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Happy Monday Everyone! Today I have a guest post by Martin Cavannaugh at Reedsy on why you need unlikeable characters in your story. Reedsy a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. Reedsy also provides tools to help authors write and format their books, as well as free courses and webinars on publishing


Before I get to Martin's guest post, I have Follower News to share! Jacqua Murray recently released THE QUEST FOR HOME, the second book in the Crossroads prehistoric fiction series. Here's a blurb: Driven from her home. Stalked by enemies. Now her closest ally may be a traitor.
And here's a few links: Available at: Kindle US   Kindle UK   Kindle CA   Kindle AU
Author website: https://jacquimurray.net

Now here's Martin's guest post!

Why You Need Unlikable Characters in Your Story
A common piece of advice writers receive is to make their characters likable and relatable. The
logic behind this is sound: readers have to spend however-many-pages with these characters, so you don’t want to turn them off by making your protagonist repugnant. However, new writers often take this too literally and craft a story where everyone is squeaky-clean, morally upright, and — dare we say it? — dull.

If you’re not convinced by that, here are some more reasons for including unlikable characters in your story.

Every story needs conflict

Without conflict, a plot is just a series of events with little consequence. To have an actual story, you need conflict based on the want or need of a main character. Maybe your protagonist comes across something that prevents them from getting what they want — and the story will be about how they tackle that obstacle. In most cases, this obstacle will take the form of an antagonist. The Voldemort to your Harry Potter; the Khan to your Kirk.

The antagonist could be sympathetic. If they’re well written, the baddie in your story should be relatable to some degree — but if they’re entirely likable, then why are they in conflict with your hero? Gollum from The Lord of the Rings is, unquestionably, a sympathetic character. However, he is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to recover his Precious, which includes doing some seriously unlikable things.

Perhaps the protagonist is in conflict against a system. In dystopian fiction, for example, our hero might find themselves up against an oppressive system of government. But even in those cases, it’s often more satisfying if that system is represented by an unlikable character, like a smug bureaucrat.

Even a likable protagonist must have flaws

There’s a trope made popular by the internet called the “Mary Sue.” This is a character who’s perfect in every way, completely capable and universally loved and respected. The “Mary Sue” (or “Marty Stu,” as the male variant has been dubbed) is not only unbelievable, but completely uninteresting. As this trope demonstrates, without flaws, a character has nothing to learn from their journey and no scope for change.

Flaws will make a character more relatable, but they can make them somewhat unlikable as well — which is not necessarily a bad thing. Harry Potter becomes something of a petulant teenager in the later books. While many readers didn’t enjoy this development, it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t a necessary part of this character development.

If you are a student of the hero’s journey, you’ll be aware of the “dark night of the soul,” the point in the second act where it seems that all is lost for the protagonist. And only by overcoming their own shortcomings are they able to win the day.

Then there are anti-heroes: protagonists who occupy a moral gray area. Modern readers are increasingly keen to spend time with shady main characters — ones who might be working towards redemption. Examples might include Bukowski’s Henry Chinaski, Rabbit Angstrom (from Rabbit, Run), The Grinch, Captain Ahab (Moby-Dick), and Humbert Humbert (Lolita).

When it comes to protagonists: flawed is ideal, and perfect is not best. Ironic, yes, but true.

Unlikable characters are a LOT of fun to write

And finally, perhaps the best reason for an author to inject their story with unlikable characters: it’s fun! Writing fiction gives you a chance to look at the world from someone else’s perspective. When that perspective is so far from your own worldview, it forces you to dig beneath the surface of a character to figure out why and how they behave the way they do.

Everybody is the hero in their own story — and that extends to villains as well. To create a functioning unlikable character, you need to figure out how they justify their behavior to themselves. If your villain is a criminal who holds up banks, how do they frame it in their own minds? If the big bad in your book is a spice baron who wants to defeat a rival family, what is his reason? Is it ideological? Economic? Is he out for revenge?

