fiction

Endings and Unlikeable Characters

Recently, I was working on a novel that ended up taking a year and a half from writing to completion (okay, it’s not completely completed yet, but the writing/editing part is over). What started out as an idea became a story which then expanded into a novel, and throughout, the writing part was easy. It always is, right? It’s the rest that isn’t.

I call it done now because, after six edits, I officially cannot look at it for one more minute. What was my biggest problem with this novel? The ending and making my character “likeable.” Personally, I see no rule that says my protagonist has to be likeable. There are plenty of unlikeable people in the world – nobody’s perfect – and why should my characters be like that? My editor said that people don’t want to read a book with an unlikeable protagonist, but I kind of disagree. Just because someone is unlikeable doesn’t make them uninteresting. As long as there are likeable supporting characters, your main character can be as much of a jerk as you want them to be.

I suppose it was lucky my protagonist was male. If he’d been a woman, the world would have been in an uproar if she’d been unlikeable. Why is that? Because there are standards placed on women that aren’t placed on men. If you want to make your female MC a bitch, then I say do it. She’s probably got a reason, after all, if only due to her anger at society’s expectations of her.

The other problem with my novel was the ending. It tied into the unlikeable character bit since you have to find something to root for there, a way to turn things around, to find redemption. I rewrote my ending five times (I mean completely just rewrote a whole new section five times) until it was finally good. Here was my problem: I liked my character. I liked that he was stubborn and annoying at times, naïve, not the sharpest tool in the shed. I liked all those qualities about him because that’s how real people are. They don’t all have empathy for others. They don’t always think of others’ needs. They’re selfish and don’t always have redeeming qualities unless you’re willing to accept how they are. My editor thought that despite the fact that people are like that, no one would root for him. No one would want to see him succeed.

The solution was to, instead of changing the character much (although I did have to some), speed up his maturing process as well as add in other POVs to counteract his own. I’m not a fan of multiple POVs, but I’ll take it over first person at least. It was to help the reader see the character through someone else’s eyes and to not just be stuck in his head with his pessimistic thoughts constantly.

Finding the right ending sometimes takes a lot of time (three months in my case), and figuring out your characters takes even longer. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have unlikeable characters because there are plenty of unlikeable people out there, but the most important thing is that readers can emphasize with your characters. They don’t have to like them, but they do have to understand them.

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One thought on “Endings and Unlikeable Characters

  1. I also have to disagree with your editor on the whole “people don’t want to read books with unlikeable protagonists”. I know of a number of incredibly successful books that have unlikeable protagonists. Hell, Gillian Flynn’s books probably only have a handful of characters between them that are likeable. If the story is compelling, people aren’t going to care as much if the protagonist succeeds or not, they just want to know what’s going to happen.

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