How to write unlikeable characters? No, this is not a typo. This article is about creating characters we dislike, or despise.
But hold on. Aren’t we supposed to write likeable characters? Indeed so, but not all characters need to be likable. Certainly, we have to like the protagonist. But surely not the antagonist and his allies? How else can we all pit likeable against unlikeable characters to create tension?
So, how do we make readers and audiences dislike a character? Here’s one approach. Consider these traits, several of which have been drawn from Margret Geraghty’s The Novelist’s Guide. Some are more potent than others, depending on how unlikable you intend to make your character(s).
“Unlikeable Characters are an important part of the story-world. They are a foil to the kinder, more likeable characters and help define the scope of the moral terrain the story sets out.”
Unlikeable characters demonstrate some of the following behaviour:
- Lie and cheat
- Exhibit chauvinistic, sexist, or racist behaviour
- Humiliate others
- Ignore a plea for help
- Be deliberately unkind
- Break a promise without a valid reason
- Be cruel to animals
- Cause physical or mental pain in others – be a bully
- Behave selfishly
- Smell bad
- Poke fun at someone who can’t poke back
- Have bad habits – pick his nose in public, spit constantly, etc.
- Pick on someone vulnerable (after all, who roots for Goliath?)
- Blame the innocent to save his own hide
You get the idea. Apart from physical traits such as bad smells and irritating ticks and habits, unlikeable people violate our sense of fairness. They do not treat others as they would like to be treated themselves. Keeping this principle in mind will help you generate unlikeable characters as a counterweight to the likeable ones.
Check out my latest YouTube video: How to structure your story
Negative behaviour makes for unlikeable characters who serve as a foil to the likeable characters in your story.