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I have a story where the protagonist, who is a warrior meant to be the story's hero, has several unlikable traits. He is proud, kind of cold, has a hatred for the people of the enemy State (without exceptions, which makes him support war and sees no problem in killing soldiers), has a limited knowledge and isn't much prudent. Of course, he has several qualities too, but it's not relevant for the question.

In the course of the plot, many things happen which leads him to start changing and becoming a better person (including becoming the opposite of these flaws) since half the plot's progress and slowly until the end.

The problem is: how can I non-verbally tell the reader that he will become a more likeable person but that it will take kind of long until that happens, and preventing the reader from losing interest in the story until the change begins?

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  1. You can foreshadow the change by showing the kernel of goodness that lies in the bad person. Options are "pet the dog" (the protagonist shows kindness to an animal, a child, an old person, etc.) or "save the cat" (the protagonist actively helps an animal, child, etc., often at risk to his own life).

  2. You can tell the reader. Many books begin with a sentence ("It was the last day of my life.") or prologue (see this question) that shows how the story will climax or end.

  3. Explain it on the blurb ("The story of a barbarian turning good.") or through the title ("Turning Good").

  4. Give him a likeable sidekick or co-protagonist. This doesn't have to be a humorous character but can be someone suffering under the protagonist who the readers sympathise with and root for.

  5. Make him "heroically bad", instead of simply unlikeable. The Ice Queen has fans, but the bad step-mother hasn't. That is give him great power and ability, and a great purpose.

  6. Let the reader know why he is cold and full of hate. Conan isn't a very likeable character, but we learn that witnessing the killing of his family as a child and his slavery made him into that brutal, cold killer.

  7. Narrate the story in a humorous tone. Humour provides relief from all kinds of otherwise aversive content (e.g. gruesome violence becomes funny in a cartoon).

  8. Aim his hate at aspects of the world or humanity that readers can sympathize with (e.g. he hates people because they are greedy, stupid, mindless etc.).

  9. Narrate him realistically. That is, he isn't really "good" or "bad", but a real person with the potential to behave in many different way, caught in circumstances that brings out his bad side. Later he learns how to better deal with the difficulties in his life and changes his environment so it allows him to show his good side.

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    10. Make the reader want him to change. Create tension around decisions and paths open to the bad guy to change, and obvious and desirable benefits to him if he does change. – Adam Davis Mar 22 '18 at 18:52
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Characters can be plotted onto three sliders.

(1) The further up the three (or four) sliders he is, the more likable he is.

You describe him as low on sympathy. You can compensate, by making him higher on proactivity and competence. (You can add in 'mission' as a fourth slider, if you want - justify his goal.)

Highly competent and proactive goes a long way. These can be unrelated to the main plot. Example: He is a skilled lover. An accomplished diver. He can describe the coral reef in stunning terms.

He picks up litter on the street, even though he cares nothing for people. If his mission is laudable, that helps too.

(2) Or, tuck in 'pet the dog' moments. This is him doing anything to show he is not evil. maybe he takes a break from killing people to visit his mother on her death bed.

Or both.

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Your character is a warrior. That lends itself to many positive qualities you can show: loyalty, courage, professionalism, camaraderie. There's a reason we have so many stories about warriors: these qualities evoke respect. Show your MC as a complex character, with admirable qualities, and qualities we would frown upon, and already you have the reader's interest.

Then, why does your MC hate the enemy so much? What has the enemy done? Invaded his land? Killed his friend? Did he have real need to fear this enemy when he was a child, so that as an adult he'd feel duty-bound to protect others from this enemy? How much does he actually know about the enemy, except that "those are the guys trying to kill me"? Make his hatred understandable. In fact, if you can make the reader internalise this hatred, and then take him on the same journey the MC is taking - of learning whatever you want your MC to learn, that would be an awesome journey to take.

