How To Write Unlikeable Characters

Today's podcast episode features a roundup of guests and topics for the month as well as my thoughts on how to write unlikeable characters. The transcript is below, for those who prefer to read their writing advice.

Likeability is a factor that writers worry about a lot -  I would argue, more than they need to. Ask yourself about some great characters that you truly love to watch… then ask yourself if you’d want to be friends with them in real life.

My answer to the likeability question is to worry less about whether your character is likeable and more about whether or not they are interesting. Your audience doesn’t have to LIKE your character to want to know what he or she is going to do next.

Interestingly, male characters can get away with being unlikeable much more easily than females. The anti-hero has long been a topic of conversation, and to give you some slightly dated examples I’ll point you to Sawyer from LOST and Darryl in the first few seasons of The Walking Dead.

Unlikeable male characters get a bit of a pass as likeability isn’t a huge factor for men. Are they charming or funny as well as being, kind of an asshole? Then they’re probably okay. Or are they just all out raving assholes, and that’s interesting?

There’s a reason why Glen Garry Glen Ross is one of the most quoteable movies of all time, and it’s not b/c everyone is likeable.

But unlikeable female characters have a tougher row to hoe b/c they’re women. They’re supposed to be… nice. A girl who isn’t nice is automatically going to be considered unlikeable. But, let’s be serious – how interesting are nice people?

My advice is – don’t worry about likeability. Worry about your characters being interesting.

Some examples of unlikeable women from classical literature:

Lily Bart from Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Lily passes up true love in the pursuit of a higher station. Poor but gorgeous, all Lily has going for her is her looks – and she’ll use them to move up the ladder. Watch Gillian Anderson nail this part in the movie from 2000 if you want to see an unlikeable woman you can’t look away from.

Catherine from Wuthering Heights is also overly worried about propriety over love, and she’s also a little… okay, yeah, she’s kind of a bitch. But she’s an interesting bitch. If you’re not into reading classical literature I get that, so my movie rec for this one is the 1939 version with Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier. You’ll buy these tortured soul mates – and while you might hate Catherine a little, you’re also going to get where she’s coming from... which might actually be the whole point.

Becky Sharp from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is the original nasty woman. Happy to use anybody that will be her tool, Becky climbs to the top and you will admire her cunning, even if you absolutely hate her.

Want some more modern references?

Turn on HBO and watch Sharp Objects. Amy Adams is nailing the role of Camille, who is quite frankly, a huge shit fire of a mess. She makes bad decisions, she does some really questionable things, she drives drunk – she’s ALWAYS drunk, she’s carved half the dictionary into her body. Want to be her friend? No, you don’t. But you do want to know why, don’t you? Why is she such a mess? Who cuts words into their entire body, and WHY?

You don’t have to like her, you just have to be curious about her.

Succession, another HBO show, is a great example of bankable unlike ability. The entire cast is made up of assholes. Huge, raving assholes. And you cannot wait to see what they’re going to do to each other next. Sharp writing and some amazing comedic moments make you want to know what’s going to happen next to this group of filthy rich spoiled adult kids who can’t even make their own coffee because they don’t know where the help keeps the coffee beans.

Yes, that’s an actual scene. And you want to watch it now.

Another example – and keep in mind, Game of Thrones were books first – Cersei Lannister and Sansa Stark. Cersei is downright hateful, and Sansa is easily dislikable, but both of them have reasons for being the way they are… reasons that become clear over time.

Keeping you invested in them until you understand their motivation is part of the trick of finding empathy with an unlikeable character. But, empathy with an unlikeable character will take time to build – and, I would argue, is not always necessary.

The Twitter follower who asked me this question used Sasha from This Darkness Mine as an example of an unlikeable character that was hard to look away from – which I appreciate. So ask yourself, why? She’s horrible, truly. But she’s also very, very goal driven. And that’s something you are invested in, drawn into, by dint of her narration. You might not be rooting for her (although, I bet you are), but you do want to see what’s going to happen because she’s so DRIVEN that you become wrapped in her goals – whether because you want to see her fail or succeed doesn’t matter to me at all – you’re still going to turn those pages.

In the end, the way to deliver an unlikeable character is not to worry too much about making them likeable or unlikeable – just make them interesting.