Thursday, April 24, 2014

Making Unlikable Characters Likable

When I first started to write I used to create unlikable heroines, although I didn’t know they were unlikable. In the interest of making them ‘real’ I’d give them too many faults and weaknesses too early in the story. Their virtues and strengths came too late -- after a reader already made up her mind about the character. Most readers don’t want to slog through a story with an overly-flawed heroine. We want our readers to identify with the main character and no one relates well to an unlikable person, real or imagined.

Some characters, like villains, are deeply flawed but they’re supposed to be. We expect that. But readers like heroes and heroines who are heroic, good, kind, virtuous etc. A weakness or two makes them human (like us) and draws the reader in because she can relate to a good person with an imperfection or two. My mistake: my heroines weren’t heroic enough. Also, they weren’t nice enough.

My critique partners clued me in. I’m sure I eventually would’ve found my heroines too flawed to live even on paper, but my crit partners saved me a lot of time and effort. No writer wants to spend countless hours writing about a unlikable heroine and no readers want to read about her.

Readers dislike certain types of characters.

The Sadist
The Sadist, usually a male (please don’t throw rotten tomatoes at me, guys) and often the hero, is sometimes found in romances, though this type of character was more popular in the past than in the present. He was rude, arrogant, and insensitive until the heroine came along to change him. Our modern day heroines usually don’t put up with this nasty kind of man anymore, so for the most part he’s faded away. Good riddance.

The ‘bad boy’ who changes because of love still works as long as he wasn’t a sociopath or really evil to begin with. Personally, I won’t read a book where the hero was once a rapist or child molester.

The Whiner
I’m afraid most fictional whiners are women. Whiners bemoan their lot in life and feel sorry for themselves. They often don’t keep their self-pity locked up inside. We wish they would. But whether they keep silent or complain to their friends, they’re unpleasant to read about.

Even if they have something legitimate to whine about we want them to struggle and rally, not collapse in despair. We like fighters, women who’ll struggle to beat the odds. We don’t want them to give in easily and make excuses. Whiners certainly aren’t heroic and readers don’t like them, especially in the role of heroine.

The Bore
A story can handle a fictional bore now and then as long as she doesn’t bore the reader. If I lose interest in a story because a main character rambles on and on, I’ll stop reading. In real life people sometimes babble too much, unable or unwilling to finish a sentence and take a breath so someone else can say a word or two. Who wants to waste money on a book filled with the type of people we try to avoid in real life?

Today’s fiction often has tough, jaded characters who are cynical, sarcastic and rude. On the other hand, they’re ready for any challenge no matter how difficult. Many readers find anti-heroes compelling, despite their faults.

A writer has to work hard to keep such flawed characters likable. There’s a thin line between likable and unlikable. If you step over the tipping point the character repels readers instead of attracting them. It’s easy to go too far.

Here are a few ways to keep your heroes in balance:

Show there’s more beneath the surface. No matter how flawed your character is show through a small action or internalization there’s something positive about him. Do this in the first scene before the reader gets a completely negative picture of your hero.

Carefully weave in backstory. Through judicious use of backstory, show why the character came to be unfriendly, obnoxious etc. He’s flawed because of a negative past experience (a wound), probably as a child. Emotional trauma explains a lot about his current actions. Readers forgive an annoying, unpleasant character if they understand why he’s the way he is. A great backstory is really important.

I wonder if these gangsters have backstories that would elicit sympathy or are they bad through and through?

Create big obstacles. Fighting against stronger forces doesn’t create empathy for the hero, but how he reacts to those forces does. It shows us who he really is. The true man or woman emerges during a crisis. Is he strong or weak?

Balance strengths and weaknesses. Even if the character has more than her fair share of faults, her positive qualities should dominate and lead her to her goal.

According to Marg McAlister (Writing4Sucess) readers become irritated with characters (especially heroes) who:

Are bullies
Are patronizing
Pick on those weaker than themselves
Employ violence to get their own way
Get pleasure from ruining the lives of others
Moan and groan about their bad luck in life without trying to improve it
Are constantly depressed, negative or self-pitying
Jump to the wrong conclusion and don’t let others explain themselves
Gossip and spread rumors that are damaging to others

Likable Characters

Make your hero or heroine someone with whom you’d like to spend time.

