Please welcome Holly Brown as our guest today. Holly is the author of Don’t Try to Find Me, A Necessary End, and—just this month!—This is Not Over. In addition to being a novelist, she is also (in no particular order): a wife, mother, marriage and family therapist, poker enthusiast, resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, member of the SF Writers Grotto, lover of some incredibly shameful reality TV, devotee of NPR (she owes a debt of gratitude for inspiring more than one novel), and a believer that people should always be willing to make mistakes and always be the first to apologize for them. As a writer, she tends to be inspired by contemporary events and phenomena. She likes to take an emotionally charged situation and then imagine the people within it. That’s where her background in human dynamics comes into play, and where the fun begins.
I like unlikable characters, dammit! Always have, even before I was writing them myself, and they can always use a champion.
How to Keep Readers Happy When Your Character’s Unlikeable
Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl broke the glass ceiling by allowing female characters to be as unlikeable as males have often been in fiction. For too long, women writers in particular were hamstrung by the need for relatability, which could lead to muted characters, dulled at the edges, your stereotypical women in jeopardy, more acted upon than acting. Here are some ideas on how to build vivid, complex characters who are as satisfying to read as they are to write.
First, a disclaimer: I like unlikeable characters. Generally, I like them better than likeable ones. That’s because I enjoy the challenge. With the most charming characters, it’s like, everyone can get into this person; there are no sharp edges for the reader to cut themselves on. But with the thornier characters, I feel just a little bit special for being able to get them. Or if I don’t get them, for being willing to engage in the quest to get them. And even if I never do, I was noble—well, entertained—in the attempt.
But not all unlikeable characters are created equal. There are some you want to pursue, and some you want to close the book and leave behind. While there are no hard and fast rules for characterization, and you don’t want to fall into tropes, I do notice some commonalities in the most compelling unlikeable characters. You might notice that your favorite unlikable characters possess one or more of these:
- They display intelligence or mastery, perhaps not to the world at large but only to the reader. We know what others in their universe do not, so it’s like we’re keeping a secret. Everyone’s attracted to people who are good at things, in fiction and in real life.
- They have a well-developed interior life. Again, what’s not visible to the other characters but only to us draws us in, and forward. Also, the dichotomy between what we know and what they show can be irresistible. It creates tension in every scene: Will they be unmasked?
- They have some elements in their backstory that provoke sympathy, empathy, or at least understanding, something that makes the reader think that similar circumstances could produce a similar outcome. “If I’d grown up the way they did, or lived through what they did, then maybe I, too…” It’s not exactly relatability, but it’s a kissing cousin.
- They have charisma, perhaps of an unsettling type. It’s a quality that says don’t look away or you’ll miss something. As a reader, you want to know what they’re going to do next, and even if it would be implausible for the average person, it’s not implausible given that particular character’s psychological makeup and history. Every over-the-top action is grounded in that character. So they might be a train wreck, but they’re a very distinctive and unpredictable train wreck. We all like to be surprised, right? But best of all is when that surprise actually winds up feeling inevitable, like it couldn’t have gone any other way than it did, because of what the author so expertly created and set in motion.
I’m a therapist as well as a novelist, so I’m used to engaging with folks of all stripes. Some are incredibly endearing, right off the bat, and some are most emphatically not. I’m always honing my empathy skills, which is crucial for a writer. I’m also used to listening for emotional truth rather than literal truth, and that’s something that I think is especially important when it comes to writing an unlikeable character. Make them truthful, in their way. Make them consistent, in their way.
I write psychological thrillers, and if you do also, then one (or more) of your characters might be an unreliable narrator. The unreliable narrator can veer into unlikeability, running the risk of exasperating the reader. If he or she can’t be trusted, then it’s threatening to the relationship with the reader. The reader may, reasonably, ask: Why should I care about you, if I can’t believe you?
That goes to the heart of why I, personally, like unlikeable characters. Because I’m engaged even if I don’t necessarily believe. Because I’m interested in emotional truth, rather than literal truth. Because sometimes I think that emotional truth is all there is, in a given situation.
Now it’s about giving your reader that situation, and creating the corresponding character, an integration so well-rendered that like them or hate them, no one can stop turning the pages. With an unlikable character (the involving kind, that is), the character has to drive the plot; they’re inextricably bound. The things they do have to be connected to who they are. They’re not just stand-ins or surrogates; they’re richer and more complicated than that. That’s why when they’re done well, I love them the most—the ones I’ve written, and the ones I wish I’d written.
What do you like (or dislike) about “unlikeable” characters? Have you written an unlikeable character?