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When I say "unlikable", I mean the character is too unbearable to read/watch. I was told that if people need to take breaks from whatever media they're consuming because of a character’s attitude or actions, it becomes an issue for the author.

It isn't to say that morally horrible characters are bad. I was told there’s a difference between "I love to hate this character" and "I just hate this character".

As an example, someone pointed out that one of the characters someone wrote had the flaw of deliberately being self-pitying, and was too self-pitying to pity, and when that person took some of the pity out people liked him more than he ever expected them to. So this sound like good advice, but it's hard to pinpoint how to determine if a character is too unlikeable.

So is it true that it's a bad idea to make a villain or main character too unlikeable, and how do you determine that they're too unlikeable?

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    Yes, because making something too anything is always bad, by definition. That’s what too means. It’s bad to make your characters too perfect, too realistic, too well-spoken, or anything else. That’s baked into the question. Unless it’s something like, “There’s no such thing as a comedy that’s too funny!” And then you’re really asking, “Can a villain be too unlikeable?”
    – Davislor
    Aug 6 at 0:43
  • 3
    “[H]ow do you determine that they’re too unlikeable?” is a good question, I have the sense that most of the useful answers are going to focus on that, and I’d make that your main question instead.
    – Davislor
    Aug 6 at 0:47
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    two words... Delores Umbridge. also, maybe I'm strange, but I don't love to hate characters any more than I love to hate real people. How I feel about them is how I feel about them.
    – Michael
    Aug 6 at 6:32
  • I'd say for reference as to what happens when you make a character unlikeable... look at Jar Jar Binks The amount of hate for him is off the charts to the point that the actor still has issues today, 20 years later. mercurynews.com/2018/07/06/…
    – WernerCD
    Aug 6 at 18:53
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    Don't think this merits a whole answer, but keep in mind that this is all relative. Anecdotal example: some characters in Game of Thrones do such horrible things that half-way through I realized I wasn't enjoying the experience and just quit, never to return. Obviously, many people did keep reading (or watching) and did keep enjoying the story. Within reason, different degrees of "unlikeableness" will change your audience, but that isn't necessarily a "bad idea." Aug 7 at 14:31

7 Answers 7

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Yes, it can be a bad idea to make a villain too villainous - though it depends on how you do it.

I got a fantasy novel thirty years ago in a box of novels that someone sold off. I bought the box because some of the novels were good.

That one particular fantasy novel started with (at least) two chapters of a point of view character torturing, skinning, and dismembering other people.

The descriptions were (extremely) vivid, and the character was quite obviously enjoying the process. What's more, it was implied that this (evil) character was of a common character type in the universe of the story and that the behaviour such characters was normal and accepted.

I did something then that I've never done before or afterwards: I stopped reading the novel, shredded it (by hand,) then burned the pieces before flushing the ashes down the toilet.

I am not an advocate of censorship. I just didn't want to read any more of that book, and didn't want that vile thing anywhere close to me. For all I know or care, there are millions of copies of it still around to be read and enjoyed by people who like it - or not.

I just know that I will not read a story like that.


On the other hand, I just re-read The Road of Danger by David Drake.

In it, a minor character on the side of the opposition is "elevated" from "competent fellow working for the other side" to "evil villain to be destroyed immediately" by his personal pastime of torturing and killing children.

There's a couple of chapters of build up around the competent fellow on the other side who is providing information to a group who wants to take over the local government (with other, larger, long term plans,) along with build up of a mysterious character who has been killing vagrant children and dumping the remains in the local harbor.

The good guys eventually find that the two are the same character. The villainous things he does are known to the folks using his talents - they protect him from the local police.

Two of the good guys (women, actually) invade the place where he does his spying and his killing. They capture all of his information and take over much of his electronics. They also kill him and all of his helpers.

There is a scene in which the villain has obviously been enjoying the process of killing another child, with the remains still lying there when the good guys arrive.

This is a villain. Straight up evil and disgusting, with nothing to make a reader like reading about him. The other characters find him disgusting. At a guess, the author found him disgusting.

As a reader, you cheer the death of this character.

Your villains can be vile and villainous - but don't try to make it so that your reader has to sympathize with truly horrid things they do.

  1. Villain who is trying to do what he thinks is right, but can't find any way forward that doesn't involve murder or torture - can be made to work.
  2. Villain who just does nasty shit to be nasty and enjoy it - don't try to make your readers like this character, or make it a POV character. I really don't want to read page after page of pornographic descriptions of killing, maiming, and torturing. Maybe somebody does. I don't, and I expect there are many who would agree.

It is, of course, always complicated.

Take those two characters up there who kill the child murderer.