If you’re the writer and you don’t enjoy your main character, you can be sure readers won’t want to be around your hero for the length of an entire book either. So think about the type of person you like to hang around with and why that person attracts you. Is it personality, sense of humor, selflessness? Give your hero some of those same qualities.

Readers often like nasty villains, but not nasty heroes or heroines.

Give your main character challenges, but give her enough inner strength to deal with them.

Be careful of the kind of faults you give your hero and how he handles them. For example, if he has a quick temper, he should work to control it. He usually keeps it in check. But every once in a while he flies off the handle.

How he handles his failure is crucial. He should be filled with regret. He might remember what it’s like to live with a person who never attempts to curb his bad temper. This bit of backstory helps us understand the hero. We’re sympathetic toward him because we understand what it’s like to fail.

But if the hero often loses his temper and doesn’t try to control it, we’d lose our sympathy.

I hope you can quickly tell these girls are likable and heroine material.

We like characters who:
Keep on trying, despite all the problems live throws at them
Put others first
Face up to bullies
Stand up for people who are weaker than themselves
Have overcome many obstacles to attain a goal
Try to right a wrong

Here are a few tips to make your hero sympathetic:
Give her something or someone to love or fight for. (Strong motivation)
She’s willing to make sacrifices for her goal or for other people.
Provide her with a special skill or ability.
Make him an underdog.
Give the characters flaws we can all relate to and forgive.
Show her motivation. It should be easily understood.
Give him wit, courage, integrity and a sense of humor.

What are other important attributes in a main character?

If you’d like a chance to win a $10 gift card to Starbucks, please leave your name and e-mail address.


  1. Yep, I like likeable characters! When I was four my graeat aunt offered me candy ... I told her I'd rather have a dime! I want to read your books, Cara to the library to see if they have them! Thanks

  2. Good morning, Marianne! I think I would've taken the candy.

  3. Excellent post, Cara! I can see turning it into a checklist for the "Revision" tab in my writing notebook so I can remember to be on the lookout for "the good, the bad and the ugly" stuff that might turn a reader off--or on (!) to my characters. Thank you!

  4. Hi CARA, I used to have the same problem when I first began writing. It was my critique partners who helped me through it.

    I am sure glad you worked it out because I love your heroines.

  5. oops forgot that you gave us an assignment. One thing that helps me really love a character is when the reason they are like they are (backstory) is hinted at and woven into the story. It is fun to write that also.

  6. Hi, Glynna! I think it's tricky writing heroes and heroines because we can't make them too deeply flawed. Some of my real life heroes are very flawed -- but they wouldn't come across too well in a book.

  7. Sandra, crit partners are great, especially when they're honest and not afraid of hurting feelings. That's not to say that tact isn't important!

    Backstory explains so much about the present.

  8. Cara,

    It's a fine line sometimes trying to show flaws yet make the heroine or hero likeable.

    In my current WIP, the heroine is angry with the hero from years ago, so she doesn't look like a total shrew, I threw another character into the mix during the cute meet. The hero's nephew, who is now grown, that she remembers as a sweet little boy and shows happiness and kindness at getting to see him again. I thought this showed readers that she's a loving person, she only has a problem with the hero! I hope it works!

  9. Cara,

    In the last 6 months, twice I've wanted to throw a book across the room because of the hero and heroine putting up w/smart mouthed kids. I can understand a teen or kid being annoying, but it was the way the main characters acted so helpless that got on my nerves. Being unsure how to get through to to a teen is one thing, being a door mat is another.

    In the first book I wrote, my heroine kept crying in every scene. Great big cry baby.

    Love the post

    1. I loved your post! I remember the days when the heroes were "the sadist"! Fond memories but not what I want to read now. I want to like the hero and heroine despite their problems. On a side note, I loved "Love by the Book"! Please enter me in the drawing for the Starbucks card.

  10. Cara, loved this post! While I'm not sure that any of my main characters so far have ever been truly unlikeable, the hero in my first ms was definitely not that great. So it was set in 1896 and he never even THINKS about touching a gun. And, leaves the heroine alone in the woods, thinking 'these woods are full of outlaws likely to prey on a pretty woman'.
    That ms needs a lot of work.

