Characters who appeal most to me are a bit rough–ones who bear the wounds of a difficult past yet are determined to take on the challenges ahead. These anti-hero types push back when they are pushed and wear emotional armor made of steel, safeguarding themselves from a hard world. They might be cynical, sarcastic, uncompromising and distant. They may also lack filters, have trust or control issues and avoid forming relationships. Yet there is always something redeeming and likeable about them, and it keeps me turning pages.
Flawed heroes and anti heroes are complex and interesting, and provide a difficult challenge for other characters wanting to get close. Watching the emotional armor finally loosen to allow another in is extremely satisfying for readers. But often, in the writer’s attempt to create a damaged, tough hero or heroine, the character ends up too flawed and their lack of likeability spoils the story. Readers grow frustrated with the character, lose patience and are unable to forge that empathy link.
I’m over at Writer’s Dig today discussing When Flaws Go Too Far: Avoiding Unlikeable Characters, so if this is something you struggle with, stop in! I have a few tips to help bring readers in and make them care about your anti-hero character, even when there are aspects of their personality that might be tough to like.
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Michael M Dickson says
The entire time I read this post I could think of nothing but Travis Maddox in Beautiful Disaster.
I read the book months ago and loved it. I found Travis engaging, but to this day I can’t tell if I hate him or think his character was genius.
Lyle S Tanner says
I have a special love of terrible people in fiction and watching them either try or absolutely refuse to try to be any better at being people, being followed by an appropriate reward or punishment for their behaviour. The important thing for me is that everyone around them, and even the character in question, reacts to their behaviour appropriately. No kicking puppies and then laughing maniacally to a crowd of people applauding.
Julie Musil says
I’m on my way! As you know, I had to work through this. I’m always open to learning new things.
Leslie S. Rose says
There is a major difference between a character you want to slap some sense into, and one you just want to slap.
Jemi Fraser says
I’ve recently given up on 2 books because the MCs were so unlikeable. I don’t mind rough edges at all but there was nothing for me to like in these 2.
I’ll hop on over and read the post. This is an interesting topic.
I guess I’m the opposite here. I really don’t like anti-heroes. I mean, yes, a person can be redeemed and brought back but it takes a lot to appeal a character like that for me. Never liked House. Even though he saved lives, the way he went about, his personality, just sucked. I do redeem characters in my story but it usually takes a complete upset into who they are for me to do so.
Penelope Silvers says
Hi Angela, I’m heading over to WD to read your entire post. This is exactly the issue I’ve been worried about in my debut romance novel. My heroine has tons of problems, but I struggle with whether readers will hang with her while she works them out and finds her way–or will they just become bored.
I’m looking forward to what you have to say; hopefully, I can incorporate some of those tips to create a likeable character. Thanks!
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
I hope the post helps, Penelope! If you have any questions that the post doesn’t cover, let me know! 🙂
Penelope Silvers says
Another such character that is deeply flawed to the point of unlikability is Doc Martin from the British series. I’m a huge fan of the show and for those of us who know the character and why he is flawed, I think the thing that brings us back is that we have hope for this man who had horrible, unloving ice bergs for parents. We want him to find love, friends, family and we know that under his stern, say whatever he thinks demeanor is a heart that wants out but is trapped. People will rally for HOPE.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Yes, you nailed it–hope is so powerful when it comes to anti heroes. It is the magic ingredient to likeability for any flawed hero. Backstory is almost always needed to some degree to create empathy, which them leads to readers hoping things will change and work out, and the character will have a happy ending of sorts. 🙂
Joe Kovacs says
Your post about flawed characters made me think about Dr. Gregory House from the popular medical drama, House. I can’t say there’s much about the protagonist that readers can ever associate with or find redeeming, and yet he remains a compelling character. I think what makes him successful as a protagonist “whom viewers love to hate” is that viewers always wonder IF and WHEN he will show cracks in his crass, insensitive personality. Yet, he rarely ever does (aside from some sweet moments with his oncologist friend, Wilson). It’s what House does that no one else can do–saves patients that no one else can–that redeems him, not who he is as a person. I think this really is cutting edge in terms of character development; I can’t think of another character like Dr. House who can enjoy viewer support in quite the same way. I’m sorry I missed your talk; I’m sure it would have been very useful and helpful to writers building anti-heroes into their stories.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
It’s funny you mention House–i was just discussing him on Facebook on a writing thread, with much the same commentary that you’ve written here. For me, the writers did two very important things in addition to what you’ve brought up–they showed the backstory that made him who he is–namely how his leg was operated on, leaving him with lifelong pain, and the blame assigned to the person who made the medical decision, his partner at the time, which of course became the object of his blame, fanned his anger and created trust issues.
The second thing that kept me watching and hoping he’d chance was the glimmers you’d see. He was a brilliant man yes, and believed he knew everything better than anyone else, but when it came to relationships and emotion/people, he was always on loose ground. Every once in a while an epiphany moment would happen where he learned something or realized something about human connection that he had previously been blond to. These glimmers made me hope for change and growth that would make him feel more complete and happy.