Connecting with Character – An Unlikeable Victim

I am in the process of editing my novel and have just taken an online class about characters. I realized that as is normal in a cozy, I have a murder off-stage. It’s early so you don’t know much about the victim – and what you see is that he is very unlikeable. In thinking about this and asking the question, the instructor advised to find at least one aspect that makes this character a bit less one dimensional.

So, where to start? I used the character profile questions and soon found that he was a child only a mother could love. But his mother did love him – so, while that was a likeable aspect, it didn’t really help me.

I looked at Karl Iglesias’ Writing for Emotional Impact. He talks about connecting with characters and the three ways to do that:

• Recognition (understanding and empathy)
• Fascination (interest)
• Mystery (curiosity, anticipation and tension)

I also found a blog post in February 2014 on the Christian Writer’s Guild with a very good list and description of creating empathy for a main character at

Brandilyn Collins’ list included the following:

• valued traits
• being good at something
• hurt or treated unjustly
• wanting to be understood
• being thrust into danger or grief
• being unique
• caring for others
• trying to change or overcome a fear
• facing an inner struggle

These were all good ideas but mostly work better for a protagonist. Since my main character was going to have to work through my victim’s life, I could try to make him unique or have some kind of hurt. However, my protagonist wasn’t going back to the victim’s childhood and he was a bit too old for a trauma like that so the hurt was off the list.

The unique character idea could work and for that I looked at who he was and where he spent his time. He wasn’t truly evil, which could have made him fun to root against. I realized that I had elements of a true womanizer in him and if I wove in a few more details, I thought he’d be interesting enough and could possibly create some curiosity in the reader to want to see how the main character solved the victim’s murder. That seemed to work but I was still unsatisfied. Digging a bit deeper, I realized that I had a victim who presented himself in a perfectly polished way on the outside but who’d been hurt along the way and had some deep seated fears that rumbled below that immaculate surface. Those I could work with. While seemingly put together, there would be chinks in that armor my main character could find – and that gave me the opening I needed to build in a few more aspects of his life that would allow the reader to understand him. And would allow me to make him less one dimensional.

So, how about other writers? Do you run into this problem with an early murder victim? If so, what tips or techniques can you recommend?

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2 thoughts on “Connecting with Character – An Unlikeable Victim

  1. Good question, Carolyn. What I’ve found works for me to understand my antagonists is to write a blurb from their POV, talking about the crime or the victim. I find that they always divulge something interesting about themselves or their motive.

  2. That’s an interesting idea – I will definitely try it. I also interview my characters but knowing the right questions is the key to getting answers – and having a character talk makes a lot of sense.

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