4 Ways to Help Readers Connect with Unlikable Characters

June 1, 2020

The cinnamon roll. A smol bean. We invent all kinds of affectionate nicknames for the cuddly teddy-bear characters we adore. But what about characters who have a few prickles? Or are downright cold?


As writers, we strive to create characters readers will root for. Otherwise our books won’t stay open for long. But not every story requires a happy-go-lucky Olaf. Sometimes a story needs an emotionally detached Elsa. But how do we endear aloof characters to readers? If we tinker with four areas, we can warm these characters up just enough that readers won’t get frostbitten.


1. Use Dialogue to Hint at a Character’s Mindset

A reserved character rarely voices her thoughts and feelings. This is particularly problematic if she’s the protagonist, because readers need to be intimately familiar with her perspective, or a prominent side character, because readers may never have a chance to jump inside her head. How do you communicate her reactions to scenes without deviating from her personality? Although dialogue doesn’t usually spell out feelings, a character’s verbal tics can betray what’s going on with her internally.


During the first part of Sky in the Deep, Eelyn resents Fiske for capturing her and turning her brother into a traitor, so she only speaks to him when absolutely necessary. But then she asks him what his name means. It’s a simple question. Not romantic or emotional. It’s normal. It signals that she’s softening, albeit slowly. That reeled me in like a fish, and I started shipping their relationship immediately.


A character doesn’t have to be melodramatic or extroverted for emotions to tinge her conversations. If you weave messages between the lines, you can help readers form bonds with even the most stone-hearted character. What cues can she give when she opens her mouth—and especially when she doesn’t? Does she trail off in the middle of a sentence? Change the subject when certain topics come up? Even a one-word comment can be packed with meaning that readers will sense if they understand the character.


Nervousness, for instance, can be very revealing. Rhen from To Best the Boys struggles to express emotions. In the presence of her crush, she gets flustered and rambles about scientific jargon and the decomposition of dead bodies. We’ve all had moments where we awkwardly blurted information that we wouldn’t have in other contexts, so we relate to her.


Dialogue can be a conduit to a character’s heart and mind whether she’s reticent or outspoken, so don’t discard it as an option to develop her more deeply. Instead, look for ways to incorporate subtext into her silence and outbursts.


2. Use Body Language to Expose Emotions

Sometimes dialogue is ineffective at conveying a character’s mood. That’s okay. Her body language can do the job equally well—or better. Even the thickest-skinned character can’t wear a poker face indefinitely. She’ll have mannerisms that manifest when she faces certain situations.


In Divergent, Four is tight-lipped, so a flexed muscle, clenched jaw, or shifting feet indicate that he’s angry or tense. The way he meets Tris’s gaze and hovers near her is evidence that he’s attracted to her. I actually connected with him more during the first book than the next two when he becomes more vocal.


Kaz Brecker from Six of Crows is another withdrawn character with loud body language—most notably his reluctance to remove his gloves. Gradually, readers learn about his brother’s horrific death and how Kaz managed to survive but couldn’t stand skin contact afterward. When he eventually takes off his gloves, readers recognize the magnitude of that action.


Give your characters body language that’s unique to them. Readers will notice the pattern and associate emotions with those quirks. They don’t need to immediately know what is happening as long as they’re conscious that something is brewing beneath the surface. Body language is the vaguest method to humanize a sullen character, but mystery also keeps readers turning pages.


3. Use the People and Objects a Character Values to Build Empathy

“I volunteer as tribute!” is the most memorable line in The Hunger Games. Everyone remembers the moment Katniss intervenes to save Prim from the reaping. That sacrifice is crucial to capture readers’ hearts. As Haymitch points out, Katniss is blunt and pulls no punches. Most of her relationships are a mess, and no one can tell whether she cares for people or is just surviving. Except where Prim is concerned. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, Katniss loves Prim.


