Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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July 1, 2015

How to Tweak an 'Unlikeable’ Character

I admit, odd people fascinate me. The marginal personalities, the walking damaged, the wierdos. When I look back in my life, it seems I’m the Pied Piper of The Quirky (Or maybe it just takes one to know one ;))

photo credit: Three Amigos via photopin (license)

photo credit: Three Amigos via photopin (license)

They show up in my novels often. I've written a New York fashionista transplanted in Texas Hill country, an L.A. up-and-comer on a Colorado cattle ranch, and a soldier suffering from PTSD on the bull riding circuit.

But the last two books I’ve written pushed the limits, tipping from quirky to borderline bad/odd people. And though they fascinate me, these characters can irritate readers. Jane Porter has written characters like that, and Catherine Ryan Hyde (wrote Pay it Forward) is famous for it.

A case everyone should be familiar with is Florence ‘Rusty’ Dennis, the mother in the film, Mask (played by Cher). She was in a gang, and a drug user. And yet, by the end of the movie, though you still may not like her, you have empathy, if not sympathy for her.

There was a better photo to demonstrate this, but it didn't have Sam Elliot in it. You're welcome.

There was a better photo to demonstrate this, but it didn't have Sam Elliot in it. You're welcome.

How the heck did they do that?

I recently wrote my first women’s fiction story. The main character, Harlie, was damaged and independent to a fault. She has a distorted view of the world that she’s seen from the trailer park and has made some questionable decisions because of it.

I loved this character.

The book was rejected by an editor, because the character was ‘one dimensional’. I had no clear idea of what that meant, and was afraid that I’d have to gut this strong but flawed character to sell the book. And I wasn’t willing to do that.

Thank God I have an incredible agent, who can read a book and not only tell you what’s wrong, but how to fix it. She told me that Harlie wasn't a well-rounded character because we didn't see anything different in her thoughts than we saw in her actions. In both, she was damaged, irascible, and closed off. It was basically repetition: the reader got that in the scene, by the way she reacted, AND in the sequel, when Harlie thought about what had just happened.

Queue the paradigm shift!

To fix that, all I did was go to those scenes and show, through her thoughts, WHY Harlie acted the way she did. It’s an opportunity to show what she’d never reveal to others – that she was vulnerable, lonely and afraid. Show why she was stuck in her thoughts/actions. In other words, what was her flaw – her misconception about how the world worked, that was holding her back from growing.

It’s like a small dog that bites your ankles. It doesn’t do it because it’s mean. It does it because it’s afraid. In showing that in Harlie’s thoughts, it made her much more relatable and likeable. I think readers will forgive a character almost anything, if they can relate to them. I know I’ve lashed out at others when I’ve been afraid, and I’ll bet you have, too.

The other story I wrote with an unlikeable character is Twice in a Blue Moon – and today is its release day!


Danovan DiCarlo is a winery manager, with several problems. He is gifted, but overly ambitious and arrogant. The unwanted son-in-law to the biggest winery owner in the valley, when his infant daughter dies and the marriage falls apart, his ex FIL makes sure he’s blacklisted in the Central Valley wine community.

Oh, and he lies. Over and over. Ugh. Tough sell, right?

With Danovan, I went back and read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! If you don’t have his book on your writing craft shelf, you should. It’s my go-to book, and is dog-eared and full of post it notes. He said,

“Because liking the person we go on a journey with is the single most important element in drawing us into the story…..I call it the ‘Save the Cat’ scene. It’s the scene where we meet the hero and he does something—like saving a cat—that defines who he is, and makes us like him.”

I needed a couple of ‘save the cat’ moments for Danovan, because he had SO many flaws! Here's what I came up with:

  • He truly loved his wife – until she revealed herself as a narcissistic spoiled brat. Even then, he tried to make the marriage work, even to the point of leaving his job and opportunities to move away from her family.
  • His beloved daughter died in a crib death when he was watching her. Not his fault, but he feels shame and guilt.
  • He lies in the beginning to get the job at the heroine’s winery, but he offers to teach her the business. Each of his lies become less egregious from there – one being a lie of omission, and the last, to save her winery, which is, in an odd way, very heroic.

