The Balancing Act: Writing Unlikable Characters

Giving your characters unlikable traits can add spice to a story, but with that comes risk. Will your readers love them or hate them? My guest today, Linda Sienkiewicz, reveals how to do it right. Over to you, Linda.

What kind of fictional characters do readers like best? Good-hearted people who inexplicably find themselves in trouble? Shady characters who deliberately create mayhem? Should writers be concerned if they’re writing characters that are so gosh-darned likable they’re afraid to let them disappoint anyone? How bad can your character be before you alienate readers?

An agent once told me that “no one enjoys mildly interesting characters.” It was her impression that readers are drawn to particular novels for the same reason they gawk at accidents. If traffic slows because a car runs out of gas, no one pays attention. “It takes a paramedic, a fire truck, six police cars and some crunched cars for serious rubbernecking and involvement,” she said.

Likability in fictional characters can be a complicated matter for a writer. How do we sort out what matters to readers?

Flawed but Lovable Characters

In I Love Lucy, Lucy Ricardo could be deviously scheming, self-centered and impatient. She was slyly deceitful. She behaved like a child and bawled when she didn’t get her way. I’d be so terrified of what attention-getting stunt she might pull next that I’d have to close my eyes, but I didn’t turn off the TV. I had to know what happened.

As much as she infuriated me, I really did love Lucy too, along with thousands of others. Why? We empathized with her because we understood all she wanted was to be loved and admired. She was contrite when she misbehaved. She accepted her shortcomings. Her overriding desire to perform at the Tropicana was partly just to be close to her husband Ricky. She was misguided, that’s all. These are traits we can identify with. Plus, she was uproariously funny.

Flat-Out Bad Characters

Let me tell you about Marie from the novel Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky. After spending 6 years in prison for helping her bank-robbing lover evade the law, Marie is hired by an old friend, Ellen, as a live-in nanny for her toddler daughter, Caitlin. Marie drinks whiskey on the job, helps herself to Ellen’s clothing and jewelry, and then seduces Ellen’s husband because she thinks Ellen doesn’t appreciate him. After jetting to Paris with him and Caitlin, Marie decides he’s just as worthless as Ellen, and she kidnaps Caitlin. These are traits that readers cannot identify with.

So, what happens? I was captivated by Marie’s outrageous behavior while, at the same, time, I had empathy for her. Just enough back story makes her complex. Her father died in a sailing accident, about which her mother said to Marie, “What kind of piece of shit would do that, get himself killed?” This mother was not a nice person, and likely did little to help a child who’d lost her father. Marie grew up believing people get what they deserve. She’s learned to look out for herself. But, as she spends time with little Caitlin, she slowly sees the bigger picture: the world doesn’t revolve around her needs. She knows can’t keep this child forever. She has to make peace with what she’s done, even knowing she’ll be returned to prison. We feel for Marie.

Good Characters Gone Bad

For what it’s worth, I want to give you my personal take on this.

The narrator in my novel In the Context of Love is an idealistic young woman, Angelica. She’s a good person with a troubled past who ends up marrying the wrong guy. Her marriage is falling apart, but she has two children to consider. She’s sinking fast and desperate for answers. After a high school reunion, she ends up in bed with a former classmate. Early in the writing process, I feared her lapse in judgment might turn off a segment of moralistic readers. A fellow writer told me, “It’s okay to have your readers get angry with your characters.”

As predicted, Angelica’s poor choices did indeed anger a few readers. This is a risk writers have to take.

The Risks in Unlikable Characters

The risk you take with a character who does bad things is, no matter how much back story you provide, not all readers will empathize. Someone will label a book bad if the character does something bad. Other readers will go so far as to judge the author as bad.

Despite this, we should allow our characters to slip and fall. If they misbehave, it’s the writer’s job to make them at least deserving of the reader’s attention. Horribly flawed characters can redeem themselves. Bad characters can have a good side, just as good characters can have a bad side.

Complexity Works

The point is, real people are a mix of desirable and undesirable traits. As a writer, we have to create balance.

Give an unlikable character flaws that readers can identify with: an arrogant spy who’s angry because her superior bullies her.

Use a handicap or misfortune to draw sympathy: a disfigurement such as one leg shorter than the other, or a nagging toothache and no money for the dentist.

Offer complexity to a bad character with a good deed: a man bent on vengeance rescues a baby skunk that has its face stuck in a yogurt container.

A good character with personality flaws is more endearing because they mirror us. We may pretend to like a goody-two-shoes but secretly we hate them, right? Likable characters need to make mistakes to give them depth and believability. Allow them to fall from grace and then help them get back up.

Talk, Talk by T. C. Boyle is a great study on good characters with less-than-admirable traits: A deaf woman with a sense of entitlement and a streak of stubbornness. A good-hearted boyfriend who’s weak willed and, on some level, really wants to ditch her. And a villain who’s a scheming identity thief living a double life, yet his wretched backstory makes you want to weep.

I like characters who make bad mistakes. I like conflicted characters who don’t stumble blindly, but walk directly into the darkness. And then I like them even more when they find their way out. It gives me hope that, if I fail, I’ll find a way to make it right, and still be loved.

And isn’t that what it’s all about? Redemption?

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