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.