Disclaimer: a significant driving force behind this entry is many readers’ dislike* towards Dagger, a character in The Feast saga that I personally love to write but would probably not be friends with in real life. Okay, first disclaimer over.

Second disclaimer: I’m not claiming to be a guru on character development. This is entry is based on my own experiences and encounters with unlikable characters, both as a reader and a writer.

Mini Dagger

So, why are unlikable characters okay? They’re real. That’s the biggest reason. Likable and unlikable characters alike (confession: I wrote this entire entry just so I could use this phrase! Kidding…) have something major in common: flaws. But what makes the flaws of the likable characters more forgivable than the unlikable ones? I think it’s a willingness to look past those flaws, just like we tend to do in real life for loved ones or people we admire. Unfortunately, this usually dooms the unlikable characters to a downward spiral of unredeemablilty (I just made up that word).

Dagger has many flaws. She’s selfish, impetuous, hotheaded, and prickly (to name a few). She’s also a know-it-all and she’ll hold a grudge, even if it’s an ill-placed grudge. In short, very much like any teenager, especially a younger sibling. When I write Dagger, I can almost feel a mini version of her sitting on my right shoulder and hissing in my right ear as I type. “Really?” she’ll seethe, “You’re making me look like an idiot!” It’s kind of fun.

Of all the characters, she feels the most real to me because she’s the farthest from perfect. She’s everything I wasn’t growing up (I’m sure my parents are thankful); in fact, it never crossed my mind to be like her. Of course, I’m the last person who should try to objectively analyze my adolescent behavior 😉 But is that what dooms her to be unlikable? Or is it her overconfidence (the biggest barrier for me)?

Does she annoy you? If so, you’re reacting as I intended. Does she make you want to throw the book across the room? Good. You’re feeling something, which is more than I can say for the plethora of pleasant books I’ve read with pleasant characters, which I close with a sigh after reading the last page. (That’s a nice feeling, too…) Dagger is there as a major part of the story, yes, but she’s also there to tickle that spot on your back you can’t reach, taunt you with her own stupid actions and choices, and just when you think she’s going to die (finally!) she doesn’t** give you that satisfaction. Why? Why would I do that to you? Because you can handle her, and you can shake your head at her in disappointment and disbelief, and then you can forgive her. I believe in you!

I’d like to ask readers of all kinds (myself included) to pause the next time we run into an unlikable character, and ask, “Why?” Do we tend to be drawn towards certain characteristics and repelled by others, no matter what? Or do we treat each individual character as that–an individual–and have unique reasons for liking or not liking them?

As a reader, my feelings are a little different based on what I’m reading. If I’m reading “fluff” purely for mental escape, then yeah, a complete cast of likable characters is fine. Then, I don’t have to worry about the characters and I can focus on the story (usually I can zip straight through to the happy ending). But if I’m reading to immerse myself in a new world, I want a complex cast of characters to guide me, whether I like them or not. They are a part of that world and they shape each others’ paths through their selfish, stupid, or accidental actions. That’s one of the many reasons I love Game of Thrones (the books): I probably hate just as many of the characters as I love (maybe more!) and yet I keep wanting more because they’re real.

As a writer, finding a palatable balance of characteristics is challenging at times, but believe it or not it’s harder to consciously write an abrasive character like Dagger. I wanted her to be strong, which she undoubtedly is, but not in the ways she thinks she is. I wanted her to be passionate, in everything but the romantic sense of that word. And I wanted her to redeemable, which I think she is by the end, but that’s open for debate.

Anyway, this is mostly a post to justify my own feelings, but as a reader, a writer, and (heck, why not!) a librarian, I feel a bit qualified to say that we need unlikable characters in stories to make them good stories, at the least. Someone needs to contrast the straightedge protagonist or the pleasant sidekick and make them look better than they are! Right?

*Okay, it ranges from dislike to outright hatred (and hoping she dies)

**Woopsie, spoiler alert!