Monday, July 19, 2010

People We Hate to Hate

Oh, Monday, how I've missed you.  I'm actually grateful to be back at work.  Being home with nothing to watch but bad SYFY shows and reruns of Gray's Anatomy is enough to make me wish the surgeon's knife had slipped.  Okay, just kidding.  Wait, have you seen Gray's Anatomy?  I'm totally not kidding.

So let's all face it:  there are things about ourselves that we're not proud of.  Impulses and thoughts that are uncharitable and mean.  For instance, when I was in middle school, I was a bully.  I mean, I was scrawny and skinny and couldn't fight my way out of a ziplock back with a box cutter.  But I had a wickedly scathing sense of humor that I used to put down others.  It was the way in which I kept from being bullied myself.  When I felt threatened, I turned my powers onto someone else and redirected the bullying.  I didn't do it because I was inherently cruel, I did it because I was scared.  Too scared to stand up for myself and too scared to risk being bullied.

But I can excuse that sort of behavior in myself.  I realized it was wrong in HS and, while I still had a sharp tongue, I took my lumps rather than beat down others...most of the time.  It's the day to day stuff that makes me ill.  Like, I fully admit to passing homeless people on the street and thinking to myself that they should get a shower and get a job.  Without knowing anything about them, I passed judgement.  Again, does it make me a bad person?  No.  But if others were to hear those thoughts coming from me, they might not agree.

Lately I've been grappling with creating characters that are unlikable.  It's a difficult line to walk.  I want to be honest about who a character is...warts and all, but at the same time, I don't want people to be turned off to them.  I read a book this year that a lot of people really loved but I found the main characters to be shallow and vapid and cruel.  Why?  Because the author, who did a phenomenal job portraying multi-faceted characters, toed the line and went too far for me to sympathize with them.

Like I said, it's a tough line to walk.  In the movie THE READER, we're shown a portrait of a Nazi who was complicit in the death of 300 Jews who were locked in a church.  I know that we were supposed to feel a sense of sympathy for the main character, Hanna, because she was illiterate, however I found myself unable to feel anything for her.  When she eventually met her end, not only did I not feel bad for her, but I was glad.

But the problem is that if we never show a character's foibles then we risk creating Mary Sues who are perfect and wonderful in every way.  And who wants to read about that?  The trick then, becomes showing the warts of the character without losing the reader's sympathies.  I have a tendency to always go at least one step too far in the wrong direction when it comes to that.  Maybe one day I'll figure out how to do it properly.  However, I think that any time a writer exposes a character's dark side, he or she risks alienating some readers.  For example, I have zero tolerance for characters who cheat.  It doesn't matter what the circumstances are, if I main character cheats on their bf/gf they lose all my sympathies and I usually stop reading the book.

That's a risk we have to take though.  Maybe it's better to sometimes risk alienating some readers than to bore all of them.  Still, as I've learned, while it's great to show some warts, some are better kept hidden.


  1. Another reason for not creating perfect characters is to give them room to change (and hopefully improve) over the course of the story. Sometimes I find I've gone too far in pointing out my characters' flaws at the beginning of the story, as reviewers wind up not liking them. It's a hard balance to achieve, though I guess you have to make the characters likeable before you go to the dark side.

  2. Excellent post, Shaun. Antagonists are always some of my favorite characters to delve into ;)

  3. Great post. The only thing I would add Shaun is that someday you may have to create a character that goes beyond what you personally might find acceptable. Your thoughts on cheating for example, are prime for this. Right or wrong (wrong of course), it is a very real thing and many people find themselves doing that very thing. To leave that aspect out would be criminal, particularly if it plays a big part in characterization. It's a different kind of "evil" than say murdering someone or stealing a car. There are different repercussions from it, and it can have an interesting effect on the psyche of all parties involved. If your story calls for that, you may have to just bite down and write it anyway.

  4. Sandra: You know, that's a good point about showing flaws too early. Maybe some indiscretions are okay once we get to know the character and know that's not their normal behavior.

    Andrea: Thanks! Me too. I always point to Snape as one of my favorite characters to hate. Yet, he's so much the hero.

    Eric: Too true! While I need to be more sensitive to things that might offend others, I also may have to write characters that might be offensive to me.

  5. I like a deeply flawed main character. Tyrion Lannister (and his brother Jaime) from Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series are examples. Tyrion is basically a good person, but he'll do just about anything to protect his family's power base. Jaime isn't as much a good person, but *is* bothered by some of the things his twin sister does that are even worse.

    Stephen King's Dolores Claiborne is another great unlikable MC. She's really brusque in a northern-New England way, and she has it out for her husband, but in many ways she's justified, and I definitely rooted for her. A jury of her peers would have convicted her, though.

    I think part of the process of creating a flawed or unlikable character is to have their good and bad qualities both be involved in how they get what they want. Either they have good intentions but carry them out in bad ways, or their intentions are bad and their conscience keeps their naughty plans from succeeding. It's hard to articulate, and I've re-written this paragraph twice now, so I'll leave it - for what it's worth!


Keep it clean, keep it classy, and jokes are always appreciated.