View Full Version : Main Character isn't that likeable

11-04-2004, 07:17 AM
Has anyone here written a story with a main character who the readers might despise? My main character is snobby, prejudiced, cruel, wealthy, and conceited about her looks and talent. She is mean to other characters and I fear my readers will bond with the victims rather than my main character. While she does change the end, my readers have to live with this brat for the first third. If my readers keep reading after the first chapter I think it might be because they want to see her meanness catch up with her, and I don't want them to hate her. Though she is hateable.....I kind of hate her myself.

Any tips on making the reader bond with someone they would probably hate in real life?

mr mistook
11-04-2004, 08:21 AM
You've got to humanize her. There's got to be hints early on and all through that this character is capable of a change for the better, and drifting toward it.

11-04-2004, 08:24 AM
Well, Scrooge is a mean, snobbish, wealthy, conceited, unlikeable character, but we go along with the ride with him in "A Christmas Carol" -- why? Because we're promised something... a change, something good in return. It's a great story. With great character. Even though Scrooge is not likeable in the beginning, we see his vulnerability -- we identify with him on many levels... the loneliness, being misunderstood, etc. So we're willing to follow him through his journey -- and he's one hell of a good character.

Interesting characters doing intersting things. It doesn't have to be likeable.

11-04-2004, 09:32 AM
I have a character kinda like that. Though she's not necessarily cruel herself.

What I've done is introduced her love-interest-to-be (yeah, it's a fantasy romance) sooner than I originally intended. It works, I think, in that it makes her vulnerable in some areas, stronger in some areas, and gives glimpses of a more ... decent side to her.

11-04-2004, 09:40 AM
I have a character just like this and I must say I hated her, too--until she turned out to have real depth. I think I ended up loving her more for her ability to grow, to change, to see her own shortcomings once they were brought to her attention and rectify her errors. Of course, the love of a man who understood her didn't hurt, not at all. And though he was intended to be a minor character at first, he ended up such a force that a balance was struck between the two, which made for an interesting romantic subplot to the suspense.

But, say almost to the middle of the novel, the reader will have a hard time deciding if she's a protagonist or an antagonist. I know I did. Boy, was that story a fun write, for all its twists and turns. Well, they all are, really.


Flawed Creation
11-04-2004, 10:26 AM
I would find and highlight her best side.

show her with the one person she is kind to, or show whatever redeeming trait she has. make the reader understand that there's something complex to the character.

11-04-2004, 11:59 AM
I'm writing a series of private detective novels, and my protagonist Mitchell King is not a nice person at all.

He's arrogant, snobby, and full of himself. He's also rash and prone to acting impulsively, lashing out in a somewhat childish manner.

The way that I am making him more human, and therefore a character with whom the reader can identify, is to make him vulnerable and prone to being hurt. As he continues to suffer (mostly from his own actions) he will slowly come to the realization that he must change. His gradual progress will engage the reader.

11-04-2004, 12:17 PM
Quote: "There's got to be hints early on and all through that this character is capable of a change for the better, and drifting toward it."

I believe it's more basic than this even. A person has to recognize there's a problem in his or her own behavior before he/she can change or try to change it. Whether or not the person can actually change may be a long uphill battle. What may matter is: Does he want to change? Does he see who he is and have a certain amount of self-loathing for himself or at least his behavior? That right there makes him more likable. If he says, "I'm a mean *&*& and I love it," then he won't garner any sympathy.

Think of someone who is addicted to a drug. He may not see his own behavior and thus have no desire to change. But if he sees how his actions are affecting others, or how his own personal situation has declined over time, despite how seamlessly, he may realize he has a problem. Only then can he make the attempt to change, even if he never succeeds. Or he can give up before trying because he expects to fail due to past failures X,Y,Z in his life. Even in this case, sympathy is created for the character, despite how pathetic a figure he is.