    As for character attributes, I like it when the h/h love children, especially babies. It allows a tender side to show early on in the book.

  11. Rose, I think you handled the problem in a great way. We really need to show a good side of the heroine right from the beginning so we know she's the heroine. Flaws need to be countered by virtues. Once the reader gets a strong impression of a character it's hard to change it later.

  12. Connie, I totally agree with you. I hate to read about smart-mouthed kids even though I know they'll most likely change through out the story.

  13. Hi, 'Loves to Read'! The Sadist was very popular in the 1970s. I didn't like that kind of hero then and I still don't like him.

    I'm so glad you enjoyed Love by the Book.

  14. Crystal, I like heroes who like children, too. And dogs. It's fine with me if they like kids and dogs better than other people!

  15. Cara, what a great post! My very first heroine was accused of not being very likable. I'm getting better at creating likable characters, but I'm not perfect at it.Tosca Lee taught a workshop at ACFW that was so helpful. We analyzed characters from movies and books, heroes, heroines, villains. And we thought about kind of getting inside their skin to better understand them. I think I need to listen to that class again. :)

    I love all your tips. I'm definitely coming back to this post as I prepare to begin my next book.

    I'd love to be in the drawing—Jeanne Takenaka
    wetalk2biz(at)q(lower case Q) dot com

  16. Oh, Cara, LOVE this subject because I LOVE taking what seems like an impossible task in making a character likable (I'm thinking of my vixen sister, Charity O'Connor here).

    Excellent points and tips in your post today, my friend -- I sure could have used it a while back while creating the bad sister who suddenly had to become a likable heroine, but it's a printer-offer for when I need to tackle it a second time. :)


  17. CARA!!! This is such a great post. One of my first books I had this unlikeable hero.

    I didn't know it until I got back contest results. Sometimes what we're thinking in our heads doesn't make it to paper and what we intend to make part of the character arc of change has already turned off the reader so they won't even finish reading the story.

    This very nice published author reminded me that perhaps a drunk womanizer wasn't the best way to start a story. LOL. She was ...ahem...correct.

  18. Thanks for this post! I'm working on a project where I've realized that one of my characters isn't as likeable as I need her to be, considering her importance to the story. Pinning this post! :)
    You can enter me in the drawing:

  19. Great stuff to keep in mind as I flesh out my hero and heroine. Promote the virtue before the vice. Hopefully I'll get that done.

    Always good to learn from other's experiences. No little kids in my MS, but I could probably insert a dog...

  20. Love your blog, Cara! It's easy to slip and make our characters less than heroic. As I tell so many beginning writers, the hero needs to be...well, heroic! His actions need to be heroic as well. Yes, he may have made mistakes in the past, but he's righting any wrongs and working hard to be the best man he can be.

    Personally, I like strong heroines. They're determined and willing to sacrifice their own well-being for others. Maybe that determination can get them in trouble at times when they go up against the antagonist, but they never back down.

  21. Cara, thanks for the excellent tips on making our characters likable. You've given us lots to think about.

    Writers must walk a fine line to create alpha heroes. Anyone like those?

    I've written an historical romance with a wounded alpha hero who is uncharitable to the heroine. He has his reasons, strong reasons in his mind, but if I opened the book with the inciting incident, readers would dislike him. So I open the book with him saving a child's life. Then in the encounter between the hero and heroine, I had the heroine see that woundedness in his eyes. This confrontation scene was fun to write. The best part, the heroine wins, proving he's met his match. :-)


  22. Janet, you solved your problem in the best possible way -- the hero acts heroically before his faults become apparent. The reader will remember his heroism.

  23. Debby, strong heroines are very popular and I like that. In historicals it's easy to make the heroines more passive but they're not as interesting.

  24. I needed this post a few years ago when I was first writing One Imperfect Christmas! That's the biggest complaint readers have about Natalie, my heroine--that she's initially too unsympathetic.

    Like you, Cara, I tend to write about flawed characters who grow through their trials and become better people. I just didn't make Natalie likable enough in the beginning.

    Thankfully, many readers also relate deeply to her struggles and imperfections and are willing to stick with the story to see how things turned out.

