We have already discovered that the #1 factor determining character likability is proactivity. When a character takes action of her own volition instead of simply reacting against an antagonist, we love that character because that character drives the story forward, creates conflict, is inherently motivated and interesting, and reflects what we wish to see in ourselves. Proactivity is king.
But in the quest to create the most likable possible character, it is only one step forward. Proactivity is only one of many factors that make readers love your characters. Today, we will take a deep dive into the rest of the attractive traits.
First, though, we must address the question: Why make likable characters? After all, many of the “great literature” classics we read in school have detestable protagonists. Often, what we find compelling about our own stories is our suspenseful plots, our fascinating worlds, our rich prose—why would it matter if our readers like our characters?
The answer is simple: Readers read for character first. If your protagonist is not likable, your book is not likable. A protagonist’s likability is like a magnetic force gluing your reader to the pages; it is the reason she returns to finish your story after taking a break; it is a strong factor in convincing her to recommend your book to her friends.
If you don’t like a novel’s characters, you don’t care what happens to them. When I hate a protagonist, I stop reading. When I love a protagonist, I read repeatedly, and recommend the book to my friends. If I do not like your main character, it does not matter if your plot is thrilling, your conworld is original, or your prose is powerful. I will stop reading.
(This is actually why I stopped watching the drama/comedy Girls. I don’t like hating every character.)
The first (somewhat counterintuitive) rule of character is this:
A character’s likability is nearly independent of morality. A moral paragon, e.g. Superman, can be detestable; a morally corrupt, cruel character, e.g. BBC’s Sherlock or Batman’s nemesis The Joker, can be the most beloved character of his franchise. This is because what we want out of stories is starkly different from what we want out of real life.
The question to consider when crafting a character is not “Would my readers want to be friends with her?” The real question is “How strongly does some piece of my readers’ brains want to be this character?”
So, without further ado, let’s make like drunk rabbits and fall down the rabbit hole:
A character who has a skill or talent others lack is extremely attractive. Competence, both in characters and real-life people, is a highly likable trait.
Consider six-year-old Ender Wiggin, from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. He has one extraordinary talent: he is the world’s greatest interstellar military tactician. Aside from these two characteristics, he is fairly reactive (instead of proactive), and he’s a mass murderer—but we still root for him and love him, partially because we sympathize with and pity him, but primarily because there’s a part of all of us that really fucking wants to be a six-year-old military genius.
Seriously. How awesome would that be?
Similarly, we love Sherlock Holmes (perhaps the most popular character of all time) primarily because he is a supernaturally clever detective. He can infer and deduce more information from the tiniest details of a crime case, a person’s clothing, or even the precise texture of tobacco than we mortals could figure out even with all the information given to us in a giant, leatherbound binder. But aside from his skill, he’s not likable—a cocaine addict who (in the first season of the BBC series, though not in the original Doyle stories) has no empathy or real caring for others, who plays with the lives of others for his amusement and solves crimes for the adrenaline high.
Both Sherlock and Ender illustrate two pivotal principles:
First, fiction allows us to tell the stories of impossible people. There are not, and there never will be, any real Ender Wiggin or Sherlock Holmes, because their talents are supernatural. No six-year-old, even one genetically bred for the purpose, is a greater military tactician than trained, experienced, talented adults—e.g., in Ender’s Game, Mazer Rackham, who won the previous war against the aliens and would, in the real world, have been the ideal choice to lead humanity against the Formics once more. However, because Ender is so fictionally skilled, so innately brimming with talent—in other words, because he has an intelligent writer laboring over his every word and action—he is able to take the idea of prodigious talent to a new, extreme level.
Sherlock Holmes, similarly, is only able to be so clever and make such accurate deductions because he has an author giving him exactly the right pieces of information and thinking for hours about Sherlock’s every split-second deduction. Authors can write characters cleverer than they by spending hours or days thinking of the perfect comeback, one-liner, deduction, or line of reasoning that their characters come up with instantaneously.
In both of these cases, the power of fiction is that it allows us to tell stories that could never really happen, and which are therefore solely the realm of fiction. Fiction, in this sense, represents a superior storytelling medium to non-fiction—biographies may actually have happened, but they are also, by their very nature, mundane.