“Bad” characters tend not to be constrained by social norms and can act more outlandishly than someone who’s by-the-book. This gives you a chance to write someone larger than life — which in itself can be a lot of fun as that character can react to situations in unexpected ways. Try it for yourself: come up with a villain and put them in a “normal” scene — buying (or perhaps stealing?) bread, say. Then see how they behave.

Bringing these sorts of people to life can be some of the most satisfying writing that you do — so don’t cheat yourself by skimping on the unlikable characters!

4. https://blog.reedsy.com/guide/point-of-view/
5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SEaAXca89vQ

Thanks for all your advice, Martin!

Here's what's coming up:

Wednesday, October 2nd I have a guest post by debut author Rosaria Munda and her agent Danielle Burby with an ARC giveaway of  Rosaria's YA fantasy FIREBORNE and a query critique by Danielle and my IWSG post

Monday, October 7th I have an interview with debut author Sharon Mayhew and a giveaway of her MG historical KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON

Monday, October 14th I have a guest post debut author Jennifer Camiccia and her agent Stacey Glick and giveaway of Jennifer's MG THE MEMORY KEEPER and a query critique by Stacey

Monday, October 21st I have an interview with debut author Katie Zhou and a giveaway of her MG fantasy THE DRAGON WARRIOR

Monday, October 28th, I've got an agent spotlight interview with Jessica Reino and a query critique giveaway

Hope to see you on Wednesday, October 2nd!


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Real people aren't perfect so characters shouldn't be either. Sometimes it's a fine line but they all have to have flaws.

nashvillecats2 said...

Good post to read Natalie, is Martin any relation to Alex?????


lostinimaginaryworlds.blogspot.com said...

Unlikeable characters? That is really fun to write, isn't it. In my next book the antagonist is Lucifer, plenty to experiment with there, I'm already leaning towards making him a much misunderstood character 😊

Computer Tutor said...

Thanks for hosting me, Natalie. And such good company!

Chrys Fey said...

Gotta always have an unlikeable character in a story somewhere. What would we do without them? (As readers and authors?)

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Heroes need flaws and villains need redeeming qualities - and they both need a good blend of everything.

Elizabeth Seckman said...

Excellent post. I write flawed characters, but not because it's a way to break from the norm, but because of that whole "write what you know" theory.

Sarah Foster said...

Definitely important to give characters flaws. I think I have a soft spot for antiheroes...probably because I'm writing one!

Pat Hatt said...

Yeah, you can't make them perfect as no one in life is perfect. More fun to play in the gray anyway.

Jemi Fraser said...

I'm often guilty of this - I struggle with the dark side in my longer stories. In short works, it's much easier (not sure why!)

Beverly Stowe McClure said...

Enjoyed your advice. I had fun writing my bad boy in my recent novel.

sherry fundin said...

enjoyed the post and i do love to hate characters. they are some of my favorites
sherry @ fundinmental

Anonymous said...

Yaaaay Jacqui! Congrats on the new book!

I love the Reedsy site. Lots of good info there. Excellent pointers on developing good/bad complexity in both the protagonist and antagonist.

DMS said...

Congrats to Jacqui!

Great advice about characters we hate. I do tend to feel passionately about them and the story wouldn't be the same without them. :) Best of luck to Martin.

Rosi said...

This is an excellent post. I will be linking to it on my blog. Very useful. Thanks!

The Cynical Sailor said...

Congrats to Jacqui on her new release!

Flaws are so important for a protagonist. I quickly become disinterested in a book if the protagonist is so perfect that I can't relate to them. They don't need to be the same flaws I have, just some flaws so that I know that they're human.

Christine Rains said...

Congrats to Jacqui! This is a great article. I love imperfect characters, and I especially love to write a sympathetic villain.

Suzanne Warr said...

Excellent post, Martin! Thank you for your insights and for putting so succinctly what I've felt but not articulated. And congrats, Jacqui!

Angie Quantrell said...

Excellent post! Thank you!