Wednesday, June 1, 2011

U is for Unlikable Characters: Can They Hook MG Readers?

 Most of the advice I’ve read about creating characters emphasizes the need to make them likable. Some people question whether that is necessary. After all, “likable” is subjective. What is likable to one reader might not be to another.  A character with only positive, redeeming qualities could be boring, since there’s no room for growth. Starting with an unlikable character leaves more room for character growth.

Still, I think that readers of MG fiction usually want the book's hero or point of view character to have at least some likable qualities. Eight- to twelve-year-olds have a fairly “black and white” view of the world. They notice when friends or their parents aren’t following the rules. And they appreciate knowing who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

Kids also have a lot competing for their attention. They’re likely to give up on a book if there’s something about it they don’t like. And that includes the characters. So, it’s okay, and even preferable if the villain is or becomes highly unlikable. (That follows the rules.) But the hero? If you’re trying to create a main character your readers connect with, they need to be able to see a little bit of themselves in the character…and would you see yourself in character you don’t even like?
That doesn’t mean your main character can’t be the playground bully. But even if your heroine has some traits most people would say are unlikable, such as bossiness or a bad temper, there have to be reasons why the reader should care about her.

Have you read any MG books with an unlikable main character? Any tips on making your own main character more likable?

Jody Hedlund began a great discussion on whether the maincharacter needs to be likable, and some ways to create likable characters.
Over at Adventures in Children’s Publishing, Martina talks about the issue of character likability, with examples from The Hunger Games.

Juliette Wade writes on whether we need to like characters or just relate to them.
At the Blood Red Pencil, Janet Fitch uses examples to show how to help readers connect to a character that seems unlikable.

Roni Loren gives practical tips for helping readers connect to unlikable characters.
And more tips from L.B. Schulman, writing about creating likeable characters we love.


  1. I love the "unlikeable" character. Really the only unlikeable character there is, is the one that is not fully developed.

  2. To me, unlikeable means the things we see in the world or often within ourselves that we wish we could change. If an unlikeable character - especially a main one - doesn't change AT ALL along a story's journey and simply remains unlikeable, that's where it becomes hard for the reader to connect.

  3. I remember in my MG, one of the things that critiques mentioned was that my character was too bossy, which made her unlikeable. I had to tone that down. Instead, I had to make her more vulnerable.

  4. I think for most readers (even grown-ups :)) the MC needs to have at least some likeable traits. It's hard to identify/sympathize with someone too awful. That said, everyone loves a character they can enjoy hating - it probably just shouldn't be the MC!

  5. I'll check out the links.

    I can't think of any unlikeable middle grade MC's.

    I have two shelved MG manuscripts. One MC begins and ends likeable and the other begins unlikeable but doesn't redeem himself fully by the end. If I ever revisit that manuscript, I'll have to do a major character overhaul.

  6. Medeia, I haven't come across any MG books in my reading where the main character is unlikable. I think that would really challenge a MG reader.

  7. I think characters for the most part should be likeable, but also flawed in a way that one can relate to or understand. No one wants to read about perfect characters--it would only remind us of how we are not perfect. We want to read about people who are real--good, bad and ugly. :)

  8. Artemis Fowl is the one that sprung immediately to mind. He's basically an anti-hero. But the author takes care to redeem him a little and not make him too unpleasant. I think he's an excellent example of why charisma is more important in an MC than likeability. I've read plenty of books with likeable characters but they didn't grab me because they weren't charismatic enough.

    The other that sprang to mind is the Bartimeaus books. Bartimeaus himself can get away with being selfish, violent and badly behaved because he's so charismatic and funny. But Nathaniel, the other main character, to me, didn't work. I didn't find him very likeable, but he wasn't very interesting either, and he's the reason I didn't make it past the first book, especially as I heard he gets more unlikable as the trilogy continues.

    Interesting post, sorry I'm so late to comment!

    Girl Friday


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