More specifically, in both of these cases, authors are able to create characters with impossible talents. As writers (and especially as fantasy writers), we can take this in two ways: create characters who are, like Sherlock, supernaturally skilled at a common task, or create characters who are, like Ender, supernaturally skilled at a magical, fictional, or otherwise unreal task—e.g., interstellar space warfare in Ender’s Game, wizardry in Harry Potter, dragon-riding in Dragonriders of Pern.
Using expertise as a tool to increase reader likability can, for these reasons, be done in entirely new and original ways. Make up a new skill, or explore what it would mean to be supernaturally skilled at an everyday task. Furthermore, expertise increases your character’s ability to do things, and therefore to proactively advance the plot.
The second principle: Take any completely detestable character and give her a single, extremely likable trait, and we will like her more than we would like a character who only had likable traits.
This principle serves as a wonderful transition into our next topic:
The Everyman-Superman Spectrum
(We see what we are in the) Everyman —> —> —> Superman (is everything we want to see in ourselves)
Every character falls on this spectrum, between the empathetic, ordinary, realistic “Everyman” and the super-competent, awesome, but unrelatable “Superman.” The two archetypes are mutually exclusive, incompatible—to move toward the Superman side, a character has to gain extraordinary, and therefore unrelatable and unsympathetic, traits, while to move toward the Everyman side, a character sacrifices extraordinary traits for relatable traits.
Neither extreme is enjoyable. The complete Superman—for example, the superhero of the same name if he didn’t have a weakness to kryptonite—is unbearable, boring, and just plain irritating. The total Everyman—an average person, of average intelligence and personality, in average circumstances—is completely uninteresting.
However, while the ends of the spectrum make for terrible characters, a slight modification to either situation will produce extraordinarily popular and lovable characters: take one step toward the other side. Take a Superman and give him a massive, overwhelming flaw—like Sherlock Holmes’s inability to empathize with others, or his cocaine addiction—and suddenly you lend a strong element of relatability to a supernaturally perfect character. (This is the concept of “hamartia,” or a fatal flaw, that the ancient Greeks used in their tragedies—giving a hero a single, powerful negative trait can result in extremely engrossing stories.)
Similarly, taking the most ordinary possible character and giving her an unusual or impressive trait can create the perfect blend of relatability and wish-fulfillment. Take an ordinary girl and give her an acceptance letter to a school of magic; take a hum-drum hobbit and tell him he’s the only one who can defeat the Dark Lord; tell the story of a young boy separated from his family by boarding school, but make the boarding school a space station and the young boy humanity’s only hope in the war against an alien race.
Being 90% one extreme, but 10% the other end of the spectrum, can result in some of the most fascinating characters. This principle, which I will dub the 90/10 Law, is at play in the news and media all the time: all breaking news stories are either about celebrities doing something horrible (90% Superman, 10% Everyman) or normal people in extraordinary circumstances (90% Everyman, 10% Superman).
This technique for creating lovable characters is extremely useful, because it comes the closest to combining relatability and unrelatability. The ordinary and the extraordinary, the victim and the hero, the mortal and the immortal.
However, this is not a new or original approach. That is not a bad thing—often, old approaches work best—but it is something to be aware of. Kvothe from The Kingkiller Chronicle, Shallan, Kaladin, and Szeth from The Stormlight Archive, Harry Dresden from The Dresden Files, Harry Potter, and countless others all fit this paradigm.
What’s more, this is not the only good combination of Everyman and Superman qualities. Many of my favorite characters do not follow the 90/10 Law, and that is OK. This is just another tool to put in your toolbox, like everything else in this article.
Also, the 90/10 ratio is completely arbitrary. These characteristics are clearly not quantifiable—I just picked those numbers to make the concept more concrete. The heart of the idea is that there is a direct tradeoff between how well a reader can relate to a character and how much the reader wants to be that character, and often the best combination of the two is close, but not too close, to one of the extremes.