If you look at it from outside, those two are villains:

  1. They stole a vehicle to gain access to the bad guy's lair.
  2. They drugged a vagrant child to use him as bait to get access to the bad guy's lair.
  3. They killed no less than a half a dozen people besides the bad guy in order to stop him and destroy his organization.
  4. They stole another vehicle to escape.

Those are vigilante actions, and all blatantly illegal.

On the other hand, the legal authorities were all taking bribes to ignore what was going on.

Who is right? Who is wrong?

That's the kind of thing that makes a good story good. It makes you think and consider.


Something else to consider is this:

A reader reading a well written story becomes the POV character.

The reader sees, feels, hears, smells, and thinks all the things the POV character sees, feels, hears, smells, and thinks.

I know that the character of the POV figures in good novels colors my thoughts and actions.

When I'm re-reading the Nicholas Seafort stories, I am more forceful and decisive.

When I re-read the Gateway stories, I am more passive and reflective.

A good author makes the reader into the POV character to some extent in real life.

Do you (as author) want to create pyschopathic monsters?

Do you (as a reader) want to become a psychopathic monster?

Keep that in mind as you are writing. Your words influence reality. What kind of reality do you want to create? Will your readers want in inhabit that reality as the characters you've created?

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    The takeaway, for me, was that there's a big difference between a horrendously evil villain, and "torture porn". We never watched Buffalo Bill (from Silence of the Lambs) skin anyone. Aug 5 at 21:42
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    What was the book you shredded? It has been asked about on the SFSE. Aug 6 at 5:26
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So is it true that it's a bad idea to make a villain or main character too unlikeable, and how do you determine that they're too unlikeable?

Yes, it is true.

They are too unlikeable when they break reader immersion.

Normally, people that read for entertainment sort of forget they are reading and enter a kind of dream state where the book is prompting their own imagination. They are absorbed in the story, and living it vicariously. This is called immersion.

Breaking immersion is when a reader is suddenly made aware that they are reading, their imagination is yanked out of the story; they are no longer walking a space station orbiting Mars, they are sitting in their recliner with a book in their hands.

There are many things that can break immersion; even just a typo, or the author using a word wrongly and the reader knows it. Twisted grammatical syntax that makes a crucial sentence difficult to understand.

For a small percentage of readers, any graphic sex scene yanks them out of immersion; they do not find these titillating and don't want to imagine them.

And that's the key, some graphic scenes are alienating.

That might not be so bad if you write scenes that alienate a small percentage of readers, it's likely that all bestsellers alienate some small percentage of people. Heck, there are people alienated by Harry Potter because it celebrates witchcraft.

But more people than that are alienated by too graphic violence, or too graphic sex, or rape, or torture.

There is no hard line, but one way to make villains very bad is to keep their more repulsive villainy in the "hearsay" zone. You don't describe it directly (and thus force the reader to imagine it as it happens), but have it described from one in-story character to another.

That is a different form of imagination, your reader imagines themselves receiving the news of this villainy.

So the villain may be horrible, but as an author I will not graphically describe the pain and torture experienced by the victims directly as if the reader is in the room while it is happening; I describe it indirectly as one character telling another what they witnessed.

The teller may be my POV character talking about something they witnessed in the past, or another character telling my POV character about their own experience.

When Darth Vader blows up Alderaan, we don't see screaming babies burning alive. That would break immersion. Instead we see these images:

Death Star approaches Alderaan--> Death Star approaches Alderaan

Death Star destroys Alderaan--> Death Star destroys Alderaan

And the horror is only portrayed by Obi Wan Kenobi's reaction to a "disturbance in the Force" and described to Luke Skywalker; our POV character.

This bit of indirection allows the audience to remain immersed; if we get too graphic with the violence and horror the audience is jerked out of their immersion. They are sitting in a theater with a bucket of popcorn, not flying through space on The Millennium Falcon.

Exactly where the line is depends on the author. Different readers have different sensitivities, and to tell a good story you are bound to cross the line for some people, just like Harry Potter does. You are aiming for a probability.

You can try to get a feel for what is publishable by looking at some bestsellers and find the level of violence that is directly portrayed (and how) versus indirectly described by an in-story character instead of the narrator.

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    Great points here. Good idea is to not make the villain a POV character Aug 5 at 12:21
  • @manumuraleedharan Just not a POV character in combination with their graphic deeds. The villain can be the POV character when just planning stuff, ordering their henchmen, agreeing to horrific plans, etc. It is the direct "in the room" portrayal of the too graphic scenes that causes alienation and breaks immersion. The villain can be the POV character in not-so-graphic scenes.
    – Amadeus
    Aug 5 at 13:30
  • and yet in The Force Awakens, while we don't see people burning alive we see mere moments before it as the victims look at the sky light up...
    – Michael
    Aug 6 at 6:35
  • @Michael Suggestion is fine, and that is the point. The victims looking up suggest a horror coming, but that is not over the top. Only a very tiny percentage of people would have a visceral "this is too real" reaction to that scene that would break their immersion.
    – Amadeus
    Aug 6 at 9:32
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I suppose it's a bad idea, except when it isn't. :)

For new writers, learning to write characters that readers will respond to (as intended), takes time. For new writers, it is good to practice writing likable characters as well as unlikable characters. Many new writers naturally write unlikable characters, so many new writers can use a little practice writing likable ones.

