How to Write a Strong Unsympathetic Character


This is a bit tongue-in-cheek.  But also I think true.

I mentioned yesterday that I was surprised by the strong negative reaction one of my betas had to a character in one of my short stories.  I toned down the non-story elements that seemed to have upset that beta, because they were irrelevant to the story, but I knew I still had a character who engendered very strong reactions.

Today I received a personal rejection on that story (Yay!  Not for the rejection, obviously, but for the personal portion of it) that said that “the main character was well developed as an unsympathetic character” and that the reader actually “completed hated” her by the end.

So, how did I develop a character that readers hate so strongly? (Which to me is a good thing.  I’d rather people react strongly to a story than forget it the minute they set it down.)

By not hating the character myself.  I don’t think that given the same circumstances I could’ve taken things as far as I had my character take things. (I was channeling a little Stephen King when I wrote it because he always goes about three steps further than I would ever dream of doing.  Of course, if it was Stephen King he would’ve taken it four steps past where I did.  I considered that, but then it would’ve stepped into the realm of horror and I don’t want to go there.)

I was sympathetic to my character’s need to take things as far as she did when writing the story.  Which it seems makes for a strong, but not necessarily likable character.

I’ve seen the advice before that each character is the hero of their own story and that most characters believe that what they are doing is right even if it’s misguided or psychotic to the rest of the world.  And seeing the reactions to this story has brought that home for me.

And maybe I have a bit of a knack for writing characters people don’t like.  In the novel I have a few chapters from the viewpoint of a very icky human being.  Even though that character is only in a handful of chapters, I think almost every beta mentioned liking the chapters with him in them.  Not liking him.  But liking the chance to see things from that perspective.

And I have to say that as much as I dislike that character, I also didn’t hate him.  So when I wrote from his perspective I didn’t see him as all bad.  I saw him as highly, highly flawed, but justified in his own mind.  And maybe that helps make him well-rounded?

I don’t know, honestly.

Because there’s the story you think you’re telling as a writer and then there’s the story your readers hear.  And they aren’t the same thing.  And right now it’s too early for me to really know how different those two are.

But it’s fascinating to experience.  (As long as someone doesn’t decide to commit me, arrest me, or throw garbage at me…)


About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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3 Responses to How to Write a Strong Unsympathetic Character

  1. VictoriaJoDean says:

    If you can write a character that engenders huge emotion, in this case, hate, in the reader then hat’s off to you! Characters are tough to flesh out at times and I must admit, I have a tendency to not want to offend, so I don’t draw them as deeply as they should be drawn. You’ve encouraged me to keep trying!

    • mhleewriter says:

      Ah, thanks! (Now to get people to love my characters…) 🙂

      Good luck with keeping at it. It is a challenge. This was one of my more “emotionally deep” stories, so I think that helped a lot. I have a tendency to gloss over the painful scenes and have to force myself to go back in on a second or third draft and actually write what happened as part of the story rather than as a character memory.

  2. VictoriaJoDean says:

    Sounds like good therapy!

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