We Root For the Underdog
There is little joy in rooting for someone who is so competent that her victory is assured. When we watch a fencing match between a world champion and an amateur, we know that the former is almost definitely going to win…so we root for the amateur.
One reason for this is that the satisfaction that comes from an underdog defeating a master is so much greater than the predictable, boring satisfaction that comes from a master defeating an underdog. Not only is the underdog’s victory more unlikely, it also lets us believe more fully in the possibility of our own eventual success.
Everyone is an underdog in one realm or another. Even if we are fantastic, brilliant students, great athletes, or wealthy CEOs, we all still have struggles we would like to overcome—for example: social anxiety, obesity, lack of money—and seeing a character in a similar situation rise above the obstacles and achieve her goals gives strength to our own deep hope that we may someday master our weaknesses.
At first glance, this may seem to contradict our first method of increasing character likability: how can an underdog also be exceptionally skilled? Wouldn’t expertise make someone not an underdog?
Fortunately, these two characteristics are not incompatible. In fact, they go together perfectly—the expertise is what lets the underdog triumph against the expected winners. The key is to take away every other advantage. Make the character’s circumstances so horrible that even with her extreme skills, it seems implausible that she could emerge victorious.
Consider Ender’s Game: yes, Ender was the greatest military tactician of the human race, but he was also a small, exceedingly young, troubled child. He was in the most difficult possible position, facing off against older and more experienced students, constantly dealing with bullying, obstacles created by his meddling teachers, and the threat of impending alien invasion. He had the most problems to overcome, and so he was the underdog of the story despite being the most skilled tactician.
This is also part of the basis of the cliche of the Chosen One destined to save the world from the onset of evil. Usually, the Chosen One is a simple farmboy (Rand al’Thor) or an otherwise unremarkable peasant (Frodo)—the reason this is a cliche is that it is so compelling it has been done repeatedly, and the reason it is so compelling is that it is the ultimate underdog scenario: lowly peasant vs. a deific incarnation of evil itself. The satisfaction of victory is directly proportional to the effort required to achieve victory, and the more effort needed to win, the less likely success becomes. Underdogs require the most work to win, and therefore are often a strong basis for a conflict-filled, satisfying story.
In The Way of Kings, the protagonist, Kaladin, is a slave, forced to carry bridges across the Shattered Plains and charge unarmored at hundreds of archers trying their best to kill him. Life expectancy is now measured in days, not years. Kaladin has the hardest job of all the slaves: he has to charge at the front of the bridge, serving as arrow-fodder, and he also has to lead the rest of the slaves, inspire them and attempt to organize an escape. Kaladin is the ultimate underdog, despite also being an expert surgeon and spearman, and his storyline is the most inspiring and gripping in the book.
Relevance Is A Virtue
It is a common mistake of beginning writers to put their main characters on the sidelines, watching something happen. A man going about his ordinary life sees a car crash at the intersection ahead; a woman sees a boy about to be crushed by a falling rock, but is too far away to save his life; a chipmunk sees other animals stealing a squirrel’s nuts. These situations are what we instinctively reach for when we begin to write, because they seem fraught with tension as the character tries to decide how to react.
But they are not strong openings. Consider these alternatives, all of which make the main character’s actions relevant to the outcome of the story: A man brimming with pent-up rage slams his car into a stationary van, then realizes there was a family inside; a woman notices a rock about to fall on her daughter’s head, and tackles her daughter to save her—and the rock falls on the woman’s head instead; a chipmunk, wishing to foment suspicion and instigate rebellion among the squirrels, steals the Queen Squirrel’s nuts and buries them in a nearby landfill. These beginnings are all much more interesting, albeit somewhat tragic (for the Queen Squirrel, especially), because their protagonists’ actions actually matter to the plot.
This is related to, but distinct from, the idea of proactivity being a character’s most likable trait. Relevance to the story means that a character’s actions affect the rest of the story, while proactivity means the character takes action of her own volition. It is possible to have a highly proactive, yet completely irrelevant, character: for instance, an avid pianist who holds underground concerts in the sewers (for the acoustics)…in the middle of an alien invasion. Unless Douglas Adams is the author, the sewer music is not going to repel the aliens, or affect the invasion in any appreciable way.