11-04-2004, 02:55 PM
is the fact that we've all got main characters like this suggest we're bored with a straight protagonist goody-two-shoes with just a few minour flaws? my current incarnation involves a girl who is more forced into situations, but at the same time takes unabashed delight in what evil she does. i love her *because* she's evil and i plan on keeping her as bad as i can for as long as i can. eventually, i'll have to redeem her and then everything that endears me to her will be gone. i'll probably have to kill her off before she flies away umbrella in hand. mine is a killer, though, and it hardly fits to have this murderess get the guy and ride off into the sunset. but even i know i have to balance her out with another character. i believe in them being more entertaining than likeable, anyway.

i think you'll probably be all right doing the hint thing. the reader should follow along if it's interesting enough and there's enough reason for them to believe they'll turn out satisfactorily. snobbiness is just a character flaw and it's expected, i think, that those types of things are eradicated in the main character by the end. your character doesn't sound evil as much as just a bitch. i hope you don't turn her into a mary sue by book's end, though. radical reversals of character short of religious epiphany always felt unrealistic to me (scrooge being the epitamy of how it's done).

Writing Again
11-04-2004, 09:20 PM
I once wrote a criminal character whose only redeeming feature was his hatred of a certain politician who was prone to "skimming" because, "You don't steal from old ladies and orphans."

Interestingly enough the story was said to have "high moral fiber," I felt like I'd written a box of cereal or something.

aka eraser
11-04-2004, 10:41 PM
Unless your character is a born sociopath (in which case redemption is nigh-impossible) chances are some life-event caused her moral compass to shift. That's what I'd hint at and reveal at some later point.

11-04-2004, 10:49 PM
Hannibal Lector.

11-04-2004, 11:06 PM
I don't think I've ever had a really unlikable protagonist in a novel, but I have in short stories.

I sold a short story to Ellery Queen a few years ago wherein the protagonist murdered his pregnant girlfriend, blames it on his best friend, got away with it, and lived happily ever after with no regrets at all. It's been one of my most popular stories.

11-04-2004, 11:17 PM
I think Julie's got it wrong.

A character should never be aware of their flaw going in. That is where there journey needs to take them - to a place where they have an epiphany about themselves - and make a change. That's what character development is.

Characters do not have to be nice to be likeable. As long as your character has a goal and is struggling to achieve that goal you can create empathy.

11-05-2004, 02:50 AM
I think it would help to define the difference between "unlikeable" and "unsympathetic." Yes, the reader can empathize with a character who is still unlikable. But, if you don't care at all about the character, what's going to hold your interest in the novel? Simply because she's horrible? (Someone above said Hannibal Lecter, but I'd argue that he's the antagonist, and Clarice is the protagonist.)

I agree with Jamesaritchie that you can pull off "unsympathetic" in a short story, but it's harder in a novel (you're spending a lot more time with that character!). The two plot lines where you see unsympathetic main characters are "the man who learns better" (eg Scrooge in the Christmas Carol) and "ye shall reap what ye sow" (George RR Martin's "Sandkings").

11-05-2004, 03:10 AM
I'm not sure if Hecter is the protagonist though. I think Clarice is the protagonist. I think we have similar discussions about Misery and Carrie...

As I said before, many personal journey type stories start with an unlikeable protagonist: About Schmidt, for example. Or Scrooge. Or Catcher In The Rye. Or Hamlet.

Flawed Creation
11-05-2004, 09:26 AM

I must disagree

11-05-2004, 05:48 PM
has there ever been a main character, the sole focus of the book, that was as despicable as possible, had no morally or socially redeeming values, rode off into the sunset just as pretty as you please and that book be any good?

11-07-2004, 05:29 AM
The main character of Iain Banks "The Wasp Factory" is a teenage psychopath - who among other things tortures animals and commits murder. The character is the narrator so there is no reprieve from this character's mind. But it is a truly fascinating mind and a fascinating book.

Many people have a hard time getting through it, because parts of it are so distrubing, but the pay off in the end - is quite surprising and satisfying.

So I'd have to say 'yes' to preyer's question. A book can have a character with no socially redeeming values and it can still be quite good.

11-07-2004, 11:44 AM
Ian M Banks' "Use of Weapons" is another example. It's the only book I've ever sold immediately after finishing just to get it out of the house, but while reading it I couldn't put it down. Very disturbing stuff.

William Gibson's "Neuromancer" is a somewhat less extreme example, in which all of the characters operate in various shades of moral grey.

I'm so bored with 'redemption'. Real people don't turn into saints. Hell, a lot of real saints make Hannibal Lector look like a sunday school teacher. Real people act primarily out of self-interest, and delude themselves into complacency by justifying their actions retrospectively. That's what rational thought is for.