If you’re writing an action movie about somebody who is pure evil its easy to make them unlikeable. You can show him stomping on a kitten or nuking a child. But if your scripts skew more toward the plausible, one easy way to come up with ideas for that is to look at what makes people likeable and then have your unlikeable characters do the opposite.
In the book Likeable Business, Dave Kern lists the following as the characteristics of likeable business leaders:
LISTENING —to customers, colleagues, shareholders—and competitors
AUTHENTICITY—because today’s savvy customer always knows when you’re faking it
TRANSPARENCY—honesty builds trust and any deviation can destroy your reputation
ADAPTABILITY —managing change and finding new opportunities is critical to success today
SIMPLICITY—in design, in form, and in function
GRATEFULNESS —every “thank you” is appreciated . . . and generates surprising returns
If we leave aside the sales-speak, we could say those are the hallmarks of likeable people in general. When we reverse them, we come up with a character who:
- Never listens to other people, being too busy trying to think of what to say about themselves next;
- Never admits there’s anything he or she doesn’t know or hasn’t done;
- Lies, cheats, and steals;
- Refuses to consider changing;
- Complicates everything, perhaps trying to keep people confused so they won’t see through him or her;
- Never says thank you, just assumes that everybody should help.
It could be overkill to give one character all of these negative traits, but having them show two or three gives you a good, realistic unlikeable character.
This can also be helpful for creating credible protagonists. To show they’re not perfect, give them a mild form of one of these faults. For instance, not somebody who never listen to anybody else, but maybe someone who tunes out when under stress.