(To be fair, that story could be made good—you just have to make the main character’s motivation not to win the war, but to give people a final ray of musical sunshine before their inevitable demise. But that’s a different story than I had in mind.)
Similarly, you could have a highly reactive yet relevant character. A depressed prince who sits in bed all day, unable to get up or make any decisions, yet who ends up becoming King when both his parents trip on some nuts in a landfill and are fatally wounded. He now matters a great deal to the kingdom, and is therefore now of more interest to the reader, despite being otherwise unlikable.
The way to make a character relevant to the plot and important to the story is to place the character at an intersection of conflict. Put the character in-between two warring factions, at a crossroads of opposed ideas, or otherwise on the edge of conflicting things.
For example, if you are outlining your story, and you decide upon the following sources of conflict:
(1) an extremist cult has splintered off a city’s main religion and begun sacrificing criminals to their god in an effort to ward off an invading army—and it inexplicably seems to work, because every criminal sacrificed seems to cause a segment of the invading army to be struck with the plague, and
(2) two fencing tournaments, one in the city and one in the invading army, are being held, and the champions of each tournament will face off against each other to decide the fate of the city,
then the intersection of conflict is the connecting point between multiple conflicts, where the protagonist’s actions have the most effect on the plot, and where the protagonist is in the worst possible position in the story. Here, we could make him a master fencer and atheist who is imprisoned by the city for investigating the mystery of the plague striking the invading army whenever the cult sacrifices a criminal. The members of the cult desperately want to sacrifice him, but he is clearly the best shot of winning the fencing tournament and defeating the invading army, so the citizens intervene.
Here, the protagonist’s actions determine the fate of the city and the invading army, affect the social status of the cult, decide his own fate (if he defeats the invading army, he will still be executed), and foment discord and civil unrest in the city.
There are other places we could have put the protagonist that would also have served as intersections of conflict—given a set of conflicts, there are innumerable potential ways to combine them. Finding more intersections is merely a product of imagination and thoughtful deliberation. The point of the above example is merely to demonstrate what an intersection of conflict means, and why it is useful for making your characters relevant to the story, instead of gawking on the sidelines.
It can also be useful, in a book with multiple main characters, to deliberately make each main character’s actions relevant to the other characters. For instance, the only fair criticism that could be leveled at The Way of Kings is that one of the characters, Shallan, does not have any interaction with or relevance to the other main characters until the sequel.
Don’t get me wrong—The Way of Kings is one of the greatest epic fantasy novels ever written, and I actually love Shallan’s story arc the most out of the four main characters. But the sequel, Words of Radiance, was stronger than The Way of Kings because every character mattered to every other character. They had interrelationships, and each main character’s actions had major consequences for the other characters.
(I also understand why Sanderson allowed a completely separate main character in Kings—it’s the beginning of a ten-book series, and Shallan’s actions, location, and experiences matter to an extreme degree when you consider the entire series as a whole. But if he had managed to keep Shallan’s storyline intact, but also make it more relevant to the rest of his characters, the story would have been stronger.)
This is also a problem with Orson Scott Card’s Pathfinder trilogy. (Major, but vague, spoilers in the rest of this paragraph. Skip to the next if you want to read the books.) At the end of the last book, it turns out that all the characters’ actions up to that point were entirely irrelevant. Card built up this big mystery throughout the trilogy, and then, evidently unable to come up with a satisfying resolution, simply revealed that the main characters had misunderstood the problem all along. Nothing they did actually mattered. (This was very disappointing—until the last book came out, I considered the second book, Ruins, to be a milestone in fantasy literature. The sequel retroactively ruined Ruins.)
Real life is messy. In real life, people act irrationally, do things you would never expect them to and will never understand. A human can seem to be very clearly friendly and pleasant one day, and then the next—for no apparent reason—a total jerk. It’s simply a fact of life that people are inconsistent, complicated, and confusing.
Fiction, however, is not real life. If a character does something completely out of the ordinary, we as readers need to understand why she did it. If a character seems to say or do things she would not normally have done, and we receive no explanation, implicit or explicit, for the change, we will say that the author made a mistake.
When Brandon Sanderson finished Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, many readers—and Sanderson himself—thought that he got the character Mat Cauthon wrong in his first book, The Gathering Storm. Mat simply said and did things that were slightly off. We had known Mat for nearly twenty years; we had seen him from inside his own head, and from the perspective of other characters; we knew him better than we knew ourselves. And the character Sanderson called “Mat” was different from the Mat we knew.
It wasn’t any major change that bothered readers—it was the small things. The ways he spoke, how he reacted to events, the jokes he made. They were simply wrong. (Sanderson did get him right in the next two books, and admitted that he had had trouble getting Mat right.)
This is the origin of the saying “Truth is stranger than fiction.” True events have an element of randomness, but part of the point of writing fiction is to allow readers to understand how things happen and how people change, so randomness should never be part of the equation. Randomness inhibits understanding.
Inconsistency is also a way to lose reader trust. Readers won’t want to read your next sequel if your characters act differently from book to book for no apparent reason.
Now that I have made this point, I am going to make the exact opposite point:
Characters Must Change
(I know, right? What the hell am I doing? But don’t worry, this won’t actually contradict my previous point.)
Characters must change. Characters must grow, evolve, and become different characters over the course of your story. But we have to understand why they change.
Inconsistency would be senseless, random change—what we want instead is comprehensible, meaningful change. As your characters struggle against conflicts, both internal and external, they will take actions and make decisions that will affect how they see themselves, and how other characters see them. Their identities must change—if they don’t, your story did not have enough conflict, or your characters were irrelevant to the conflict.
This brings us back to Newton’s First Law of Character Change:
Work Done = Force Times Distance,
Character Growth = Conflict Over Time
When we, as readers, watch a character go through difficult things, lose what he loves, make sacrifices, and experience turmoil, we expect that these things will force him to change. He will have to reevaluate and strengthen his values, and deal with the internal emotions—doubt, sadness, anger, gratitude, hope, despair, love, etc.—that come with making hard decisions and living with the consequences.
I have already spoken about the importance of character change in my article on proactivity, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Here are two points to keep in mind, however:
(1) Character change makes a story more suspenseful and, regardless of whether it’s good or bad change, it makes the character more likable.
(2) Not all character change should be good change. Antiheroes and tragedies will be discussed in a later post, but the simple fact is that sometimes we want to watch a good person slowly descend into evil. Even if you want your character to end up a better person than she was at the beginning of the story, it’s important to take one step backward for every two steps forward—character growth should be an inconstant, sputtering process, both because it’s more realistic and believable and because we grow bored if a story is predictable.
In life, when we see two people in a restaurant, one of whom is sitting by herself and the other of whom is laughing with three friends, we immediately like the second one more. It’s a bit irrational, and we don’t have enough information to come to any reasonable conclusions about the two people, but it’s still a fact of human nature that we like people who have friends.
This is another tool to make characters likable. Consider Sherlock Holmes again—one factor making us, the reader or viewer, like him is that he has one extremely close friend: Watson. If Holmes were a loner, we would subconsciously feel more contempt for him.
This phenomenon makes sense: if we see that somebody has friends, we assume there is some reason those people are friends with him. We now have evidence that that person has attractive qualities; when we see someone sitting alone, we have less reason to believe that person is likable (though she very well may be so).
If Harry Potter had gone to Hogwarts and made no friends (for instance, if Ron and Hermione had been friends with Draco Malfoy instead) we would have liked him less, because our evidence would suggest he is not likable. Furthermore, we would pity him—and we look down on those whom we pity.
Similarly, in The Name of the Wind, we like Kvothe more than we already did because Simmon, Wilem, and Auri like him.
This is also a way to make otherwise unlikable characters—e.g., villains and antagonists—more likable. You don’t always necessarily want to make them more likable, but when you do, showing that they have even a single solid friend will go a long way toward making us like them—especially if we like the friend.
On the other hand, if we hate one character, then showing the main character being friends with that character will make us like the main character less.
