"Unpleasant" main characters

by Justin
(United States)

Question: The character in question is, to put it bluntly, a self-centered, self-entitled snob. Doesn't think about others and only cares about his own ego. He's also the main character of the story he will be in (once I figure out some unrelated plot points), which will basically be about him learning humility, compassion and how to, well...be a decent human being.

The story itself will be a fantasy novel, with a crusade campaign providing much of the backdrop, and the character in question is a young nobleman. My question is, how do I make him believable? I don't want to make him so over the top that people put the story down because of his standoffish character, but I also want to show just how little he cares in the beginning, and how he evolves and comes to realize that the world is not about him as the story progresses, especially since his character evolution will be a huge part of the story.

Also, the story as of now will likely be entirely from his viewpoint, so that's another reason why I'm wondering on how to make him believable.

Answer: Naturally, it helps if you know people who have a similar way of thinking about themselves, so that in each situation you can ask yourself "What would so-and-so do here?"

In fact,
it's a good exercise to simply imagine your character in different situations and write about how he would respond.

The key to believability is to make your character consistent, even as he is being pressured to change. Some main characters change slowly under pressure or try out new ways of being before deciding whether to stick with them. Other characters hold out until they have no choice and then change in a heartbeat. But even while your character is under pressure, his first impulse should be consistent with his nature.

Oddly enough, readers don't necessarily mind over-the-top characters as long as they are consistent. It's when they break character for no reason that they stop being believable. In the beginning, you can show that his way of being works for him. It's a way of coping with his environment that, in his mind at least, is successful. But in a different environment or with different people, the pressure to change grows.

It can also help if, at some point, you can offer an explanation of why the character thinks as he does. For instance, did something in his past lead him to conclude that he was alone in this world and needed to look after himself exclusively? It's not necessary to present this background to the reader, but it can help if you know it.

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