What Killed it for Me #2: Characters Who Aren’t Endearing

For my first post in this series, I focused on a common reason that readers might stop reading: Lack of a Clear Goal. If the main character doesn’t have a goal, or if it’s not revealed early on, readers don’t know where the story’s headed and may end up losing interest.

Today, I’m going to talk about a problem I ran into just last week. I was browsing the library shelves and came across a book I’d never read by one of my favorite authors when I was a teen. It was a companion novel to a series I’d devoured—the paperbacks are literally falling apart on my bookshelf at home. Needless to say, before I’d read a single word, I was fully prepped to love this book.

Sadly, I didn’t.

thumbs downThe main character was mentioned in the original series but never made an appearance. Now I know why. He was surly, incredibly cocky, apathetic to the feelings of others, mean to a homeless dog that kept turning up, and had a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas. Granted, he had a good reason for being so crabby. This, combined with my desire to love the story, kept me reading far longer than I normally would have. But by chapter four, I gave it up.


Character creation is tricky. Our heroes have to have flaws, but they can’t be so flawed that people would rather abandon them than share the journey. A book that achieves this balance flawlessly is one of my favorite reads of 2013: The Wicked and the Just. The story is incredibly well-written, but I also love it because it contains the most unlikable character I think I’ve ever read. And yet I cared about what happened to her. I not only finished the book, I now haunt the author’s website looking for the sequel. When I deconstruct Coats’ writing, I see some techniques she utilized to make her unlikable character not only bearable, but endearing:


High Stakes. The year is 1293, and Cecily’s father is moving them to occupied Wales, where tensions between the ruling English and subdued Welsh are high. It’s clear from the beginning that serious trouble is coming and Cecily will be smack in the middle of it. Though a character may be unlikable, readers can still empathize with her if her circumstances are dire. That danger doesn’t have to be physical, though. Circumstances that threaten a character’s emotional or mental wellbeing can be just as gripping. Look at John Nash from A Beautiful Mind. Whatever’s at stake, make sure it’s big and it’s clear, and readers may still root for an unlikable character.

Endearing Traits. Certain character traits are nearly universally admired by others: intelligence, wit or humor, feistiness. Cecily’s voice conveys all of these things. Though she’s selfish, manipulative, and sometimes mean, you’re drawn in because she’s funny, and though you don’t approve of her methods, you have to admire her for striving so hard for what she wants. To make a difficult character more palatable, give her some likable qualities, and readers just might buy in.

An Endearing Moment. Though Cecily’s admirable qualities are evident in her narrative, I don’t think that an entertaining voice is enough. Coats remedies this on page four by including a brief conversation between Cecily and two friends that reveals how brokenhearted they all are that Cecily is leaving. Though her good qualities are understated, the affection of her friends shows that someone truly likes her—that she’s worth liking. It’s downplayed, but it’s a classic Save The Cat moment. Show your character doing something likable or being likable in some way, and the reader will see that she’s not a lost cause.

One caveat: I’ve always believed that the main character has to be likable in some way for readers to make that magical connection. But after thinking on this for awhile, I think I’ve changed my tune. I mean, Scarlett O’Hara wasn’t likable at all. Will Hunting: not exactly a charmer. But these characters resonate with audiences. Why? Because they evoke an emotion that endears them somehow to audiences: they make them laugh, or elicit admiration, or evoke sympathy.

So if you’ve got a character that’s hard to love, utilize one or more of these techniques to draw out those endearing emotions, and you just might ensure that readers will keep on reading.

 

Thumbs Down Image: Geralt @ Pixabay

About BECCA PUGLISI

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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30 Responses to What Killed it for Me #2: Characters Who Aren’t Endearing

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  3. Nickey says:

    Enjoyed this, thank you. I have noticed how some authors seem to change over time as well and how this reflects in their characters. This article has actually many layers of truth to it. Do I just let a character develop naturally? Is it possible to over analyze the situation? Am I steering the ship so to speak or is it the story? How much of what I write involves: “what will the audience think?” Thank you again. Lost in thought

  4. Really interesting. I have suffered from this dilemma a couple of times. In Sunshine State I have a heroine who is pretty vile to everyone in the first few chapters. Admittedly, her ex husband is dating everyone in her vicinity to get back at her.

    In The Cinnamon Snail I have a heroine madly in love with an ex whom readers hate. She needs to get a grip.

    But what I would like to throw into this discussion is the cultural element. Americans have universally told me they love the Cinnamon Snail character because she is sweet and gentle and hate the Sunshine State one because she’s snarky.