It is even better to read characters and decide if you like them, or dislike them, and why?

When I read with a specific interest in analyzing likability, I am shocked at how much likable characters think about other characters. Likable characters do things for others. Sacrifice for them. They are considerate of them. When I read in this way, I realize the author knew the importance of creating a likable character. And I realize it is far more common than I assumed, in successful fiction.

Ex: When Aragorn is introduced, he is warning Frodo, at the Prancing Pony. He offers to help the hobbits. He offers to protect them. They're strangers! Then, a character of authority, Gandalf, shows trust in Strider. That makes him more likable yet. Tolkien bent over backward to make Strider likable, by making him magnanimous and trustworthy.

Your question is whether likability is important. My answer is that knowing and practicing the tricks of making a character likable is important. Through this practice we grow our skill set. most successful writers lean into the strength and power of likability in fiction.

If you want a simple yes/no, instead of a rephrasing of your question, then I'd have to say yes.

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You ask, “how do you determine that they're too unlikeable?”

Just in general? Here are some questions to ask:

  • How will my readers feel about this character?
  • Is that how I want my readers to feel about this character?
  • Does this character fit the tone of my story?
  • Is any of the content going to be a problem for my audience?
  • Would a more-sympathetic villain be more interesting?
  • Do the other characters react appropriately to what the villain has done?
  • Would another kind of villain help develop the themes of the story?
  • How many words or how much time would I need to flesh out this character more, and what else could I do with it instead?

One example that jumps to mind is a Fantasy novelist who decided she wanted to explore why women like one of her protagonists stay with a certain kind of boyfriend, and give her readers a warning about them. And that only works if the reader understands what she saw in him.

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I think it really depends on how it's handled. Saying "too much" is a bit vague. Some books I have skipped chunks of chapters containing a "too evil" character's name; avoiding repetitive dialogue. Other books I've just given up on because the evil one was too much like a bully trying to bully the reader.

Supremely vile characters are fine until they distract the reader from the plot or incense them enough that the "4th wall" is broken.

That said, the reader is someone you almost have no choice but to generalize! Having a team of different personalities to help decide what's too much and how it's too much would be amazing right?

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Unlikeable characters can work.

If you give them their just desserts/karma

Let's say every single one of your characters is an irredeemable jerk. They kick puppies and trample everyone beneath them. Why would anyone ever read that?

Probably because these characters end up getting what's coming to them in the end. They get their karmic justice.

The guy who kicks puppies gets kicked to death by puppies. The woman who stole from the poor gets all her money stolen in turn. The arrogant protagonist stabs his friends in the back, only for his newest friend to stab him in the back.

If the audience can't root for the character, make them root for their downfall.

Or you could do the opposite. If you can't root for the character, make their motive something the audience to root for.

For example, the protagonist is an irredeemable scumbag, but he would make a much better leader than the guy who's in charge. The lesser of two evils. You hate him as a person, but you have to admit he's more pleasant than Dark Lord Doomsayer. You root for his cause and not the person himself.

You're right. Some characters you love to hate. But other characters you just hate. And love to watch them suffer. Think about it. If the character you hated the most got tossed into a pit of snakes, wouldn't you feel a bit relieved? Similarly, if you love a character with all your heart and soul, don't you want them to have everything?

If you're intentionally writing a hateable character, give them a suitable punishment for their crimes. The more poetic the punishment, the better.

The guy who wanted to be a god? He's trapped in the body of a tiny, insignificant ant for the rest of his days. The traitor who pushed the protagonist off a cliff? He gets pushed off a cliff too. A bottomless cliff where he falls forever.

So on and so forth. Killing awful characters brings its own form of catharsis.

Revenge. It's sweet on the tongue and poison to the body.

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  • This probably only works for a specific kind of story.
    – wizzwizz4
    Aug 6 at 13:25
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No, a villain can be as bad and unlikeable as you like. What ruins the story is giving the evil deeds too much air time. And although this is a big thing for evil deeds, it can just as well apply to good deeds and everyday task or background information.

You’re free to say the villain did anything, but the more you make the deeds the view point, the more the story is about the evil deeds.

If a story is something the reader doesn’t want to read, they simply won’t read it. If I’m reading a western with 20 chapters in it, and the first 19 of them are about the Cookie making some beans, I’m not going to read it and it’s really a weird cook book, not a western. Which might be fine, if I was looking or a western cook book.

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