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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

WDC Series: Unlikable Characters (That Readers Still Relate To)

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

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There’s something extraordinarily compelling about following the life of an antagonist, one that really drives readers to find out what makes villains tick.

But there’s a trick to writing a character like that, especially if you’re using them as your main character. They may be unlikable, but they still have to be relatable. If they’re not, readers won’t give a darn what happens to them, and they’ll stop reading long before any character development takes place. So how can you ensure relatability without sacrificing their position in the story?

Well, sometimes the answer to that is you don’t. To me, some of the most compelling characters are ones who make questionable choices but aren’t altogether bad people. They may be an antagonist, or they may not. In other cases, their intentions may be evil, but humanity gets the best of them, causing them to slip up. Both approaches share something in common, however: they contain a solid foundation for a dynamic character. And of all the things you need to make an unlikable character relatable, it’s the ability to give them dimension and depth.

Here are some tips for achieving that.

1. Focus on the flaws. Just as there are no perfect protagonists, there are no perfect antagonists either. We all have flaws, for better or worse, but we tend to shed such a negative light on them that it’s hard to see how they can be beneficial. For example, a typical villain might have a trait of dishonesty. Pretty straight forward. They’d likely use that trait to manipulate others into getting what they want, ultimately helping them achieve their goals.

But what if that character instead carries a flaw that doesn’t particularly sway them in one direction or the other, good or bad? A flaw like being timid or shy. Embracing such a flaw as they make their choices could lead to unexpected twists. Perhaps they lose the love of their life because they aren’t brazen enough to go after them. Or, if that flaw becomes such a hindrance to their goal that frustration and pain festers, they could use that flaw to get away with monumental crimes—like murder—for years without being caught. Correctly manipulated, their flaw could become an asset that turns them into incredibly dynamic, and relatable, creatures whose choices shape them into the person they become.

2. Consider a positive character arc for antagonists. Redeemable traits are often the go-to for writers trying to find a way to push the reader toward sympathy for the bad guy. But sometimes that’s not enough, and other times, it’s done in such a way that it comes across as cliché or predictable. One way to give your character that extra growth they need to make their good qualities believable is to push them to a place that’s unexpected. In a previous post, I talked about how blurring the line between good and evil is one way to give your antagonist depth and a more realistic quality. Taking that idea one step further and pushing them into a full-on positive character arc, rather than a negative one, might be the extra punch your character needs. Using that type of arc on a villain results in tremendous growth and a complex character. You have to be careful though, because it can be tricky to pull off in a way that’s genuine. The further in one direction a character is on the scale between good and evil, the tougher it can be to reel them back in and coax them to the other side.

3. Let their backstory drive them. A few months ago, I posted about secondary characters and how their complexity brings realism to their roles in relationship to the main character. The same is true for the antagonist of a story. By weaving in a character’s goals, motivation, flaws, and life experiences into the overall plot, a richness in their relationship with others is developed, leading to a very powerful connection with readers. This same idea can be used to create a compelling character arc, even for unlikable protagonists.

4. Bind their successes and failures to the main character. The dance between a protagonist and antagonist is much like a game of chess—every choice can affect strategy and the overall outcome. One wrong move could land either in checkmate, and both rely on others around them to reach their end goals. Sometimes that even means sacrificing those on their own team. Tethering the characters together in a way that limits their abilities will naturally create conflict and a compelling read.

5. Downfalls can be fascinating. Discovering the outcome of good character who makes a series of bad choices can be magnetizing for readers—much like a horrific car accident that you can’t pull yourself away from. Even small decisions can lead to more turmoil, oftentimes at a cost to a character’s own happiness and success. One of the most popular television shows that uses this approach is Breaking Bad, where every episode leaves Walter White in an even worse situation than the previous ones, with more at stake than ever. He continues to take risks that put himself and others in danger, but his character is created in such a way that leaves you so invested in him that you feel compelled to keep watching.

Unlikable characters can be amazing. They can be dynamic, captivating, and sometimes even more intricate than likable ones. But when it comes to creating an unlikable character, do so with purpose. What role do they play in the story being told? How do their actions affect those around them? Do changes occur within others or within themselves because of their involvement? Characters without purpose are nothing more than annoying wall fixtures made to look pretty. Sure, they might add a nice touch of diversity here and there, but they don’t propel the story forward, and they don’t stimulate growth. And when that happens, readers lose interest, and cutting them becomes the only good option.