Making readers root for unlikable characters – Nina Laurin

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By Nina Laurin

Unlikable characters are having a moment — especially unlikable women. This is great, because women have often been confined to narrow archetypes, both in genre and literary fiction. Women who are not good, kind, and nurturing didn’t exist as far as books were concerned. Or if they did, they certainly weren’t heroes.

Now, thanks to a certain big book with Girl in the title, women can finally be morally ambiguous — hooray! After reading many, many books starring morally gray and plainly unlikable protagonists, I put together a list of what makes them really stand out.

Backstory is everything.

The easiest way to make the reader care for unlikable people is to give them an appropriate backstory. Sometimes, the reader knows the backstory right from the start (like in Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, for instance). But another effective strategy is to reveal the backstory strategically, at a crucial pivot point in the story where it will have the most impact — so as to completely change the way the reader views the character and her motivations (a good example is Alex by Pierre Lemaitre. I won’t spoil it, because it’s a pretty big twist).

Show, don’t tell.

The most cliched piece of writing advice applies to unlikable characters too. Rather than having the character constantly complain, or yet, randomly go on mental monologues that supposedly convey how bad/dark/morally ambiguous they are (I come across this all the time in psychological suspense, in the wake of Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne and the infamous cool girl speech), show how their emotional baggage or off-kilter moral compass affects their actions. I don’t just mean the big story-altering actions; the small, everyday actions. Does the protagonist buy a coffee and steal a dollar from the tip jar when no one’s looking? Does she lie to random minor characters for no reason but to make herself more interesting? Another example of Dark Places: the heroine’s tendency to steal random things just for kicks ends up affecting the plot in a big way.

Tweak the moral tone of the story.

The foolproof way to make your unlikable character shine is to throw her into a world with black and gray morality. Grimdark fantasy makes good use of this, but so do a lot of mysteries and thrillers. When your villain is a complete monster, your unlikable hero will come across as an antihero at worst, and everyone loves those. A contemporary thriller example is Lisbeth Salander. Lisbeth does a lot of things that would be very questionable — in another book. But seeing how the people she’s up against are complete and utter psychopaths, she’s not just the hero the book needs — she’s the hero it deserves.

Nina Laurin was born in the former USSR and moved to Canada as a child. Living in Montreal, she took part in the city’s vibrant music and art scene before deciding to focus on her true passion, writing. Although bilingual, Nina decided after careful reflection to enroll in a writing program in English. She recently graduated from Concordia University with a BA in Creative Writing. When she’s not reading or working on her books, she likes to paint, to cook, to ride her road bike, and to explore museums with her significant other. Her novel, Girl Last Seen, is out now.

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