  25. Cara,

    I loved this post and have printed it off to put in my binder with all the other great posts from Seekerville and my notes from Tina's class. My the notebook is getting full. I may need to get a new one for the notes from Jill's class next month.

    I must confess I had not heard of you until a couple of months ago. Someone who knows a lady in my church needed to clean out their mother's personal library because she now has alzheimers and I became a recipient of two boxes of her books. In them were two of yours. Does it matter what order they are read in? I am excited to get to read these.

  26. Great post!

    I used to write unlikeable characters (hopefully that's not the case anymore). I once had a contest judge say my heroine was too stupid to live--ouch! One thing someone taught me that makes a character more likeable is to show that other people like them. Give them friends.

    Please enter me in the drawing for the Starbucks card! annierains at gmail dot com

  27. I'm with Connie Queen! Can't stand smart-mouthed kids. Will someone please parent and teach them respect??? Grrr.

    I'm walking this fine line with my current WIP. My heroine is not a good girl (lifestyle choices!), but I try to show her being kind to people when someone she's with has just been incredibly rude. So far, people seem to like her, but the story is clearly a redemption story too. So I think that helps.

    I'm in for the gift card! sallybradleywrites[at]gmaildotcom.

  28. I'm working on my first WIP and still learning about character creation. Thanks for lots of good information!!

    I love Starbucks!

  29. This is a great post! It's hard to find the middle ground between saint and queen of snark for heroines especially. Nothing is less fun to read about than an unlikeable hero/heroine, though. Thanks for the tips. :)

    I'm in for the gift card! writer_weaverATyahooDOTcom

  30. Hi Cara:

    Thanks for this very interesting and informative post. I’ve had contest judges call one of my heroes a jerk. They also called my heroine a jerkette* for putting up with him. Those critical judges seemed to not understand that I was writing a meta-romance. The judges who did understand what I was doing loved the humor these characters were generating.

    This jerksonian* criticism caused me do an analysis of typical reader reactions to characters.

    I can see three components in play here:

    1) likeability
    2) sympathetability*
    3) lovability

    Dr. House on House was sympathetic but not loveable or likable. (IMHMO) I also don’t view the new Sherlock Holmes as being likable, lovable, or very sympathetic.

    This makes me want to answer these questions:

    What makes a person likable?
    What makes a person sympathetic?
    What makes a person loveable?

    A person could be likable and not lovable, sympathetic but not likable, loveable but not sympathetic.

    I believe the overall reader reaction to a character may be a composite of these three personality components.

    Consider the below statements:

    I like you but I could never love you.

    I love you but I don’t like you.

    (I remember a movie where Jimmy Stewart asked a man, “I know you love my daughter but do you like her?” Jimmy thought it was very important for maintaining a long term relationship to like your partner.)

    Charity (in APMP) is not likable or sympathetic (as she creates her own problems) but her passion and loyalty to the man she does want makes her loveable.

    I think the heroine in “Red Kettle Christmas” is the most sympathetic heroine I can think of and the heroine in “The Lawman’s Second Chance” is the most likable, sympathetic, and loveable -- all rolled up into one personality.

    I believe a writer can alter the mix of these three elements to blend together just the right characters for a story. It’s like cooking: a little less of this and a little more of that...and... perfecto! I think this is where Ruth has a big advantage – a pantser who’s a chef can cook up the best characters.

    How about two more posts? One on how to make characters more lovable and one on how to make them more sympathetic? I think you nailed the likability factor. (Julie could write one on how to make your characters more kissable. Really.)

    BTW: in one short story I had a gruff hit man who had the habit of always parking far from the store entrances he was walking into. Both on the way in and on the way out he would look into as many car windows as he could. The hero, an undercover cop, asked the mob guy what he was doing. “I’m looking for little kids locked in cars. My mother did that to my baby sister and she died from the heat. I don’t want that to ever happen again – if I can help it.” Later on in the story he says, “I only kill people who need killing. That ain’t legal but it ain’t wrong either.” The hit man did not see himself as being a bad man. And to make Mary happy, his dog loved him.


    *these words are neologisms.