One more thing: as a reader, I wouldn't want to know right from the start that the character is going to become more likeable, I don't want to know how he's going to change. That's like a spoiler. I'd want to get invested in the character as he is, good and bad, and then go with him wherever he goes, and observe whatever is happening to him.

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Here is a suggestion that I don't think was covered, though it is risky.

You can write everything from his point of view, including how to correctly perceive the world. When a person develops as a character for the better, this sometimes involves a slow revelation concerning the error of their ways. You can attempt to construct the narrative such that these revelations are experienced by the reader as much as by the character.

People with character flaws usually don't recognize them as flaws. They believe it is justified. If they are arrogant, it's because they truly believe that their capabilities surpass those of others', enough to make the arrogance warranted. If they are cold, it's because they truly see no pragmatic value in giving others kind regard. If they have a dogmatic hatred towards members of an enemy state, it's because they truly believe that this state is so sinister that people who do not renounce their membership of it are necessarily irredeemable.

Write the world from the MC's point of view. Write it by describing it in such a way that:

  • The MC truly is significantly better than others in the most important traits

  • The incentive structure for treating others nicely is not sufficient to warrant being kind

  • The enemy state is so evil that the only explanation for someone being a willful member is malicious intent

The reader should be as indoctrinated as the MC, based on your description of the world. Then, slowly, throughout the narrative, reveal things that contradict this perspective. Hopefully, it should cause as much cognitive dissonance in the reader as it does in the main character. And they would share the MC's revelations that his way of behaving was misguided. Yet, throughout the whole process, they will have sympathized with the MC.

I say this is risky because the reader might perceive this style as you, the author, sanctioning the MC's behavior early in the book.

  • Welcome to Writing.SE Bridgeburners! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun and nice answer! – White Eagle Mar 22 '18 at 15:40
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    @WhiteEagle A little tip: I guess you are using the normal [text](link) style to format those links based on the fact that "center" is not part of the linktext. It's easier and faster to use the so-called "magic links". You can write Please take the [tour] and visit the [help]. and it will automatically create links to the corresponding sites. There are other useful magic links. For example I like [edit] and [meta]. You can see the full list in Add data.SE style “magic links” to comments – Sec SE - clear Monica's name Mar 22 '18 at 16:01
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You seem to have two questions: How do I prevent the reader from being turned off by an unlikeable character and how do I foreshadow him becoming likeable? For the first part, check out this question.

The character doesn't have to be likeable. If the character is human, I think the reader could relate to him through the difficulty. More in depth explanation can be found at that question.

For the second part (how to foreshadow his becoming a better person), things are a bit more complicated. Please note that I am not an expert in foreshadowing. First, if you want it to be really obvious that he is going to be a better person later in the story, maybe one of the other characters says he/she thinks that. This isn't exactly verbal confirmation of his change considering other character could be unreliable.

A more subtle approach could be based upon the character's actions. Maybe he does something outside of his character to help someone else.

You could also inform the reader of the transformation in narrative. Maybe vaguely mention his transformation and leave the reader puzzled on what you meant.

In conclusion, it is of the upmost importance that you make the character human. If he is not human, the reader could be put off. If he is, the reader should remain interested.

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Few people are entirely unlikeable or worthy of rooting for in any sense. If your character didn't have anything good about them then he would not become a better person by the end of the story. The fact that he does become a better person shows that there was something in him that was good such that it could come out or be amplified, so what is it?

When you have a story where a character starts out bad or unlikeable in some sense but becomes good by the end the conflict is generally caused by us seeing in them the potential to be good but them failing to capitalize on that potential. So even when they are saying or doing something bad or evil or unlikeable or not in accordance with their potential you should show us a glimpse of what they can and eventually will become.

The thing about warriors is that they physically have the ability to generate great change in the kind of world where it is permitted for violence to make such changes. But violence and the kind of change it creates can be very positive or very negative.