Only my readers can tell me if I succeeded in making Danovan likeable . . . and I’m giving you the chance to decide for yourself:  I’ll randomly choose two commenters to win Twice in a Blue Moon.

So what do you think, WITS readers? Have you ever written an unlikeable character? Have any tips for us?  Can you think of a Save the Cat moment in a book or a film?

About Laura

Author Headshot SmallLaura Drake is a city girl who never grew out of her tomboy ways, or a serious cowboy crush. She writes both Women's Fiction and Romance.

She sold her Sweet on a Cowboy series, romances set in the world of professional bull riding, to Grand Central.  The Sweet Spot won the 2014 Romance Writers of America®   RITA® award in the Best First Book category.

Her 'biker-chick' novel, Her Road Home, sold to Harlequin's Superomance line (August, 2013) and has expanded to three more stories set in the same small town. Twice in a Blue Moon Releases July 1!

In 2014, Laura realized a lifelong dream of becoming a Texan and is currently working on her accent. She gave up the corporate CFO gig to write full time. She's a wife, grandmother, and motorcycle chick in the remaining waking hours.

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63 comments on “How to Tweak an 'Unlikeable’ Character”

  1. Happy Pub day, Laura. And great post. I like flawed characters, too. Your agent's advice is a little gem that I'm tucking away: to be well-rounded, your character's thoughts should differ from her actions. Thanks for sharing and best wishes with TWICE IN A BLUE MOON.

  2. This is an enlightening post. I think we all know as readers why a "bad" character is sympathetic, but it may be forgotten when we're creating them. Perfect timing for me, as my WIP has a very outwardly unlikeable heroine, but later it is revealed what made her so. I'm thinking now of sprinkling more of her thoughts earlier on to hook the reader's empathy. Thanks!

    1. lrtrovi - I'd recommend putting some of that on the first page! If a reader doesn't like the character from page 1 - they're not going to read on!

  3. Happy Release Day, Laura! I love this post. In my first (of MANY) drafts of my last manuscript, my main character suffered from dislikable syndrome. Through each draft I had to fill in her soft spots and strengths, rounding her out to someone readers would root for. Is she there yet? Who knows. But I love quirky characters with rough edges when I'm reading, so I'm biased. Can't wait to read TWICE IN A BLUE MOON 🙂

    1. Thanks, Kerry Ann - and you're right - we can't know if they're 'there yet'. I thought my character was likeable from the beginning - but I knew her in my head, and my reader's didn't have access to that database!

      You might want to alert your critters, and your Beta readers that you're concerned about that, and trust them to let you know.

  4. This is such a helpful post! In my novel, some mentioned my main character was unlikeable until I went in and made some changes--kind of what you did here, but this made it so clear! I'll definitely use your method going forward--making sure I'm showing two different things in actions and thoughts.

    1. It sure wasn't clear to me either, until my agent pointed it out, Lauren! Then it was a head slap moment. One of those things that seems so obvious . . . in retrospect!

  5. Great post, Laura! One of my judges in a contest said that my hero was unlikable - argumentative, insulting, abrasive, a bully. He's a cop and I tried to make him Alpha cop in everything he did and said. How could my heroine have an instant attraction to someone like that (other than he's gorgeous, of course)? I took another look and had to agree. I tweaked my opening scenes and added more humor, some internal thoughts on why he is like he is to my heroine. Instead of saving a cat, he befriends my witch's quirky ferret. Who couldn't love a ferret, right? Hope this made it better. I think it did.
    Twice in a Blue Moon downloaded last night - can't wait to read it!! I'm positive you wrote Danovan just perfectly. Your characters are always so REAL.

    1. Ha, too true, Barb, who DOESN'T love a ferret? I can't believe you wrote an unlikeable character - you're too sweet! Thanks for the support - I hope you like the book!

