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Jul 15, 2019

Pulling Off Unlikable Main Characters (Part 2) - Writing Redeemable Villains and other Unlikable Characters

By Lidija Hilje.

In Pulling Off Unlikable Main Characters (Part 1) - Writing Irredeemable Villains, we discussed different types of unlikable characters, and some of the techniques that can be used in writing irredeemable villains.

In this article, we will explore the techniques a writer can use when writing redeemable villains and other unlikable characters, such as oddballs, weirdoes and jerks.

Writing unlikable but redeemable characters is not any easier than pulling off irredeemable psycho-villains, but there are more tactics available to make sure the reader will keep turning the pages.

 —  Humor can help immensely. When shown through the prism of witty remarks and humor, often at the expense of the main character, the flaws and quirks become more relatable and easier for the reader to digest, than they would be through darker or more poignant prose.

This method works best for the jerk and the oddball characters.

In 'Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine', the author often depends on humor to make the reader sympathize with the protagonist. The same goes for Melvin Udall, the jerk-type character from 'As Good as it Gets'. Following their antics, which we at first cannot relate to, ultimately ends up with us feeling deeply invested in these characters.

 —  Giving characters relatable motivation. This is not the same as showing clear motivation, as suggested with the irredeemable villain characters, which readers can only understand but not relate to. Relatable motivation — such as the need for success, acceptance, love, money or fame — is something we can all relate to, at least to some extent. And that makes even the despicable and sleazy characters more acceptable.

Maybe we can't quite connect to the extent to which Jordan Belfort ('The Wolf of the Wall Street') will go to reach his goals in both life and business, but we can understand the need for success and money, which are the driving force of his actions.

 —  Humanizing the unlikable character by giving them a softening, unexpected trait. What if the ambitious boss had a secret love for baking? Or if the vain girl had a secret passion for saving stray dogs? There's an article by ElaMishne, that offers great advice on breaking the characterization stereotypes. This advice is also applicable to the creation of unlikable characters.

 — Giving unlikable characters a relevant backstory. Most people aren’t mean or bad by chance; there are usually traumas or crippling events from their pasts that made them just the way they are.

Walt Kowalski from 'Gran Torino' is a bigot who detests his Hmong immigrant neighbors. However, we can understand his bigotry better when we find out he is a Korean War veteran.

What if the narcissistic mother had emotionally reserved parents? What if the abusive, alcoholic dad suffered severe abuse throughout his childhood? Not all of us can overcome these situations and become a better person. Some of us are bound to have a dark side kindled by the traumas and abuse.

These kinds of backstories not only explain what drives the character, but also allow the reader to sympathize with those unlikable characters, even when they normally wouldn't.

The loathed moaner

There is one type of an unlikable character that both readers and publishing experts loathe — the moaner — a character who douses themselves in self-pity. This character is the literary equivalent of an ‘emotional vampire’ — a person who drains your energy after spending as little as two minutes with them; the one who constantly seeks your understanding, compassion and pity, but does nothing to change their own circumstances. Rather, they wait for everybody else to realize their wrongdoings and adjust their behavior toward them.

Unfortunately, the moaner is among the most often written unlikable characters. And it is usually not written on purpose but by chance.

Writing a moaner is a common mistake for debut writers —especially those  who base their protagonist on their own real-life experience—but they write them in a way that makes the reader cringe instead of invest in the story. When both publishing professionals and readers reject such a character as someone they can’t sympathize with, the rejection feels very personal to the writer.

This often happens after the novel is finished, and that means that months, even years of work have gone down the drain. But, not all is lost!

Here are some tips on how to turn a moaner in a likable character (or at least a successful unlikable character):

 —  Think about changing the POV. Most moaners are written in the first person point of view. This makes them extra ‘moany.’ Again, this is elemental psychology — people are more likely to sympathize with people who dont moan about themselves, but whose suffering is viewed or noticed from other people's perspective.

 —  Bring your show vs. tell to a new level. Telling a person is sad, suffering or wronged is boring. Show the suffering. Show how they were wronged—not in words, but in images. Have confidence both in the fact that you are a good enough writer and that the reader is smart enough to pick up your clues.

 —  Make sure you give your character an agency. This basically means that the character shouldn’t just moan. They need to start making active decisions that affect the plot (move the plot along). Nobody wants to spend ten hours of their life with those who just pity themselves and do nothing to turn their life around.


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: