruff, brooding, borderline asshole hero, but I also wondered what would happen if I gave those same characteristics to a heroine?
What exactly is an unlikeable character?
An unlikable character is a character that has little or no pleasant or appealing qualities. Yves Santiago was promiscuous, emotionally unavailable, bad with money, impulsive, caustic and rude when challenged, and on top of that, she’s a shit friend and isn’t the greatest sister, daughter, or Auntie.
Yves just messy AF. If she were a real person, I would only deal with her in small doses because while her drama is entertaining, I would not want to be pulled into that vortex on a daily basis.
Now you’re probably wondering how I wrote this completely undesirable character and managed to escape a shitstorm of 1 star reviews.
I realized pretty early on that a character doesn’t necessarily need to be likable in order to be relatable. Now when it comes to crafting characters, relatable doesn’t always mean the same thing that it does in real life. Relatable just means that her life experiences, her feelings, moods, and actions all make sense, which is where good character development comes in.
This is how you make sure your unlikable character is still relatable:
1. Make sure your character’s motivations inform their thoughts and actions.
Yves Santiago is the queen of bad decisions and most of those decisions were about the men she chose to lie down with. But people make bad decisions in real life and we don’t completely write them off, right? Right. And one of the reasons we don’t write them off is because, more often than not, we realize that they have some sort of underlying issue—a reason for their assholish behavior. The why at the center of their bullshit bullseye. This thing never seems like it’s too big of a deal unless it affects you. It should be the same for your character.
During your character development, you should discover your character’s central problem that will explain and inform their terrible, awful decisions and seemingly random actions. Once you’ve found that central problem, share it with the reader—I suggest that you make part or all of it known to the reader in the first act.
Why the first act?
The first act is where you introduce your character and foreshadow/hint at the conflict. It’s also the place where you want to get your reader invested in what happens to your character. That doesn’t mean you have to show your whole hand, you just want to foreshadow the central problem and put them through trials that will reveal how the central problem keeps them from living their best life.
2. Make them worth saving.
It’s very rare that someone is all good or all bad. We all live in the gray which makes a character who falls under either extreme unrelatable. And let’s face it, some of the best villains and anti-heroes have a tragic central problem that makes their dastardly acts understandable. The same goes for cookie-cutter, Mary Sues. They are more memorable if they have some huge flaw that knocks them down a peg. A hot mess like Yves is redeemable because even though she constantly makes bad and selfish choices, she’s always striving to be a better person. The same goes for your unlikable character. The first and easiest way to do this is to have them acknowledge that they are a horrible person because of some significant event that happened in their past. Your backstory can go a long way toward helping you find your character’s central problem and knowing it will help you foreshadow the conflict and the resolution.
3. Give your unlikable character likable friends and/or family.
This can pretty much be summed up with “who is in your character’s crew?” Who do they roll with every day? Who seems to be able to not only endure their bullshit but actually seek them out and enjoy their company? Everyone has that someone and your character should too even if they don’t acknowledge them.
The likable friend can also be a mirror for your character. A good, likable friend can help you explain or illuminate your character’s issues in a way that doesn’t feel they are making excuses for being an insufferable asshat.
For Yves, that character is Ava Marie. She calls Yves on her bullshit constantly and loves on her when she needs it. Yves serves that same purpose for Ava in The Truth of Things. These two are alternate between being at each other’s throats and weeping because they haven’t spent enough time together, but their friendship feels genuine. Giving Yves that sort of relationship makes her flaws seem less intolerable.
Note how I said less. Yves still had to do the work on her own to overcome her central problem and find her happily ever after.
But that’s it friends! Keep these three tips in mind while you’re crafting your unlikable character and they will be well-rounded, relatable and most importantly, memorable.
Do you need a little help crafting your unlikable hero or heroine? Grab a copy of The Basic Character Creation workbook!