  6. I love flawed characters too. I have been struggling with my current WIP because I have made my hero too vulnerable - he has a disfigured face and gets severely wounded. I wonder if the opposite works. If he's showing physical vulnerability in his actions, but his internal thoughts and decisions are focused on saving the heroine using what abilities he does have will that make him strong enough?

  7. Congrats on publication day! Your tips are helpful. I'm going to use them in my sequel. Another great blog. Thank you, again!

  8. Laura, wonderful post as always. I had a problem with a character who was difficult to like because she seemed to always come off as a human door mat. It's a problem when we create a weak character and eventually, I disliked her myself and began to change her actions and reactions to be more assertive.

    WOW ... another debut. Congrats and all good things with Twice in a Blue Moon. Can't wait to read 🙂

    1. Thank you, Florence. It's okay to start a doormat, if that's her arc - maybe you just needed to move her along on that arc faster! If she's irritating in the beginning, show the reader why she's that way, and you'll have instant likeability!

    1. Takes on to know one, Deb - you've had some of those characters yourself! Hey everyone, if you haven't read Debbie's books, check them out! Mermaids in a Southern Bayou? Who doesn't love that?!

  9. Very informative post. I hadn't heard of Save the Cat but I'm going to check it out. I recently wrote a short story about a widow who had spent her life catering to her family's demands. I wanted to show how she finally realized that she needed to live her own life. My writing instructor criticized the main character as weak which he said made her unlikeable. I am struggling now to show more of her inner strength to make her more appealing.
    Congratulations on the new book!

    1. Thanks Barb. In the beginning, if you show your readers why she's that way, the readers will connect with her, and cheer her on, every step of the way.

      Seriously, get Save the Cat - it'll help a lot - promise!

  10. Love quirky and difficult characters and yours are always great, Laura!
    Excited to be celebrating ANOTHER release with you. 🙂

  11. I love the title of your book. What an auspicious time to release in a month with a blue moon (July 31). It sounds like a great read that will stand on it's own, but with the universe behind it, Twice in a Blue Moon will soar or should I say rise. Going to check out the Save the Cat book. I need it.

    1. Wow, Lori, I didn't know about the blue moon being this month! Auspicious! Thanks for letting me know I have the Universe behind me...I need all the help I can get!

      You're going to love Save the Cat. If I had to get rid of every craft book but one, this would be my 'keeper'. Enjoy!

  12. Very, very interesting post. I'll be rereading Save the Cat today to find that quote. I've struggled with the character flaws in my heroines. The idea of creating actions that send a message different from the character's thoughts is very intriguing. I think I'll be poking at my character this afternoon.

    1. Go for it, Carlene - by the way, another blog I read today about deepening character was by the incredible, Donald Maass, on Writer Unboxed. Check it out!

  13. Yeah for Twice in a Blue Moon, Laura! You know that it's my heroines that start out unlikeable. I'm in love with my heroes, so they're lovable from the get-go! It's hard to make someone who is angry and afraid--and lashes out at everyone without acknowledging her actions--likeable. Great tips for a "surgical-insertion" fix!

  14. Excellent blog. After reading this, I realized that one of my unlikeable characters needs some saving grace. Thanks for the advice.

  15. Love Save the Cat! I look things up in all three books at least once a week.

    Thanks for the tips. Something to think about, since I have a character who's a bit unlikeable.

  16. Happy Pub Day! I love the title Twice in a Blue Moon.

    Thanks for a great post. I'm working on a character that I'm beginning to not like. I need a few Save the Cat moments.

  17. Blake's Save the Cat book has saved my bacon time and time again. Also I love seriously flawed, weird characters myself. Enjoyed reading your comments on your newest book TWICE IN A BLUE MOON. Great title.

  18. Love this post, Laura--such a great reminder to us that we need to really clarify a character's motivations if that character is going to leap off the page and have a life of her own! Congrats on the new book.

    1. Well said, Holly! They live, fully rounded in our heads, but sometimes all that doesn't make it onto the page. Thanks for stopping!

  19. Makes perfect sense to me--but even then, some readers will not like our characters. I've found that how women relate to other women, or how they relate to men, often dictates why one person loves a certain character that another person can't stand. So, we do the best we can to flesh out our fictional people--prevent them from being one dimensional--but in the end, the likability factor is often in the minds of our readers.

    1. So true, Linda. True in real life as well - no one likes everyone, and amazing as we are, not everyone likes us! (some have bad taste - what can I say?)

      But we strive to write characters that, though a reader may not like them, they'll at least understand them. Right?

  20. Great post! I've had to make an unlikeable character more loveable, and Save the Cat saved my book. Speaking of weird characters, I just finished Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. Camille is a character I won't soon forget. Best of luck with Twice in a Blue Moon.

  21. Happy release day, Laura. I loved your post. I too have a hateful character in my second novel in a series. Everyone that reads her hates her, but that is who she is. She does begin to grow and change by the middle, but until then she is a regular Scarlet O'Hara.

    1. Ah, perfect example, Tina - Scarlet O'Hara! She was a witch, wasn't she? Yet we loved her - why? Think about the opening scenes - does she have a save the cat moment (or two?) I think analyzing the beginning scenes will help you see how to tweak your character. Readers want to fall in love with your character - they don't need much...that's why a save the cat works so well!

      Best of luck with your witchy character!

  22. Thanks Laura, This problem of one dimensional characters works with the opposite type of character too. All mine were too nice, the story was nice as were the comfortable settings. Yuk. Thanks to you, Laura and WITS and Margie's hint to pop over here, things have changed for me and my characters.

    Still grappling with all the knowledge presented here, often with a laugh, but it is incredibly helpful to this unpublished, but striving-to-be, writer.
    My characters now demonstrate body language that contradicts the dialogue, thoughts expressing true feelings when action doesn't et al.

    Many thanks for this one, Wendy.

    1. You're welcome, Wendy, and hanging with Margie Lawson will put you on the road to publication! Hang out with us, and we'll try to help, too!

  23. I really enjoy those tough-to-love characters. Yes, I've had one of those! (Or more.) In my YA Sharing Hunter, Chloe pushes her best friend into sharing a boyfriend (Sister Wives meets Sixteen Candles!). She's also arrogant, risk-taking, outspoken, and waaaay too pretty. LOL. My critique partner really helped me nail when Chloe was truly unsympathetic. I had to do exactly what you said, and show why she behaved this way—her flaws, wounds, and fears. Now I adore her even more. Hope my readers will too someday!

    Fabulous tips, Laura! And I'm eager to read another Laura Drake novel—always worth my time. 🙂

    1. I remember that plot from query class, Julie! Best of luck with it! And yes, we can't see when our characters are stepping over the line to irritating - but our critters can! (thank God for them).

      Thanks so much for reading me, Julie!

      1. Thank god for critters who call you on the "TSTL" (too stupid to live) or "TBTL" (too bitchy to like) moments! 🙂

  24. Congrats on your new release, Laura. The timing of this post is perfect, because I just got beta reader comments back on my WIP and a few of them called out one of the main characters, saying he was hard to care about. Hopefully with your advice in mind I can fix him!

  25. Hi Laura
    I'm so glad this piece came when it did. I am rewriting/revising my first MS completed and rejected but so many including me loved the story I hated to just shove it under the bed. I had one of the same complaints about the Heroine. I didn't really know what they are talking about because I loved her. Someone told me to add an animal she cared for so I added a squirrel. Well it was another few words toward word count but to me it didn't do a thing. I'm ordering Save the Cat and see if I can find a way to make my character more lovable.
    I got most of your books this week but my daughter wanted me to ask you in what order do you need to read them? One has book one but the others are not numbered. Also the biker books, same thing which one first. I taught her to be organized and this read in order is the only place it took. I got Blue Moon but she grabbed it first said I needed to write on my NANO ms. I love her anyway. Congratulations on Blue Moon, I'll meet you in the kitchen and we can have a cyber toast, I'm having Wine what do you want? I have a fresh pot of coffee made also. Have a wonderful time enjoying the star light shining on you. Tomorrow it is time to start a new one.

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