At BPA we love characters who are flawed and complex (or even evil), and there’s no reason you shouldn’t write an unlikable person as the central character of your novel. That said, antiheroes are hard to pull off and we often see good novels let down by protagonists who are unlikable in the wrong way. Here are some things to consider as you develop your lead character.
First, decide whether they’re flawed or a villain.
Some writers intend to write a character who is heavily flawed but good at heart and accidentally write a villain. Others do the opposite. It’s important to know whether you want the reader to like your character by the end of the novel and signpost towards that ending throughout. If you’re writing a flawed hero, the reader needs hope that the person will overcome their faults. If you’re writing a villain, they need to know that they’re not supposed to like the character, that they’re on the same page as the writer!
Choose your flaws wisely.
There are some flaws readers love to see a protagonist journey through – anger, pride, insecurity – and others that could make them appear irredeemable – hatefulness, racism, misogyny. The worse the flaws, the more work you’ll have to do to end up with a character the reader sympathises with.
Show what caused the flaws.
It’s far easier to accept any flaw if we can see where it came from. Rooting your characterisation in experience will also mean richer, more complex writing. What traumatic life experience caused your lead’s anger problem? What book or film fed their sexist attitude? Perhaps one of their parents had the same negative trait (and passed it on) or had the opposite trait (and the child rebelled).
Make sure there’s balance.
It’s a good idea to give your protagonist as many positive attributes as negative, but in my experience the most effective way to make a reader care about a flawed character is to show them suffering. It’s easy to love someone who is being bullied or rejected, no matter how they themselves have behaved. If we see them hurt by others, we’ll forgive them for hurting others, especially if we view their pain as a cause of their behaviour.
The protagonist of my first novel is performative because her family is cold. In early drafts, readers couldn’t see how the family’s issues affected her, so they didn’t forgive this flaw. I added a scene in which she was left out of an important gathering and made sure to show her pain, her disappointment, her anger. Now the reader both sympathises with her and accepts her over-the-top attempts to go the other way.
Show them overcoming their flaws.
If you want readers to ultimately care for the character, they’ll have to overcome their flaws or at least make a start on this journey. They don’t need to be perfect by the end, but they should have developed. When unlikeable characters develop, a lot will change: their voice, their perception of their surroundings, their relationships. I’ve worked with a few clients who’ve told rather than shown that a character has changed their ways and been disappointed when the internal thought or dialogue suggested otherwise. You have to cover all bases to make the reader believe in the change.
Make it clear that they’re supposed to be a baddy.
It’s hard to settle into a book when a character is an awful person but it seems that the writer wants you to like them, that they’re supposed to be a flawed hero. The reader might get the wrong impression if there’s not enough exploration of the protagonist’s bad behaviour. Novels with bad-at-heart protagonists tend to provide social commentary or satire. In American Psycho, the protagonist’s voice is so extremely narcissistic and annoying it’s clear the writer wants you to dislike him.
Every novel is a story the author uses to say something, and usually you have to be very subtle about the ‘saying something’ part so that entertainment is front and centre. When your main character is a villain, you often need to bring the messaging to the surface slightly more so the reader trusts you’re going somewhere with the characterisation.
Make them as interesting as possible.
Characters should always be interesting, but it can be easier to care about a character you like. To make the reader care about (note: not care for) an unlikable character, they need to fascinate, surprise and intrigue you. When the protagonist of Fight Club goes to a cancer support group despite not having cancer, you’re shocked by his lack of empathy yet fascinated by his motivation. Your unlikable protagonist might be incredibly creative, goofy or stylish; they might have an unlikely talent or a soft spot for a particular family member. Use as much specificity as possible in their characterisation so we can’t resist following them through each chapter.
Who are we rooting for?
When the lead is a bad guy, the reader will want to connect with the characters around them, whether allies or antagonists. Make sure there are characters who appear throughout the novel that the reader can root for, even if it means hoping the protagonist will fail.
Be bold. Unlikable characters are often honest characters, and an empathetic writing will mean they leap off the page and into your readers’ hearts. I love being made to change my mind about a character but I also love it when the character I want to succeed isn’t the protagonist. Whether you’re writing a flawed hero, a villain or something in the middle, root the characterisation in experience and the reader will connect.