In Defense of Unlikeable Characters- Five Tips to Keep Readers Engaged

October 3, 2017 | By | Reply More

It’s a well-known writing tip- your main character should be likeable. Readers enjoy being able to identify with a character, to cheer her on toward her goal. This can be hard to do when they’re unlikable. It’s good advice. However, I keep doing the opposite- I write complicated, messy, often seriously flawed characters.

Books like Gone Girl or The Woman Upstairs show writers that this kind of protagonist can work. Here are five tips to help readers stay engaged with an unlikeable character.

Redeeming Quality: In his novel on screenwriting, Blake Snyder suggests having a character “save the cat” early in a film/script. This is his shorthand for having a character do something kind, noble, or positive, so that the reader knows even if they’re being difficult, there’s some good inside of them. If the character saves a cat then we know that even if they seem to have a crusty black heart, there’s something there.

Give Them a Reason: Why is your character the way they are? Are there reasons and circumstances that led to their current actions and personality? Readers may be more forgiving if they understand how the character evolved into their current presentation. When we see a character has a challenging backstory, or has been the victim of poor circumstances, we tend to cut them a break.

Make Them Funny or Charming: A sense of humor can go a long way. We may forgive people for bad behavior if while they’re doing it they make us laugh. Characters who have the best lines will keep readers wanting to see what they will say or do next.

Make Them Do Interesting Things: There’s a stereotype of the cranky genius, who barely remembers to shower, cuts people off mid-sentence- but is brilliant! We’re impressed by people who do things that we find admirable or interesting. What does your character do that compels the reader to overlook some actions to see what else they might do next? Say what you will about Amy in Gone Girl, but you must admit, trying to figure out what she would do next made for some great page turning.

Embrace the Dark Side: Some characters move past unlikeable into downright nasty territory. There was no amount of jokes or sad backstory that was going to make any reader see redeemable qualities in Hannibal Lector. Once you eat people with a side of fava beans, it’s hard to come back from that. But he’s so deliciously bad! It can be fun to read about characters who are so completely dark. It gives us a window into a place we typically would never want to be and its fascinating.

If you want readers engaged, one way to do this is by creating a likable protagonist they can cheer for, but if you also like really flawed characters- then remember they must be interesting. You need to give the reader a reason to spend their time with your characters and book. They’ll keep turning pages if you make even the darkest characters compelling. Now enjoy your dark side and get writing.

Eileen Cook is a multi-published author with her novels appearing in eight languages. Her books have been optioned for film and TV. She spent most of her teen years wishing she were someone else or somewhere else, which is great training for a writer. Her newest thriller novel, THE HANGING GIRL, came out in October 2017. She’s an instructor/mentor with the Simon Fraser University Writer’s Studio Program.

Eileen lives in Vancouver with her husband and two very naughty dogs and no longer wishes to be anyone or anywhere else.

You can read more about Eileen, her books, and the things that strike her as funny at

On Twitter (way more often than she should be) @eileenwriter


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