Writing unlikeable characters

There are always people who complain that they didn’t enjoy a book because they didn’t like the main character; or, indeed, any of the characters.

But if you’re in the camp that thinks part of the purpose of fiction is to say something truthful about life (contradictory as that may sound), this criticism seems to miss the point. Writing a novel peopled only by charming, sunny souls who don’t get on each other’s, and the reader’s, nerves would be about as realistic as including a talking dog. And I’m not sure that in this case you could get away with calling it magic realism.

There’s a difference, of course, between being ‘truthful’ in your writing and being ‘realistic’, but let’s leave that for another time; suffice to say that excluding unlikeable characters is to be neither.

[I didn’t have a picture to go with this post so I drew a talking dog. Only it came out looking a bit like a kangaroo, and I also seem to have given it markings like a cow. And eyebrows. Do dogs have eyebrows?]

[I didn’t have a picture to go with this post so I drew a talking dog. Only it came out looking a bit like a kangaroo, and I also seem to have given it the markings of a cow. And eyebrows. Do dogs have eyebrows?]

Anyway, this preamble is slightly disingenuous, because the truth is I like writing irritating or unpleasant characters, and novels would be a lot less fun without them. There is a trick, however, to creating a character who is less than straightforwardly delightful, as I discovered whilst working on the later drafts of The View on the Way Down.

When I originally conceived of the character of Alice Brown in the planning stages, I enjoyed pouring into her some of the characteristics that most annoyed me in others. I made her self-involved and melodramatic, manipulative and attention-seeking. The kind of person who would always put themselves at the centre of everything, even if it meant piggy-backing off someone else’s tragedy. This was Alice Brown in the early drafts: a frustrating and unappealing young woman.

But I had gone too far, and created more of a caricature than a character, as my editors Francesca and Sophie gently pointed out in some of their early feedback. Alice’s character and her responses were too extreme, verging on the implausible, and would alienate the reader rather than engage them. It would help if the reader could identify with Alice, at least in some respects; and perhaps even feel some sympathy for her at times.

I wasn’t sure I agreed at first – I thought I had a fairly clear idea of how I wanted Alice to come across and I wasn’t too keen on sanitising her. But people are rarely so clear-cut. I tried adding a little more ambiguity to Alice’s character and for the first time she came alive on the page. In the later drafts, I wrote her with far more depth and tenderness because now there were elements I sympathised with in her situation, and even in the way she reacts. I tried far harder, in Atticus Finch’s formulation, to stand in her shoes and walk around in them. She’s still irritating in many ways, and perhaps not especially admirable. But she’s far more human than she was originally, and perhaps even achieves a glimmer of self-awareness at the end of the novel. She’s not my favourite character, but I’ve developed a kind of resigned and almost protective fondness for her. And one of the most interesting things about the publication process has been seeing how Alice splits opinion among readers – I’ve sometimes had half of a book group sympathising with her, and the other half rolling their eyes at her immaturity. This is electric for an author.

I’ve gone further in my second novel in creating the character of Nathaniel, the abusive and manipulative cult leader. There’s not much for the reader to sympathise with here. He’s essentially a psychopath. Time will tell how he fares during the editing process, but for now I’ve tried to avoid caricature by at least making sure his actions and motives make sense within his own, skewed, Nathaniel-universe. I don’t feel much fondness for him, but I do feel a kind of grim fascination, which is helping to keep things interesting.

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About Rebecca Wait

27-year-old writer based in London. Author of 'The View on the Way Down'.
This entry was posted in The View on the Way Down, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Writing unlikeable characters

  1. Caroline says:

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with ‘grim fascination’. It’s no good if the characters are unlikeable and uninteresting, but it’s important that we’re intrigued at the very least. I do think a book needs someone to root for (ie, ideally – I’m sure there are exceptions – not all of them should be unlikeable, even if they’re interesting), but the unlikeable characters are often the most interesting and every book needs one! I think I’ve used too many of the same words in that paragraph, but there you have it!

  2. Pingback: My top ten unlikeable characters in literature | Rebecca Wait

  3. Helen Cooper says:

    I agree too. I get irritated when everyone in a book is super-nice to everybody else! I think as long as you can see and understand a character’s motivation for behaving in the ways that they do, a bit of selfishness/ annoyingness/ nastiness adds a lot of interest. I could still empathise with Alice Brown, and recognised a lot of her character traits as totally human, even the negative ones. Enjoyed the View on the Way Down very, very much by the way!

    • Rebecca Wait says:

      Thanks! Completely agree with what you say about understanding a character’s motivations. ‘To understand all is to forgive all’ doesn’t quite cover it, but it definitely helps.

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