  31. Thanks Cara - - another post I sure needed! Sometimes I feel I'm making my characters "too likable" and have to add in some flaws. Other times I feel my characters are just kind of "flat" (or blah) so your post is a big help.
    Btw, your book, Love on Assignment, is on my keeper shelf - - really enjoyed it! :)
    Blessings from Georgia, Patti Jo


    I am SOOO excited I'm squealing!!!

  33. Vince, I loved your little tidbit about the bad guy who kept peering into car windows. He definitely had a good cover up story to explain his actions.

    What really bothers me in books is when an antagonist doesn't have a good reason for the things he does. Really, IMO, if a writer isn't going to flesh out a great reason for the bad guy to be bad, then the book would be better off without him.

  34. I know, Patti Jo! I just got that email from the loop! Yay, Tina!!!!!

  35. I'm squealing along with you, Patti Jo, about Tina's nomination!!!

    Such well-deserved recognition!


  36. Jeanne, it's funny but I thought I was the only one who created unlikable characters! Now I can see writing problems aren't usually unique to just one writer. We all struggle with some of the same things.

  37. Julie, you did an amazing job with Charity and I'm sure it wasn't easy!!! It shows your talent.

  38. Tina, I think it's easier (but not easy!) to accept a drunk womanizer in real life than it is in a book. Maybe that's because we see more aspects of a real person.

  39. Jennifer, I glad you realized you need to 'sweeten' up your character before you submit to an editor.

  40. Deb H, go for the dog! Kids demand more of a story line, just like in real life.

  41. Myra, when I read One Imperfect Christmas! I did NOT think Natalie was unlikeable. I thought she was a true to life person. I expect characters to have more flaws in women's fiction than in romances.

  42. Janet, my heroes are usually beta guys because my husband is a beta and he's my hero. I do have one alpha man and I'm enjoying writing about him. I guess the story dictates the type of character.

  43. LOL, Vince. Thanks for your great comments!

  44. Yes, Sally. Glad I'm not the only one bratty kids bother.

    CONGRATS TINA on being a mentor finalists!

  45. Cara, a great post! I tended to make my heroine's unlikable in the beginning. I wanted to make them real and flawed, just like you said.

    I learned a lot from Vogler and Hauge on creating reader identification.

    I love your covers! They definitely look like likable women. :)

  46. So excited for Tina!!!! CONGRATULATIONS!! So well deserved!

  47. Hi Cara, I hope readers will forgive him. He's not a nice guy early on. Still, I love him for some reason. LOL


  48. Yay!! Thrilled for Tina's nomination as ACFW's Mentor of the Year!! We all have learned so much from Tina!


  49. Vince, I love the villain in your short story! What a terrific way to make a bad guy three dimensional and to show how he rationalized the evil he did. That makes him even scarier.


  50. This is always a challenge at first, when you're' a novice writer, because you want to deal with something weighty, you want to bring a flawed character to the Lord.
    Someone tells you your heroine isn't likeable and you respond by saying, "Relax, I fix her."


    She's got to be someone readers care about right away.

    A character can be edgy and flawed but not to a degree that they are unlikeable.

  51. I learned this from a contest judge real early on.

    Make your character likeable by having someone like them.

    That sounds simplistic but just because it's simple doesn't mean it doesn't work and I'll tell you why....

    Because to have someone like them you have to have the friend/mother/pet whoever likes them, interact with them in some way on the page. (How else can you show someone likes them?)

    In the course of that interaction you will show by necessity, your character behaving in a likeable way, because they just won't be an absolute unlikeable pig to a friend/mother/pet if they did, then that person/pet wouldnt' like them, right?

    And it doesn't have to be a lot. A phone call. A chance meeting on the street. Even a moment in the hero/heroine's head where they think about some promise they made to a friend.

  52. I learned this from a contest judge real early on.

    Make your character likeable by having someone like them.

    That sounds simplistic but just because it's simple doesn't mean it doesn't work and I'll tell you why....

    Because to have someone like them you have to have the friend/mother/pet whoever likes them, interact with them in some way on the page. (How else can you show someone likes them?)

    In the course of that interaction you will show by necessity, your character behaving in a likeable way, because they just won't be an absolute unlikeable pig to a friend/mother/pet if they did, then that person/pet wouldnt' like them, right?

