How to Write an Unlikable Hero

A dark, brooding hero isn’t particularly nice to anyone, and he is particularly mean to a few nice people. A tragic event in his past has shaped his sour outlook on life. He might live on 221B Baker Street, or he may call up CIA agents just to tell them they look tired. He’s conflicted, fearless, and terrified.

Also, he’s very popular in modern YA fiction.How_to_Write_an_Unlikable_Hero

But, unfortunately, failure awaits those who attempt to write him. A dark, brooding, unlikeable character is … unlikeable. The chances are slim that he will hold readers’ attention through a book.

Many authors try to skirt the problem by throwing in backstory that explains how the hero became such a jerk. They think readers will pity and ignore the hero’s rough edges if they understand that he lost his parents at a young age.

Wrong.

Undeserved misfortune will buy you (and your characters) a fraction of patience from readers, but not much. Any sympathy readers feel for your hero will wear off long before your story ends, especially if your hero keeps flaunting his rude, uncaring demeanor in their faces. And when their pity dissipates, you won’t have a likable character to prevent them from abandoning the book.

You need readers to like your hero for who he is, not who he was. He must be an actively positive character to engage readers for the whole novel. He should possess at least one trait or behavior readers will admire.

The bottom line: if you have to include backstory to compel readers to like your character, then they won’t like him at all.

You need readers to like your hero even if they never learn about his tragic past. Tall order? Yes.

Of course, getting readers to instantly like a brooding hero is tough, and there isn’t a single formula. Every situation will be different because every character is different, but certain attributes will endear any character to readers.

Goal Oriented

Everyone wants something, and so does your character. Give him a clearly defined goal. This will subtly cause readers to root for his success, at least short term. If you meet a kid on the street who wants a nickel (not necessarily from you), you will naturally hope he obtains one. The same concept applies to your hero. If readers see him chasing an objective, they’ll hope he attains it, and a common goal can turn even enemies into friends.

In Rogue One, Cassian Andor plays this role to perfection. His win-or-survive-at-all-costs mentality drives him to make choices that occasionally causes the audience to (rightfully) cringe. But we follow him and Jyn through the entire movie, whether we like him or not. Why? Because he’s active. He constantly pursues his goals, which causes viewers to care about him and his ambitions.

Active

Make your hero strive to accomplish his goal on every page. Sure, he needs to react to the world around him, but he also needs to be persistent in his quest. He needs to charge forward, despite the hardships the story world hurls at him. If you provide your hero with a goal and a plan for achieving it, readers will applaud his initiative.

Competent

Readers want to read about heroes they aspire to emulate. No one aspires to be incompetent. Don’t allow your hero to know everything though, or you’ll destroy the plot’s mystery. On the other hand, he should be smarter than a two-year-old. Few two-year-olds are novel heroes.

Your character needs to be capable of acting on his plan to accomplish his goal. The obstacles he encounters will force him to learn and adapt, but just giving him aptitude will make readers like him more.

Think about Bilbo Baggins. (He’s not the darkest, most brooding dude out there, but he does run the risk of being an incompetent character.) He’s way out of his comfort zone with a sword on his belt and a magic ring in his pocket. It would have been easy to portray him as a fool meandering through various misadventures and getting lucky every time. But that’s not who he is. He’s not a warrior or a dragon slayer, but he is clever (his magic ring helps bridge the gaps) and therefore likable.

Virtuous

Even if your hero isn’t a great guy (or he’s your villain), every developed character should have one admirable quality. It could even be a vice born of a desirable virtue.

The Avengers’ Nick Fury, from his helicarrier super weapons to alien resurrections, resembles a villain more than a hero. But do we like Nick? Do we want him to stick around, or get thrown out? Most viewers love Nick Fury, because even his bad decisions and often unfriendly attributes are a result of his efforts to protect innocent people. So we overlook his faults.

Human

Give your hero an interest that’s outside of his story goal. This will round him out as a person and prevent him from being a device of the plot. Does he enjoy riding? Flying? Gambling? Even if it’s not a wholesome pursuit (especially if you’re developing an anti-hero or villain), a hobby or desire that’s unrelated to his goal will make readers see him as a person with his own personality.