    Europeans have all said they are irritated by the Cinnamon Snail heroine’s passivity and love the Sunshine State heroine’s feistiness.

    Is it possible to write for both audiences? I’d love to know how. Suggestions gratefully welcomed.

    http://amzn.to/1nskbor

    • This is a solid example of people having different tastes. You could write a character who you believe is well balanced and likable, other people like them, but a group of people or segment of society doesn’t connect with her. As Andi mentioned, look at Gone Girl. Gajillions of people read that book and loved it, but a significant number couldn’t connect with the characters at all. So no, I don’t believe we can write for every audience. It sounds like you’ve written a book from the heart, and lots of people are enjoying it. If I were you, I’d keep on doing what you’re doing. 🙂

  5. Pingback: What Killed It For Me #3: Too Much Going On | WRITERS HELPING WRITERSWRITERS HELPING WRITERS

  6. Julie Glover says:

    Wonderful thoughts on this subject. I gave a lot of thought to this after reading LOLITA. What an utterly heinous main character! I wanted to shoot him on sight, the preying jerk.

    Yet I kept reading. Why? Because Nabokov showed how the MC wasn’t always so horrible, that he wrestled somewhat, and how he came to rationalize and surrender to terrible actions. We saw his fall. But more importantly, the stakes were high with the young girl character who evoked all kinds of deep sympathy. I cared what happened to the main character because it impacted what happened to her — and she was worth saving.

  7. Rosi says:

    Another incredibly useful post. Thanks for giving me so many great posts to link on my blog!

  8. great post, you gave me a lot to think about. I am attempting my first go at getting a story down, and I am struggling with how to present my characters. I agree, readers have to see something likeable or if not exactly likeable, then relateable.

  9. Another trick not mentioned is to give the unlikable character a very worthy and likable goal. He may be a jerk, but, if he’s risking everything to save a child, the reader will keep reading.

    A goal like this also allows a writer to take some time making the character more likable as the novel continues.

  10. :Donna Marie says:

    I actually don’t think I’d want to write a truly unlikable protagonist. I’d want it to be someone likable with flaws, and even if stubborn, eventually teachable in a way that matters by the end of the story. I do know that when I read Twilight (convinced by a group of young friends, to read the series so I could read the final book when it was released), although I enjoyed the first book and became increasingly annoyed with the plotting as the series went on (hated the last book), throughout the series, Bella annoyed me to no end in many ways. I enjoyed it more because of Edward lol

    • Oh, Twilight. I loved the first one, but #2 was too much. Seeing a teenage girl curl up and wither away when abandoned by her boyfriend…wow. As the mother of a girl who will someday be a teenager and fall in love, I really wanted to smack Bella most of the time.

  11. Andi Byassee says:

    Interesting that someone mentioned Gone Girl above because I had the exact same reaction. After seeing it so highly praised, I expected to like it, but before long I realized I no longer even cared how it played out. My favorite worst example ever of this, however, is a famous bestseller by Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities. There is not a single likeable character in the book, and the author goes out of his way to hate and ridicule his own characters. I know he’s a highly regarded author, but that novel was appalling. A romance novel taking that approach would be an absolute non-starter for me. Even a difficult character can be presented lovingly by an author, with clues to the character’s issues and motivations and the hope of redemption.

  12. Ruby Johnson says:

    What kills it for me is if the characters are just too stupid to live. Once read a novel where the hero is cheating on the heroine and she discovers his deceit. She inherits a fortune and decides to share with her cheating spouse. His lover decides to attempt to murder the heroine. When she recovers she hires his lover who attempted murder as her manager. That just killed it for me. Since I was reading the story for a review I was forced to finish the book. I think I would have quit where she shared her fortune with the man who betrayed her.
    Scarlett was not stupid. Her life wasn’t a bed of roses, but she survived because she was strong and she never gave up. Big difference.

  13. Julie Musil says:

    Becca, such a great reminder. I struggled with this (as you know from my guest post). It’s a tough balance. When you get it right, it feels so rewarding. All the hard work pays off.

  14. Cathryn Cade says:

    Becca,

    Agree, absolutely. In a romance, I must like something about the hero and heroine, or I’m outta there, because I’m reading for that core connection, not just the story adventure.

    I love bad boy heroes, in fact they can be pretty politically incorrect and I’ll settle in for a fun read IF they have redeemable qualities–humor, courage, strength and a Save The Cat moment or two.