It’s like Google TrustRank—the algorithm that decides whether a site comes up on search engines relies primarily on other, well-liked and trusted sites linking to that site. If a porn site, on the other hand, were to link to my site, my site would lose a lot of trust with Google. (Fortunately, I don’t think porn sites are interested in my particular type of fantasy…)
We discussed earlier how we don’t want our characters to be inconsistent, like people are in real life, because in fiction that isn’t believable. However, even though we don’t want our characters to be too realistic and random, we do want our characters to feel unique—readers don’t like feeling that they’ve already met our characters a hundred times in a hundred different books.
Quirks are a route to individuality in characterization. If our main character is very particular about cutting the crusts off her sandwiches, only wearing blue jewelry, or never eating seafood, that quirk makes us like her more. It makes us feel that she is unique, and therefore more precious to us as readers than another cliche Frodo wannabe.
You can use quirks very effectively to hint at subtle pieces of your character’s personality—like Breaking Bad’s Walter White, who actually acquires quirks from the people he kills, as a subconscious expression of guilt. But even if they don’t reveal anything about your character’s psyche, quirks still make your character seem more real and less generic, and therefore more likable.
Yes, yes, I said that this was not important in fiction. We don’t dislike characters for their crimes and moral transgressions anywhere near as much as we dislike real-life people for the same. But, morality can still play a role.
Some readers (like my mother) are very unforgiving of characters who are mean or do wrong things. Other readers, though, like it when a character is sarcastic, rude, or even a ruthless criminal. Ultimately, we shouldn’t change our characters to please a small portion, or even a medium-sized or large portion, of our audience, but it is still something to be aware of.
A character’s morality especially comes into play when it’s to an extreme, or when the character does something bad to someone we really like. We don’t mind if Hermione punches Malfoy, but we would definitely mind if she killed Dumbledore.
The key is that we will still like a character who does something terrible—murders someone, for example—if we understand why she did it. Murder doesn’t make us dislike a character if it was in self-defense, if the murdered person deserved it, or really just if we empathize with the character’s motivation at all.
I don’t know what this says about human nature. It’s definitely not the case that we like murderers in real life, but it takes a very unreasonable motivation—boredom, cruelty, or petty spite—for it to make us hate a character in fiction.
These are the most useful tools to keep in your proverbial toolbox when creating characters you want your readers to like. There are other factors that come into play—this is by no means a complete list—but I can’t think of them, and the things I’ve listed here are the most powerful aspects of a likable character.
Of course, understanding what makes a character likable also lets us understand what makes a character unlikable. Let’s say we want to make a villain that our readers love to hate. How do we do it?
*I am about to use “villain” and “antagonist” interchangeably, even though they are not synonyms. Beware.
In theory, it’s easy. Give the character unlikable traits (jealousy, greed, immorality, pettiness), make him an obstacle to your main character, and avoid giving him any of the likable traits:
(3) Awesomeness and Relatability (Hint: An Unrelatable Everyman is the least likable place on the spectrum)
(4) Problems (Underdog)
The problem is that, while avoiding (7), (8), and (10) is easy, avoiding (1), (2), (3), and (4) is very difficult, and avoiding (5), (6), and (9) actually seems irrational. We are we supposed to make our villain/antagonist irrelevant, inconsistent, and cliche? What?
This is the point where we have to avoid going overboard. Yes, avoiding relevance, consistency, and quirks would make the character more dislikable, but it would also make our readers hate the story itself, and probably stop reading. The key is to strike a balance between simply trying to piss off your reader as much as possible and making your antagonist too likable. So, no, we do still want (5), (6), and (9). Don’t remove those from any character.
(I should also clarify: sometimes, we want our antagonist to be likable. Darth Vader is awesome. But, sometimes we don’t. It’s really your choice—we don’t usually want our villain/enemy to overshadow our protagonist, but some series are built off this premise, so it can work. Use your own judgment.)
