Sunday, January 4, 2015

How Come No One Likes My Unlikable Characters

Writing about bad people is fun, but is it fun to read? In a lot of cases the answer is “no” especially when the character in question is simply a one-note banality of evil with none of the “that’s wicked sexy” the reader demands. Arguably worse is attempts to have it both ways, where the character that does awful things is really a good guy who owns unspecified industry and treats his workers well and that sort of drivel. It’s wishy-washy. So how, then, do we rehabilitate the horrible alter egos we create to the point where they’re entertaining and not just a reflection of our deeply seated psychological issues?

The answer you always get is they must be interesting. This is true, although it’s a bit of a tautology. “How do I make a character interesting?” is the next obvious question and there no further help is usually forthcoming. It gets down to the technical skills that are not easily acquired. That’s not an answer anyone likes. We live in a “5 Weird Tricks for Doing Brain Surgery!” world, after all.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not really in position to offer avuncular tips to new comers, what with my grand total of two published novels and general aura of self-contained arrogance that resists all new ideas mightily. Still, I’ve noticed a few things that might prove useful or at least non-detrimental, failing that.

There are no heroes or anti-heroes, just protagonists. Just accepting that statement will save you a lot of time and misery. The protagonist must connect with the reader. This is why your story about the guy that kills people and that’s the whole story isn’t the massive crowd-pleaser you envisioned. It’s also the reason why unlikable designated heroes are just as bad at the other end of the spectrum. We have to start by asking ourselves why anyone would care. If that question doesn’t have a good answer, it’s time to start over.

Not actually a significant source of Motorsickles.

That might be the hardest part, admitting that not every idea for a character is pure brilliance delivered by an unseen hand, that not every plot idea is the most amazing thing anyone has ever seen or ever will see. I know I struggle with it. “Me, have a bad idea?” It doesn’t even seem possible, right? The truth is it happens all the time. Learning to distinguish what would work and what wouldn’t is hard, but hey no easy solutions, journey of a thousand miles, all that disappointing reality.

Beyond that, watch out for points of no return, actions that are so reprehensible that the character can never be redeemed. There are actions where a reader simply will opt out, where you’ve gone too far. Don’t cross that line. It’s hard to say where that event horizon lies and, again, it’s something that must be felt rather than known. My rule of thumb is if I think something is too much, it definitely is. If I don’t, it still might be. If you’re less of desensitized cynic than I, this process will actually be much easier.

The bottom line is have fun with your protagonists and make them really shine out as something memorable. If there’s one sin that’s never forgivable, it’s mediocrity. Nothing bland, please. Make it righteous as all hell and everything else will fix itself.

Aaron Zehner is the author of "The Foolchild Invention" available in paperback and e-book format. Read free excerpts here and here.

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