    Example: Tack in Motorcycle Man by Kristen Ashley. One of my favorite romance heroes, although in real life I would run over him with his own Harley. He’s funny, totally into the heroine (eventually) and he has his own code of honor. And sexy–whoo!

    In a romance heroine, I must find something to admire. She can even be a real bitch, if she is funny, brave or at least self-aware. Interestingly, a wimpy heroine turns me off faster than any other characteristic.

    Well, besides stoopid–if she refuses the hero’s protection, only to run into the basement of the dark mansion with a killer on the loose, it had better be because a child, the hero or a Golden Retriever puppy is down there. This has nearly caused me to throw my Kindle against the wall a time or two before I remembered that unlike a paperback, it will not bounce.

    best,
    Cathryn Cade

  15. S.J. Maylee says:

    Thank you for this post. The next book in the series I’m writing has a heroine in this situation. I’m anxious to write her story and nervous at the same time. This post will help. Thanks! 😀

  16. I’m not much of romance reader either but I would have to agree. Nice post!

  17. It’s tough for me to write a character I despise, at least so far. Maybe someday one will come along, but for now, I enjoy getting to know not perfect heroes and heroines who I like.

  18. John Yeoman says:

    Becca, I agree that the protagonist or main character has to engage the reader in some way, otherwise we just won’t be comfortable sitting in that person’s mind across 100,000 words. But that person does not have to be likable. The protagonist in Patrick Suskind’s weird novel Perfume is a psychopath, who kills young girls to collect their fragrances. Yuk! But we live with him because it’s made clear at the start that his mind was bent that way by his appalling treatment at a child. At some level, at least, we sympathize.

    • Warren says:

      John,
      I have that book, Perfume. That character killed so many of them I never finished it! Maybe I missed the good part. The book was given to me by a French friend who knew I was writing A Pheromone Affair.

  19. Ellen says:

    Agree! Several people told me that they couldn’t get into GONE GIRL because there was no one to like or root for. I love to root for a character and also see them transform and grow. Thanks for sharing your ideas!

  20. mshatch says:

    You’ve reminded me of one of my favorite series: The First Law series by Joe Abercrombie. There were some awful characters in that book (Gothka the torturer comes to mind) and yet, somehow Abercrombie made me care about what happened to them.

    I liked Scarlet because she was fun to hate. Plus she was satisfyingly reduced to nothing and yet never lost her attitude: Tomorrow is another day.

  21. Iola says:

    When I find I’m not enjoying a book, it’s almost always because I don’t like one of the main characters. This causes huge problems in a romance novel: if I don’t like the hero, it diminishes the character of the heroine who is attracted to him if I can’t see what she sees in him (or vice versa).

    Scarlett O’Hara. Hmm. I suspect that while we didn’t like Scarlett at the beginning of the book (movie), she had a lot of struggles and could did admire the way she got through those—in part because of her strength of personality, that characteristic that made her seem unpleasant and manipulative at the beginning. There is something admirable about a woman of that time knowing what she wanted and being strong-minded enough to go after it that we can perhaps forgive some of her methods.

    • Yes, I agree. This is why I think that “likability” isn’t the real thing. It’s the evocation of a feeling that bonds us to the character that results in us caring about them: pity, fear on their behalf, admiration, respect, etc.

      And I’m not sure, since I don’t read many books in this genre, but I would guess that likability actually IS important for romance readers and writers. If I was all about the romance angle of a story and I didn’t like one of the main characters, that would be a major roadblock for me.

      Can some other romance enthusiasts chime in on this?

      • Cathryn Cade says:

        Becca,

        Agree, absolutely. In a romance, I must like something about the hero and heroine, or I’m outta there, because I’m reading for that core connection, not just the story adventure.

        I love bad boy heroes, in fact they can be pretty politically incorrect and I’ll settle in for a fun read IF they have redeemable qualities–humor, courage, strength and a Save The Cat moment or two.

        Example: Tack in Motorcycle Man by Kristen Ashley. One of my favorite romance heroes, although in real life I would run over him with his own Harley. He’s funny, totally into the heroine (eventually) and he has his own code of honor. And sexy–whoo!

        In a romance heroine, I must find something to admire. She can even be a real bitch, if she is funny, brave or at least self-aware. Interestingly, a wimpy heroine turns me off faster than any other characteristic.

        Well, besides stoopid–if she refuses the hero’s protection, only to run into the basement of the dark mansion with a killer on the loose, it had better be because a child, the hero or a Golden Retriever puppy is down there. This has nearly caused me to throw my Kindle against the wall a time or two before I remembered that unlike a paperback, it will not bounce.

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