Now, avoiding proactivity, expertise, relatability, and problems is actually beneficial and will make your reader hate a character without hating the story as a whole…but it’s difficult. Nearly no villains are reactive—they’re all proactive. Typically, their self-directed actions drive the plot (e.g., Die Hard, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and most other stories). It just seems counterintuitive to make our villains react against our protagonists, instead of the other way around—but it can be done, and it’s ridiculously satisfying when done well.
The answer is to simply reverse the “Villain Problem” by making it the case that the antagonist would have nothing to do without the protagonist, rather than that the protagonist would have nothing to do without the antagonist (which is usually the case—Luke Skywalker would just have been a farmer if Darth Vader weren’t blowing up planets). Make your antagonist react against the protagonist’s proactive actions.
This is one of the several common issues with Superman movies: Superman would have nothing to do if the villain weren’t hatching an evil plot. How much more interesting would it be if Superman proactively sought out trouble, instead of simply reacting to Lex Luthor’s crimes?
Also, how are we supposed to have an antagonist with no expertise? Surely an incompetent villain can’t wreak havoc on our protagonist. The trick here is to make the antagonist’s power come not from his own competence, but from the competence of others—for instance, a strategically unskilled general who nevertheless has a large army, or a noble who inherited a fortune and can use it to manipulate people and create obstacles for the protagonist. Not all ability has to come from expertise—borrowed skill or power is often much greater (ten men can always fight better than one skilled ninja) anyway, and it doesn’t make us respect the one who directs it.
Avoiding relatability simply means making the antagonist’s motivation something we cannot empathize with. We feel for the villain that wants revenge against the protagonist because the protagonist killed her sister; we do not feel for the villain that has such low self-esteem that she bullies or fights the protagonist to make herself feel better. When the villain does something contemptible, we will understand and forgive her if we empathize with her motive—on the other hand, if we know what her motive is, and think it’s bullshit, we will hate her.
If we want our readers to truly hate our antagonist, we need them to root against him. Actively and fervently. That means that (a) he has to harm or otherwise make life difficult for our protagonist, and (b) we should empathize with his motivations as little as possible. (This is why many of the greatest villains don’t actually have any express purpose for their actions—they just want to watch the world burn. The Joker, or Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Moriarty, simply find chaos and pain delicious.)
Non-character antagonists are much easier to make non-empathetic and unrelatable. If your protagonist is fighting against nature, a plague, or poverty, we aren’t going to have readers empathizing with the antagonist. But, then again, it’s also more difficult to make readers root against something inhuman to the same degree that they would detest a human villain.
Finally, making an antagonist an underdog will make it much harder for us to hate her, for the same reason that we like protagonists that are underdogs: it’s relatable, inspiring, and satisfying. So, if our goal is to make our readers hate our antagonist as much as possible, we should avoid giving her obstacles to overcome. (Ultimately, if our protagonist is going to win, the villain will have to experience failure near the end of the story—but that’s just reaping the rewards of the first 90% of a story, so it’s not an issue.)
In the end, making characters your readers love to hate is as simple as making a character that you yourself love to hate. The fact that every writer is also a reader is one of the great untapped truths of our profession: write what you want to read. (This is also why I want to be a writer: there are books I desperately want to read, but which have not been written yet. So I am going to write them.)
The greatest example of an antagonist I truly love to hate is William, from Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. He is a violent rapist, a cruel noble with extremely low self-esteem who reacts against the protagonist’s actions, and I read Follett’s novel as much to see William lose as to see Jack win.
But here’s the really innovative trick Follett used (and the same trick he thereafter used in every single book he has written): he outsourced William’s intelligence and expertise to another character. William has a crafty, brilliant mother, who gives him advice that lets him cause so much more damage than he could have on his own. We respect the mother, because she is smart and competent, but none of that respect is transferred to William: William gets the power of a criminal mastermind, without the likability that comes with expertise.
This trick works for a protagonist, also. In Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance, Kaladin is involved in an assassination plot that would normally be reserved for a villain—but we dislike him less for it because he was introduced to it by his friend, who started the plot and does all the work to execute it.
This is the last takeaway from this article: Outsource likable characteristics to adjacent characters to make your antagonist less likable, and outsource dislikable characteristics to adjacent characters to make your protagonist more likable.