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When Good Characters Behave Despicably (and They Should)

Flickr Creative Commons: Luis Ramirez

Several years ago I read The Underpainter, a novel by Jane Urquhart. The protagonist, Austin Fraser, creates a series of paintings depicting the people who have touched his life, then erases the details by applying progressively lighter shades of paint. Over the course of the novel, the paintings become a metaphor for how an emotionally crippled man has avoided true connection. Urquhart herself said in a June 2001 interview with January Magazine that she ‘hadn’t expected [Austin] was going to do what he had at the end’ and was so furious with him that she nearly couldn’t publish the book.

I was furious with him, too. The Underpainter remains the only novel I’ve ever thrown across the room in disgust. It took a full day for me to cool off enough to retrieve it and keep reading. As awful as Austin was, I still wanted to love him. Even as I write this, his rejection stings.

Shortly after I finished The Underpainter, I inherited a box filled with drafts of a memoir written by Madonna Ahrens, the protagonist of my own novel-in-progress. The manuscripts served as a series of portraits of her husband, landscape painter Carl Ahrens. The top, most recent version, was identical to the one she had self-published in 1945. It featured a Brontesque hero—tall, dark, brooding, and a trifle too perfect.

Earlier drafts made allusions to Carl’s temper, always followed by an anecdote illustrating his extreme gentleness. Yes, he could be cantankerous and difficult, she admitted, but illness and pain were the cause. Only a kind, compassionate man would revive a stunned honeybee or engineer an artificial leg for his rooster. The takeaway message, in modern terms: cut the guy some slack.

Tucked inside the earliest draft, on a loose, handwritten sheet, I discovered a truth that left me seething, one Madonna had taken great pains to conceal.

He was afraid of my youth, my [singing] voice, even my appearance, and wanted to make sure of keeping me all for himself by shutting out every aspect of my life which he could not entirely dominate. It was quite understandable. He had changed the whole course of his life because he loved me…As he gave his love freely and without compromise, entirely to me, he not only wished, but demanded, the same in return. He must be first, before the children, before music, before anything at all, and not only first but second and third as well.

It was not a happy moment to discover that the hero of my WIP was (at times) a controlling ass-hat, especially since I share DNA with said ass-hat. I did not want to know about, much less ‘excuse’ this aspect of his personality. An easy solution would have been to tuck that sheet away and feign ignorance.

A few things made me choose a different path:

It was quite understandable, she had said.

Despicable behavior can be both wrong and understandable. Characters who infuriate can leave more of a lasting impression upon readers than ones who are simply likable. Think Nick and Amy in Gone Girl or Humbert Humbert in Lolita. I despised all of them, but I remember their stories years later. I don’t remember the name of the perfectly upstanding main character in the novel I read last week.

Why is that?

To err is human. We all have that mistake in our past, the one that comes to the forefront of our minds as we attempt to sleep, the one we’d do anything to prevent being discovered. We lie. We betray. We become consumed by greed or envy. We spend money we don’t have, fight for the wrong cause, marry the wrong person, secretly resent the intrusion of our children, stab friends in the back, and sabotage our health. Some of us even kill.

Characters who blunder make us feel better about our own mistakes. They give us permission to admit to our failures. They grant us a safe preview of the guilt, shame and consequences of acting on our temptations. They help us to understand that there is a rainbow of gray on the spectrum of good and evil. Angels and devils are boring. Give that devil something or someone to protect, and readers have an empathetic foothold to carry them through a story. Have that angel involved in their kid brother’s death, and readers will want to know why.

When mistakes have consequences, the world makes sense. Even if we ultimately forgive a character, most of us want to see them squirm first. If they are beyond redemption, we want them to get their comeuppance. Think Joffrey or Ramsey in Game of Thrones. Did anyone not cheer their demise?

Even the most grievous of sins, under the right circumstances, might be forgivable. Some marriages should be broken. A child might end up better off without their parent(s). A lie might spare feelings, save a life, or avert a war. A mistake might force a character onto a different, better path. The “blessing” might not (and probably shouldn’t be) apparent right away, but it can contribute to a compelling character arc.

Okay, but how do I pull this off without alienating readers?

All of us have either been a teenager, a parent of a teenager, or both. Children this age, no matter how wonderful they may be, are by definition both lovable and master manipulators. Watch and learn.

Here are a few of their strategies that I’ve successfully applied to my own manuscript:

What about you? Have any of your essentially good characters done something despicable? What methods have you used to redeem them in the eyes of other characters and your readers? Is likability an essential character trait to you? Have you ever loved an irredeemable character, or wanted to rescue one who had no interest in being rescued?


About Kim Bullock [1]

Kim (she/her) has an M.A. in English from Iowa State University. She writes mainly historical fiction, though has also contributed non-fiction articles to historical and Arts and Crafts publications in both the United States and Canada. She has just finished The Unfinished Work of M.A. [2], a novel based on the rather colorful life of her great-grandfather, landscape painter Carl Ahrens.