1. Anders Backlund
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    Anders Backlund Contributing Member

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    Liking Unlikable Characters

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Anders Backlund, Jul 12, 2009.

    I've found that among all types of character, perhaps the ones I enjoy writing most are the unlikable ones.

    Now, I'm not necessarily talking about out-right villains. In fact, they don't even have to be bad people; just people who have traits that would be considered annoying, vexing and/or infuriating in real life.

    For example, I once created a minor antagonist meant to be a comedic type of villain. He had plenty of negative traits in general, but one of the most prominent ones was that he was a misogynist - he was constantly rude to women, almost at a subconscious level, and generally acted in an exaggerated chauvinistic manner.

    I was slightly surprised to find that writing this guy was hilarious. There was just something extremely amusing about how unapologetically offensive he was.

    My current story has this girl who is basically the Draco Malfoy of the story: she's a spoiled, bratty, easily angered and very confrontational person who's primary role is to annoy the hell out of my poor protagonist. Again, writing her is just buckets of fun for some reason.

    Seems like there's something about making characters deliberately unlikable that really makes me, well, like them. Does anyone else experience this?
     
  2. cybrxkhan
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    cybrxkhan Contributing Member

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    I don't like writing antagonists too much - or more rather, they tend to be harder for me (of course) - but I do like writing "good" characters with some problems. They were seriously much more fun than writing the same-old archetypical heroes of my past. Actually, writing characters with problems was even more fun than writing just plain old anti-heroes or any kind of archetypes. I like writing characters with some depths. There tends to be more realistic reasons why they'd do certain things, anyhow.

    Many characters I had became so much more interesting after I just complicated their character or background a bit. For example, in my main project right now, one of my important characters is the Emperor, the father of the protagonist who - naturally - is rather aloof but also stressed and indecisive. Before I looked into the Emperor's personality a bit, his lack of affection for the protagonist and kind of laissez-faire attitude towards him never really seemed that great to write, kind of boring.

    Then I realized that the Emperor has some jealousy towards his son for many different reasons, but that he felt extremely guilty and ashamed about that; not only that, the Emperor is kind of an overly protective personality. The jealousy, the guilt about it, as well as the protectiveness about it gave a much richer and plausible reason for the Emperor's aloofness and lack of affection - and it then made the relationship between father and son so much more fun to write, when the son is thinking "Hey, why don't you act more like a father?" without being able to realize what's going on in his Father's head, and the Father, conversely, feeling extremely frustrated and angry and jealous, but at the same time not being able to express it. It's great, seeing characters suffer. Writers have to be a little sadistic at times, in my opinion.

    Then in another twist, anyhow, I recently discovered - through the words of one of my own characters - that the Emperor was kind of a grown-up, mature version of a "sweet, vulnerable little boy" - which only made him more interesting a character to write. What kind of vulnerabilities does he have, I would wonder? Now his history is all beginning to make sense to me.


    Anyhow, I suppose I like more complicated characters, characters with problems (which do include by large the likable unlikable characters) and making up the psychological reasons for their actions and attitudes.

    Then again, some people don't; just like some people don't like unlikable characters period.
     
  3. Anders Backlund
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    Anders Backlund Contributing Member

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    Hm, maybe I should clarify this a bit?

    I guess my question is: What kind of personality type do you find the most fun to write?
     
  4. cybrxkhan
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    cybrxkhan Contributing Member

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    Personality type...

    Well, that's hard to say. I just like writing characters who have different "layers", if you know what I mean. As long as there's some interesting, surprising, but plausible and sensible reason behind their actions and attitudes, that makes them so much more interesting. So I guess there isn't any personality type I really like. I would tentatively say the tomboy personality, but even then there are so many varieties and possibilities for different types of tomboys, so, yeah.
     
  5. Dr. Doctor
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    Dr. Doctor Contributing Member

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    It is not making unlikable characters, or indeed, any particular personality type, that is more enjoyable to me, it's just...characters that have layers to them, like the other guy said. There really isn't any other way to say it. The more human, flawed and quirky you make a character, the more interesting they will be to write.

    For example, one of my minor characters is this gangster flunky character who is more or less the most shallow, pigheaded, rude guy you can imagine, and yet he's fun to write because it's just so funny sometimes. He's like the butt of a joke that everyone except him knows about. His thoughts are often silly, impatient or just downright hateful, and of course the readers inherently know that he isn't a good character, so it's all the more amusing to read about.

    Yet also more seriously antagonistic characters are interesting, too, giving them motives and insecurities and personal demons is always a very interesting task. Even good guys should be interesting in that regard really.
     
  6. Anders Backlund
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    Anders Backlund Contributing Member

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    That's fine, it doesn't have to be super-specific. The two characters I mentioned have almost nothing in common except for their ability to anger and annoy people, so saying you like writing tomboy-ish characters in general definitely qualifies.
     
  7. TheFedoraPirate
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    TheFedoraPirate Contributing Member

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    I tend to have a fondness for cowards and there's usually at least one in every story I've written since middle school.
     
  8. Smithy
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    Smithy Senior Member

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    My main character is a complete nutter with some very strange and slightly disturbing views on the world ("So what if my brother has been dead six years, it still doesn't mean his girlfriend can see other people!") but he is nevertheless my favourite and much more fun to write about than his much more normal sidekick.
     
  9. ChaseRoberts
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    ChaseRoberts Senior Member

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    I love writing from the villanous point of view. I think it's a sort of cathartic thing for me, where I can channel all my frustrations, angers and unspoken thoughts and turn it into a living, breathing thing.

    Plus it's fun.

    On saying that the most rewarding experience I've had recently with my novel was when I finally understood one of the characters. I'd been writing him, but not really 'getting him', if you know what I mean. He wasn't one of the characters I cared terribly about although he's one of the main ones. And the other night I was writing away, and I just understood him, and was able to write better his motivations and his feelings and other things that make a good character. He just sort of came alive.

    But no, I'll be sad when I have to say goodbye to my sociopath. As inevitable as it is that he has to die a horrible death, I'm going to miss the crazy.
     
  10. ManhattanMss
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    ManhattanMss Contributing Member

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    As a reader, there's nothing that'll put me to sleep faster than a character with no edgy qualities--not even in contemporary children's literature. In fact, the best children's stuff I recall from reading fairy tales as a child, simply separates out the good and bad qualities into different, opposing characters.

    Some of the worst manuscripts for adult stories I've ever seen are potentially interesting (usually first person) stories in which something really bad happens (or happened) to the MC--very often a narrator--who fails to exhibit her own shortcomings and complicity. These stories often appear to grow out of personal experience the author himself is not sufficiently distanced from to be able to deliver effectively into his own fiction. I assume we all know no one is perfect, and I don't write for readers who live in denial. So, creating a "perfectly" virtuous character (or even a perfectly evil one) is truly the domain of the fantasy writer, which isn't my favorite reading material (as an adult) and doesn't reflect my writing objectives.

    Not saying there's no place for that somewhere in the wonderful world of books and writing. I used to love fairy tales as a child, where I could pretend I was Cinderella or Snow White--never, or course, the evil witch or the ugly stepsister. But I was always conflicted about those crazy dwarfs. It's probably their story that most fuels my fiction objectives today.
     
  11. bluebell80
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    bluebell80 Contributing Member

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    For me, unlikeable characters are only that way on the surface. Behind every unlikeable character there is a story as to why they developed in such a way, thus making their motives for being obnoxious, offensive, or otherwise unlikeable, at least clear to me and hopefully to the reader.

    Evil characters, while they may hold issues in their past, are usually people who have consciously chosen to hurt others to gain pleasure in the act. These characters can be fun also, because of their vagrant disregard for morality.

    I don't really have a type of character that I like to write, as I tend to like them all. :)
     
  12. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Severus Snape was one of the more interesting characters in the Harry Potter series. He is very much a miserable, hateful character from beginning to end, and yet when you learn the truth about him, you can feel sorry for him, and even hold some respect for him.

    Seeing his humanity, and his devotion to someone who could never truly love him, makes all the difference.
     
  13. Anders Backlund
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    Anders Backlund Contributing Member

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    Well, sure, but there is also another reason: some people just don't strive to be likable. There are people who just want to be accepted for who they are.

    That girl I described in my first post isn't that different from anyone else, and she doesn't have any clear excuses for her behavior. Her main issue is that she's an extremely honest person: she'll only say what she really thinks and feels, she doesn't compromise, and she doesn't want respect from anyone that can't win hers. That causes a lot of conflict, but it's more of a case of incompatibility.

    As for the guy I described first, he was just a right bastard for no reason at all. But then again, he was purely a comedic character and those usually don't need a lot of depth in my opinion.

    What I'm trying to say is, if I wrote Snape, I think I would find that enjoyable because he's miserable, hateful and mean-spirited. I'm not sure I would even care if he has humane traits or legit motivation.

    I would still give him humane traits and legit motivation, of course, because that's just plain good writing. But it wouldn't have any effect on how much fun I had writing his sneering remarks and spiteful sarcasms.

    Am I making sense here?
     
  14. Akraa
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    Akraa Member

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    As far as unlikable characters go, I think Discworld is the place. With characters like Rincewind, Maestrum Ridcully, Patrician Vetinari, and onward, all of them have major character flaws which make them unlikable and attractive simultaneously. Eve Forward's Villains by Necessity is also a great example of this in both directions. Aspects of unpleasantness make for realistic and riveting characters in protagonists and the opposite holds true for antagonists.
     
  15. Anders Backlund
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    Anders Backlund Contributing Member

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    I should clarify further: I don't like reading about this kind of character nearly as much as I like writing them.
     
  16. bluebell80
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    I can see your point, but in all fairness to the reader, a character has to have something that they can relate to, no matter how brutal the character is.

    Your girl for example. While she is brutally honest, does that also mean she lacks tact? Because one can be honest, yet still use tact to deal with people.

    Someone who just had diarehea of the mouth, doesn't make for a character readers can relate to, unless there is an underlying reason for the defensive block of using truth to hurt others before they can hurt her. Or her inability to see the truth about herself, even though she can point it out to others. There is always an underlying emotional scar for why we behave the way we do. Thus your character still has a motive for being brutally honest, not just because she is. To be that way, to consciously offend people without care, is still a choice. The reason she makes that choice is her deeper truth.



    But Snape has an underlying good side to him that we finally see at the end. Much like Vader is in Return of the Jedi. Now that we know he backstory, we can understand his fall to the dark side and see what Luke saw (how he still had good in him.) Snape has good in him. Thus, no matter how crotchety he is, or how much of a triple agent his is, he still is playing for the right team. In the end his is a relateable character.

    I can see the appeal of having fun with "bad" characters. (not evil, just the naughty ones.) It is enjoyable to love to hate your character.
     
  17. Anders Backlund
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    Anders Backlund Contributing Member

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    Not necessarily. Perhaps I don't want the reader to relate to my character?

    I'd say she lacks tact for the most part, but has firm principles.

    Eh. Clear motives are somewhat overrated, I think. I can just as well imply motive and make her relatable from just her behavior. There's more then one way write a schoolgirl.

    Besides, she's a secondary character. You don't have to relate to her, you just have to have met someone similar in your life and remember what that felt like.

    Like I said, good writing. I don't think that has anything to do with the topic, though.

    But I guess by now I can't stop this from drifting into characterization anyway...

    I neither love nor hate my characters, be they good or bad. They're just... characters. It all depends on how useful they are to me, and how fun they are to write.
     
  18. marina
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    marina Contributing Member Contributor

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    This all makes me think of Mr. Collin in Pride & Prejudice.

    He's so pompous & embarrasing, and the way Jane Austen describes him, you can tell she was having a lot of fun writing him.
     
  19. UnknownBearing
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    UnknownBearing Contributing Member

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    I know what you mean. One of the characters in my other novel named Brad Treborn, was just an overall... well he wasn't the nicest guy. his flaws were extremely interesting to me, he was childish, he couldnt stand anyone to see him in a state of weakness, and if they did he had to find someway to reverse that.

    he gets the crap beaten out of him twice before he learns his lesson and shuts up.

    but yeah, he was fun to write while it lasted. i enjoyed coming up with his creative insults. i had more fun smashing his face and breaking many of his bones in the fight scenes though... lol.
     

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