    And it doesn't have to be a lot. A phone call. A chance meeting on the street. Even a moment in the hero/heroine's head where they think about some promise they made to a friend.

  53. What makes me like a character?
    Courage in the face of evil.
    Sympathy--have your character be the survivor of a hard time or a great loss.
    Kindness to others

  54. Wilani, I'm glad you found my books! Each is a stand alone, but I'd read them in order -- Love on a Dime, Love on Assignment and Love by the Book. A Path toward Love isn't part of the series. I hope you enjoy them.

  55. Annie, looking at the heroine's friends says a lot about her.

  56. Sally, readers really like kind people, so that should help balance out her faults especially is gets progressively better.

  57. Hi, Stephanie! Thanks for coming to Seekerville today.

    Anna, it takes a lot of thought to get a heroine right -- not too snarky, not to goody-goody.

  58. neologisms? Seriously Vince?


    Ah it's always so great when you stop in.

  59. Patti Jo, a too-perfect character is just plain boring and unrealistic. Just make the flaw small enough and appropriate for the character's personality.

  60. Congratulations Tina!!!!!!!!!! You are truly a wonderful mentor.

  61. Congrats Tina,

    I agree I dont like bullies as hero or heroine. I hate whining heroines too. I also agree with negativity its a trait I hate in real life also. Negative people are hard work, and hard to be around. Self centered hero/heroines are really hard to like also.

  62. Thank you, Cara, for the helpful post. I've been told my heroine was unlikeable because she came across as whiny. That comment was right on. On a rewrite I showed her rising above her unhappy circumstances by putting her in a situation that would test her metal.I agree that women in historical fiction can come across as passive. I'm working on that one in my historical too.
    Congratulations, Tina, on being named a finalist for ACFW mentor of the year. Well deserved.

  63. Connie, I've noticed there are an awful lot of bratty kids in books. I don't like them either.

  64. Missy, I'm thinking making heroes unlikable is a common mistake of new writers. It seems like a logical mistake.

  65. Jenny, I wouldn't read a book where the hero was a bully. I'm afraid bully is such a bad trait I wouldn't give the guy a chance to change.

  66. Pat, I think you solved the problem of the whiny heroine!

  67. That was so helpful! Thanks for the great information.

  68. I have to fight it or my heroines are mean! Or so I've been told. I never saw them that way.

    TINA - YOU ROCK! So excited for you. A very well deserved honor.

    1. Please put me in the drawing for the Starbucks card!

  69. I was getting on a plane when the news was announced, but now that I've landed, CONGRATULATIONS, Tina!

  70. So many good tips, Cara. Thanks!

    Heroes/heroines must have a sense of humor (even better if it's at their own expense) for me to continue reading. Even if the book isn't funny, I need a moment of humor as a break. I've also made discoveries about heroes/heroines through their sense of humor when times get tough.

    That cover for Love on Assignment continues to be one of my favorites.

    Nancy C

  71. Well-deserved recognition, Tina! Not that you do what you do for the recognition ... but acknowledgement doesn't hurt, right? :-)

    Cheering for ya!

    Nancy C

  72. YAY TINA!!!!!!
    Well deserved nom! A no-brainer, really.


  73. Hi, Cara! Excellent fixes for unlikeable characters! Now I need to check over my h/h and make sure they have what it takes. Thanks for sharing!!!

  74. This comment has been removed by the author.

  75. WOOT!!! WOOT!!! Go Tina! YAYAYAYAY!!

    Well-deserved! I'll be looking forward to the announcement in September!

  76. Awesome post! Sharing everywhere and bookmarking it!
    Martzbookz (@) sbcglobal (dot) net

  77. Great post, Cara.

    The first time somebody told me they didn't like my hero, I was shocked. He came across differently than I planned, so I went back to work on him.

    Your covers are beautiful and invite the reader to start liking your heroines right away.

    Great post today. Thanks for sharing.

  78. I forgot to mention, I love Starbucks. If it's not too late here's my info:


  79. Another great post, Cara! It's a good thing that I have a sturdy printer because I am adding it to the notebook. I received my Starbucks gift card today from you and have put it with our travel things for an upcoming trip. What a generous lady! Thank you.