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Jul 12, 2019

Pulling Off Unlikable Main Characters (Part 1) - Writing Irredeemable Villains

By Lidija Hilje.

There’s a lot of talk about the importance of writing a likable protagonist. As readers, we have to like a character to be willing to devote several hours of our precious time to read their story. We want to feel invested in them and care about their story enough to be tempted to read a three-hundred-page book.

An unlikable main character can kill the book. If we hate the protagonist, we are almost sure to lose interest and put the book down before finishing it. Not to mention not recommending it to other readers.

But what if you want to write a character that isnt necessarily likable? Even more so, a character that is repugnant or revolting? Can it be pulled off, and how?

Types of unlikable characters

First of all, let’s define what an ‘unlikable’ main character means (at least in the context of this article). Unlikable characters are those whose internal motivations, reactions and thoughts most readers don't find relatable. In other words, they are the protagonists who are so severely flawed or weird, that most people won't like them.

Not every flawed character is unlikable. It is desirable that even likable characters have flaws and character arcs. For a character to be truly unlikable, the flaws must be comprehensive and predominant parts of their personality.

Here are some of the common unlikable character archetypes found in fiction and films:

The villain — think Darth Vader, the ultimate villain whose entire raison d'ĂȘtre is to destroy the universe. Or Sauron, whose only goal is to rule the world. Humbert Humbert, the pedophile from ‘Lolita,’ and Ted Bundy, a real-life serial killer, portrayed in a recent movie ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ are other great examples of villains.

The jerk—jerks are one of the most common types of unlikable characters, and the story often revolves around their personal growth. Remember Jack Black in ‘Shallow Hal’ or Clint Eastwood in ‘Gran Torino.’ 

The psycho —Patrick Bateman from ‘American Psycho’ and Hannibal Lecter from ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ are some of the world’s most famous psycho-villains.

The misfit/oddball— Eleanor Oliphant from ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ is one of the more recent oddball characters. Melvin Udall from ‘As Good as it Gets’ is another great example.

How do you make the reader feel invested in a story with an unlikable protagonist?

Writing an unlikable main character, as strongly as it is discouraged, is sometimes necessary; the story simply has to be told from their point of view. Furthermore, the books with repugnant and despicable characters make some of the most engaging novels of all times, so it is no wonder many writers feel inclined to try and write unlikable characters.

Feeling empathy for the main character, relating to them, is one of the easiest way to get the reader to feel invested in the story, but it is certainly not the only one. There are many other techniques to get the reader invested, and they’re not ‘one-size-fits-all.’ Each type of unlikable character calls for other types of engagement tactics.

These tactics can basically be divided into two sections:

1.  Writing irredeemable villains/psychos (which we discuss here).
2.  Writing redeemable villains and other unlikable characters (which we will discuss in Part 2).

Writing irredeemable villains/psychos

With irredeemable villains/psychos, there is (hopefully) little chance that the reader will feel invested in them as characters, or to cheer them on in their attempts to achieve their goals (success often meaning world destruction or domination, murder, rape, etc).

In order to get the reader invested, the writer can try the following tactics:

 — Exploit the readers' need for the villain not to succeed.

The readers will most certainly not be rooting for a villain such as Darth Vader or Sauron. But they will probably feel a strong need for them not to get their way.

 —  Create a plausible, relatable cast of supporting characters the reader can cheer on throughout the story.

With an irredeemable villain as the protagonist, there's (again, hopefully) no chance the reader will feel invested in them as characters. The writer can, however, create a strong cast of supporting characters for the reader to invest in instead. That way, the reader still has that feeling of emotional investment, even though it is not toward the protagonist like in most books.

In order to achieve this, the writer should spend time with these characters, make them as multi-dimensional as possible, and not just as obstacle on villain's way.

 —  Engage the reader with original plotting and high quality of writing.

With an irredeemable villain a reader cannot connect with and root for, your writing skills are at a serious test. High-concept novels, exquisite world-building (such as Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings') will hold the reader's attention, regardless of the lack of investment in the main character.

 —  Exploit the innate human curiosity for atrocities.

Let’s face it, the world operates on negativity. People are naturally drawn to all that is negative and dark; it is the very reason why people cant look away from a car accident site and why most newspapers predominately publish negative news. And the very same reason why readers will want to read your book, even if your protagonist is despicable.

American Psycho’ and ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ harvest on this human need very well. While readers don't empathize with these protagonists, exploring the dark side of human nature can be very temptingand quite enough of an incentive to keep turning the pages.

 — Clear motivation is another way of getting the reader engaged. This may sound counterintuitive, but making sure your reader knows the motivation behind your character’s actions is essential. As much as the reader isn’t able to relate to the dark and twisted motivation of an irredeemable villain, they have to be able to understand it.

For example, most of us can’t relate to the thrill of a murder and the rush of getting away with it, but we can understand why that would drive someone with a sick, sociopath personality. Most of us don't have the need to conquer the world, but we understand that some people do.


About the Author: Lidija Hilje
After working as a trial attorney for ten years, Lidija recently took a plunge into the writing universe. As a psychology enthusiast, she wrote several articles on Medium and was declared Top writer in the fields of Psychology, Personal development, and Self-awareness. She’s currently working on a contemporary women’s fiction novel.
She interacts with other writers and reading enthusiasts via her twitter account: @lidija_hilje
You can also read more about her here: