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Starting with an unlikable character

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Abbas-Al-Morim, Dec 11, 2013.

  1. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    That, in my opinion, is exactly how sympathy for an unlikable character should feel. We don't have to condone choices or actions to understand (or sympathize) with underlying causes (and therefore the character).

    This I understand. I'm a big fan of Murcatto as well. However, the term "sympathy" in the sense I intended isn't meant as feeling sorry for the character. Rather, it's intended as an umbrella term to describe traits that make characters come alive...to make them feel real by having the character share commonality with the reader. And, in the case of an unlikable character they can work to not make them completely loathsome simply because of that shared commonality.

    Obviously, considering our difference in opinion, this is not an effect that is guaranteed for every reader. Whether or not we enjoy a character, or their story role, will come down to individual taste.
    Last edited: Dec 12, 2013
  2. The Dark One

    The Dark One Maester

    I don't think 'likable' or 'unlikable' mean the same thing in fiction as they do in real life. Someone in fiction is likable because the reader enjoys that character's part in the story.

    I think readers are attracted to evil/bad/naughty characters with unpleasant traits because it allows them to live vicariously through those characters to explore their own untrammelled id nature.

    My recently published book features a 1st person POV, with a real bastard of a character. Wealthy, intelligent, arrogant, womaniser, drug taker, insults nice people and secretly manipulates people's lives for his own amusement. And readers love him to bits. Mind you, it's a balancing act - one false step and the whole thing would come tumbling down.
    T.Allen.Smith likes this.
  3. There are a number of things about an unlikable character that people can still connect with. Even with an evil character.

    It might be that, on some level, they are right or justified in their opinions or actions. We don't have to agree with them, but a great character can make us say, "I know how that feels. I have felt that way too." Maybe they ARE the smartest. Maybe their opinion IS right on some level. Maybe they WOULD be better at ruling the world. The current Spider-Man comics has Peter Parker dead and Dr. Octopus living in his body, being a better hero on many levels, but failing on others.

    Humor. James Bond makes a smart comment or a pun when he kills someone. Not an evil person, but he's not the nicest one either.

    Far too often we find characters that are given horrible, traumatic experiences that make them that way. Why can't someone just be an asshole?
  4. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver


    I disagree - at least with how I've been using the term on this board.

    Some readers dig anti-heroes. As long as a character is well-written, it's like you said. They enjoy reading about the character as long as they enjoy the writing.

    A lot of readers, such as me, don't like reading about "unlikeable" characters - meaning those with unlikeable traits. You have found an audience for your character. From your description of that character , however, I seriously doubt I'd like your book.

    I'm not saying there's anything wrong with going with an anti-hero, but, assuming my attitude is indicative of anyone beyond myself, you definitely will turn off some readers.
  5. psychotick

    psychotick Auror


    You lot got me thinking - never a good thing. And yeah for my money there are a whole lot of different ways of liking someone.

    I mean was Yossarion (Catch 22) a really likeable character? Or did we just feel sorry for him - the man being crushed by the machine - and like him because of that. And in the end when you think about it, his escape from the war is sort of a cowardly thing to do, but because we sympathise with him, we take it as a victory. Sort of.

    And James Bond as someone mentioned. We like him, but he really isn't a nice guy. We like him because he's our champion and so we forgive him his flaws. Anyone else who drank, womanised, gambled and shot people we'd run a mile from.

    In the same vein I suppose you could add Bonnie and Clyde. Antiheroes to the max, but really thoroughly nasty people who would kill you as soon as look at you. Not heroes at all. Do we like them - in as much as they were seen to be fighting against the machine yeah. Even though they were really just cold blooded killers getting money for themselves. But we sometimes feel repressed and in them we saw someone doing what we are too frightened to do. Rebelling.

    As for Sherlock, he's an arse. There I said it, he is an out and out arse. And as I said in my previous post we like his brilliance even if we hate his dry tongue and superiority. But there's one other thing he does that we like. He tells things as they are. He doesn't do mealy mouthed beating around the bush as most of us do. He does what we can't do but secretly want to. And we like that. We'd probably want to punch him in the nose if we met him, but that's a different mystery.

    In real life it's the same. I personally want ex Italian PM Berlescone for PM of New Zealand. Yes he sleeps with underage hookers, he's corrupt, can't run a country for crud and has a criminal record to go with his underworld connections (reputed). But grief he's got style and charisma, and our current PM is a boring Zurich gnome who vanishes in a crowd. (That's Zurich New Zealand by the way!) Sometimes you just want a bit of excitment even when you know it's going to go nowhere good.

    So yeah, if you want an antiheroe that people will like you've got to give them something people want, even if they would never admit it.

    Cheers, Greg.
  6. The Dark One

    The Dark One Maester

    Absolutely. I have a tendency to speak in extremes - sententiously wrapping everything and everyone into one glib overstatement. And of course not everyone likes my character Morgen, and I frequently warn people off him if I know or suspect them to be sensitive souls. There was a person at work who begged to borrow my lending copy one lunch time. I knew he wouldn't cope...tried to suggest as much gently...but he wanted to take a look. He was back ten minutes later - very embarrassed, and agreed it was not to his taste.

    Plenty do like Morgen though. There is a major book chain in Australia which last week included Straight Jacket in their best ten crime novels of 2013 (came second to JK Rowling's first crime novel) and it's getting some stunning reviews on goodreads and other places.
  7. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    I think we're on the same page.

    Just want to point out, because I'm not sure I was clear on my post above, I think it's a bad idea to try to make your character likeable for the wrong reasons. Regardless which direction you go, you're going to turn off some readers; it's impossible to please everyone.

    Much more important is what you want the character to be. Perhaps even more important is what the story needs the character to be.

    On a personal note, my story, I think, needs a likeable character, and, in an attempt to make him more "real," I ventured a bit off course. I'm having to rein in the darker elements for my final draft.
  8. Rullenzar

    Rullenzar Troubadour

    This entire thread got me thinking of the show I really miss. House. He was the definition of a dick. He was crude, rude, arrogant, yadi yadi but it worked. In my opinion he was the medical version of sherlock holmes. This method can be done.
  9. Firekeeper

    Firekeeper Troubadour

    Agreed. He can be a total wretch, but as long as there are parts of him that readers can relate to, or at the very least understand, you'll be ok. You could also give him a flaw or two, just to humanize him. He could be a compulsive gambler; he could be terrible at the games he plays but thinks he's awesome, and ends up losing a lot of money constantly. If you surround him with sympathetic sycophants, he could rationalize his losses to them as having been cheated or something like that. He remains a petulant jerk, but you've just made him more human.

    You could make his flaws humorous, which would endear him to readers, or you could keep a serious tone and keep him an all out wretch, it's up to you.

    Flaws and aspects that readers can understand....those are the biggest keys IMO
  10. Erudite

    Erudite Scribe

    Just keep in mind that readers assimilate with the characters they read. You've got a large chance to reach some young guy by writing this well, but you can't just sell 1 dimensional characters. You know the reasons he's acting the way he does, so write it in and do it well. Show the contrast between how he acts like a douche to those with little wealth, but is treated the same among his peers, despite his position.

    Good luck, have fun.
  11. Bruce McKnight

    Bruce McKnight Troubadour

    I think if it's well written, I don't think it matters if the MC is likeable or not. If it grips readers, they will keep reading, looking for the MC to find redemption or comeuppance.

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