What motivated your warrior to become a warrior? Is it just his pride? Being a strong warrior might be a good justification for having pride (if pride can be justified), but being a strong warrior who actually uses that strength to effectively bring about positive change in the world might be a far greater reason to have pride compared to just simply being strong. If this is your intended arc for the character, then you should somehow establish early on that pride is his motivation, but that he is not content with merely having pride in being strong. He wants more. This makes him relatable and while we may not like him totally we will at least relate to his desires and follow his progress for the sake of resolving this conflict.

Imagine your task is to portray a character who is deeply racist, but you want to give us the hope that they could be a better person (thus foreshadowing this eventuality). You might start off the story with a monologue of them describing in detail regarding why family is the most important thing in the world. Nothing they say at the beginning of this monologue is controversial or otherwise appears to be spoken by a character of anything other than high moral caliber. But THEN they transition into "and it is because family is so important that we must protect the white family from the foreign non-white elements that threaten it..." The good that we saw in them is twisted when the evil it is used to justify is exposed. Maybe the first event that happens to this character in the story is that their family is deeply and terribly wronged by non-white individuals. Now, even if we completely disagree with their hate, we might understand and then relate to what set them down the path to darkness. And because we recognize their unlikability as a twisting of what would otherwise be likeable (their devotion to their family) we recognize the potential for goodness in them and want them to be good.

The bottom line is to give us a glimpse into the goodness that already exists within them and then structure conflict in such a way that both uses that good to show that they have potential and identifies the potential that they are currently failing to (but will eventually) meet.

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I think you need to read some books with famously unlikable protagonists who eventually receive some sort of redemption or at least resolution without the author making any attempt to get the reader's sympathy. Here are some I've read:

1) Thomas Covenant, Unbeliever. Critic James Nicoll called this character the "most unlikeable supposedly sympathetic protagonist". You can't tell whether he is going to redeem himself or just sink deeper into cynicism and self-loathing. (author Steven Donaldson)

2) Humbert Humber in Lolita (Nabokov) redeems himself in the end. Somewhat. Maybe. He is not likable.

3) John Updike wrote a whole series of books (the 'Rabbit' books) featuring Rabbit Angstrom, who is relentlessly unlikeable. I didn't hate him at the end, though. So is that redemption?

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He can be admirable yet remain 'unlikeable' for the manner in which he deals with the challenges which you create for him, ie holding the moral high ground, exhibiting a sense of humour. You could make his antagonists 'likeable' to start with to keep the reader's interest, then gradually twist the perspective around.

Clint Eastwood's character in 'Unforgiven' was pretty repellent in a variety of ways but we kept watching anyway, partly out of a morbid curiosity of how much more grim and violent he could become.

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    Welcome to Writing.SE! One-liner answers like this are generally discouraged. Can you explain this answer in more detail? Thanks! – F1Krazy Mar 22 '18 at 11:19
  • Welcome to Writing.SE Hupio! This seems like a good start, but here on StackExchange we prefer more elaborate answers that explain why they are the correct answer. Your answer currently looks more like a short comment and might therefore be deleted or converted into a comment if you don't edit it. You can comment everywhere once you have 50 reputation. If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! – Sec SE - clear Monica's name Mar 22 '18 at 11:36
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    Nice edit! +1 from me. – Sec SE - clear Monica's name Mar 22 '18 at 12:26
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You could of course give him some likeable traits. Make him charming in his obnoxiousness, allow the reader some empathy for his personal reasons for being so despairing or frustrated at the world, whatever it is that drives his negative traits. Take the movie Groundhog Day, for example: Bill Murray's character is an utterly obnoxious, arrogant man at the start of the film and becomes more and more selfish and nihilistic until he is finally forced to turn things around. And yet, he's kind of witty in the way he expresses his hatred for the things he looks down on; he experiences some disappointments and frustrations (the cold shower, for example) that we can all identify with, so even though we know we shouldn't, we're already kind of rooting for him a long time before he becomes the "good guy".

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