Voice

The deeper you immerse readers in your hero’s mind and voice, the more they will identify with him. Show all of his thoughts, emotional reactions, and mental processes. Trick readers into believing they are him, and they’ll start to like him (even if he is a jerk).

In Mary Shelly’s classic novel, Frankenstein, the doctor makes a decision so horrible that he runs every risk of being a despicable character. Then he spends most of the novel fleeing from his problems or trying to evade them by killing the monster/creature/thing that’s chasing him. He isn’t the kind of hero most (any) readers adore. However, Mary Shelly does a remarkable job of using her deeply developed character and his voice to drag readers into the story as Frankenstein.

The Reveal

One of the prominent (possibly cliché) moments in a brooding hero’s story arc is his reveal, when readers learn about his past and the reason for his murky personality. As discussed earlier, this can be spoiled by exposing it prematurely.

The key to pulling off a backstory reveal for a haunted hero is to remember that readers must like him without his backstory. The reveal needs to deepen their connection with him, not create it. With that in mind, you have time to mess around. You don’t need to reveal all of his past in one lump, because readers will continue liking the character regardless. Instead, you can spread out the details, like you would any other info dump. Instead of letting your hero sit down and tell all, slip the facts in little by little through his own revelation and the discoveries of your other characters.

Finishing the Arc

Now that you know how to introduce a brooding hero and reveal his tragic backstory, when should he repent? When should he transform from brooding to free?

Maybe never.

Too often I see a brooding hero go completely soft in a relatively short period of time. Dark heroes have problems. Real problems. And even though they can begin the healing process over the course of your story, they probably won’t complete it before the ending.

Although the heroes in Christian stories should grow, learn, and change, no one is perfect, even after they’ve endured the purifying fire of their own novel. Moses overcame his fear and stood up to Pharaoh, but his faith wasn’t without weakness, and he still lost his way. David mustered the bravery to fight Goliath, but his later years were tarnished by his mistakes. Let your hero lose the bonds of his past, but not all of his flaws. You don’t want to ruin your happy ending, but you don’t want to turn a realistic character into an unrecognizable image of perfection either.

You need readers to relate to your brooding hero. In order for that to happen, he must be human. Don’t expect inhuman change from a human character.

And don’t ever break your brooding hero’s character to share backstory with your readers. Remember, you do have one advantage: a brooding hero is popular. Readers want to like him from the start of your book, so create someone they can love.

Profile photo of Brandon Miller
Raised on C.S. Lewis and matured (to whatever extent) on Tolkien, Brandon Miller is a huge fan of Christian speculative fiction. His favorite stories artfully bend the physical reality to reveal spiritual realities which apply to all realms, kingdoms, districts and solar systems (including our own.)
When not writing fiction Brandon spends his time tending his blog The Woodland Quill, sportsing, or just struggling through that last-year-of-high-school/first-year-of-college which is really neither but is definitely both.
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Comments

  1. Great article, Brandon. Your point on how voice can trick a reader into thinking they are the protagonist was my favorite part. I’d never consciously realized that before, but yes, it’s so true.

  2. Mmm, I really like this. Thanks Brandon. I have at least one hero like this in future works and I’m going to be using this article, definitely.

  3. ‘Let your hero lose the bonds of his past, but not all of his flaws.’ Love this line!

  4. Zikers, this is sooooo helpful, Brandon! Oh, my. So much to think about, and I didn’t realize that I have a brooding hero (well, heroine) till the minute I finished reading. How could I have possibly failed to notice that?!
    Favorite line: “Don’t expect inhuman change from a human character.”
    Argh! Excuse me while I go geek out over writing, characters and life in general. (I’ve just had one of those writing ‘Aha!’ moments, okay? Give me a break 😜).
    Great article!

  5. I’m definitely filing that bit about needing readers to like your unlikable hero even without knowing his tragic past for future reference. And Cassian was a perfect example for your Goal-Oriented point.

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