That special relationship bleeds into Katniss’s other exploits—joining forces with Rue and falling for Peeta. Whatever our opinions are of Katniss and her choices in the arena, we applaud her protectiveness toward her sister. Family is precious to her, and that radiates warmth from her otherwise icy demeanor.


When a character cherishes a person, object, or even a goal, you can heighten conflict—and reader attachment—by forcing her to wrestle with her sensitivities. Her motivation doesn’t have to be positive either, as with Jessamine Lovelace in The Infernal Devices. She rejects her Shadowhunter heritage, refusing to train or participate in any of the traditional activities. Why? Because her parents were killed being Shadowhunters. Stifling who she is has consequences, but her pain and longing to be a normal girl makes readers sympathetic toward her instead of disgusted.


4. Use the Supporting Cast to Remind Readers Why a Character Is Important

Side characters can serve as a source of heat to melt cold protagonists. You’ll want to tread carefully with this tactic, because it has the potential to turn into telling or come across as an info dump. But, when employed sparingly, secondary characters can be assets.


In my latest work-in-progress, one of the POV characters, Bunny, is a princess on the run and a stickler—so much so that I hated her in my first draft. Beta readers agreed. So I added a romantic thread with a secondary character who’s willing to die to keep her safe. She repeatedly warns him that he’ll break the rules if he jeopardizes his life for hers, maintaining her stoic disposition. So far beta readers have enjoyed the results.


My favorite example, though, is Ponyboy’s description of Dally in The Outsiders: dangerous, rough, and a little crazy. Yet he doesn’t counter that with a page-long lecture detailing how Dally’s devotion to Johnny is his one redeeming trait. Instead, readers watch through Ponyboy’s eyes as the gang relies on Dally for help and, in the end, risks everything to save him.


Never over-explain a character, especially an emotionally distant one. Your supporting cast doesn’t have to broadcast the reasons they admire a cold character or the tragic past that defines her. In fact, they shouldn’t. Their favor alone will imply that the character’s sharp exterior may be a facade.


Breaking the Ice

Cold characters can be as beloved as warm characters. The key is subtlety. Part of these characters’ appeal is their aloofness. Christopher Paolini, author of The Inheritance Cycle, has repeatedly stated in interviews that Angela the Herbalist is entertaining because she’s difficult to figure out. As frustrating as that is every time I read it, he’s right. If she—or any other taciturn character—suddenly divulged all her secrets, that would destroy her allure.


So, don’t be worried when a story calls for an Elsa instead of an Olaf. Let her show herself in her own time. With effort, you could be the leader of the next cold-and-detached fandom.


  1. Winter Rose

    Really helpful article! I’ll definitely be coming back to this, because one of my newest characters can definitely be described as “unlikeable.” Thanks for all the great tips!

    • Maddie

      Thank you! Good luck with your character! They’re fun to write.

  2. Coralie

    I love this! My WIP is a Cinderella retelling from the stepsister’s pov. She, her sister, and her mother are all traditionally villains in the tale, and I wanted to maintain that exterior (with a bit of a twist, of course 😉 ). But some days that makes the unlikable and distant, closed-off character vibe a struggle! Thanks for sharing! A great article with some useful tips!

    • Maddie

      Oh that sounds fantastic! And definitely difficult.

  3. Marina

    Loved this article! Some of my favourite characters to read and to write are the cold ones. This is a very helpful list and I can’t wait to develop some cold characters in the future! I also loved all of the examples, especially of Sky in the Deep!

  4. Corisa

    Love this article! Cold characters are some of my absolute favorites to read and write, and you listed some really great tips. I love that you mentioned Eelyn asking Fiske what his name means because it’s so subtle, but it really does an fantastic job showing that she is opening up.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Article Categories

Uncover the Secret to Relatable Characters

Uncover the Secret to Relatable Characters

Learning how to help readers connect with your story's characters doesn't need to be a mystery.

Get our Evoking Reader Empathy e-book to discover how successful authors build empathy.

Congratulations! Redirecting you to the eBook in one moment...

Pin It on Pinterest