I tweeted about likeable characters vs fascinating characters this morning, and ended up developing into an article: “Likeable Characters, Interesting Characters and the Frankly Terrible Ones”. Aka, “how to write terrible characters you love to hate!”
(slightly expanded from my twitter thread this morning. As usual this is not gospel truth, but things that happen to work for me. Do feel free to take what you want from this and throw what doesn’t fit)
This morning’s thoughts: likeable characters. I think they’re overrated.
We can argue and should argue a bit about what makes a character “likeable”. It’s highly subjective, partly dependent on moral values of society, partly dependent on people: I happen not to care much for arrogant characters, so any character that has this flaw has got an uphill climb to be sympathetic to me. On a societal level, because misogyny is still embedded in the way things work, men in positions of power doing terrible things in service of a good goal are generally seen as ruthless, women as bitches.
However, for me the root issue with “likeable” is that I don’t think characters have to be likeable. For me, they have to be interesting, which isn’t quite the same. This actually ties into a larger thing: the end goal of writing is to hold the reader’s attention. And the thing is, there are many, many ways to do that: which one you use depends on you as a writer, and the audience you target, and the conventions of the genre you’re writing in, etc. (a lot of writing advice is about tools and tips and things you can use to hold attention–they’re not so much unbreakable rules as ideas to keep readers turning pages).
If we’re just talking characters: you can make readers care about what happens to them, which is the “likeable” part of the equation. But you don’t have to. You can also make readers wonder and fear what they’ll do next. You can, conversely, just decide you don’t much care about characters and that the important thing is unfolding the setting around minimal portraits. You can also decide that the twists of the plot take precedence over the characters. Again, valid choice. (you need a minimum obviously. No characters at all usually makes it hard to engage the reader because we’re wired to pay attention to that. We’re also wired to find people or people-equivalent in stories so it tends to happen regarless of whether you plan for it or not)
A few tricks I used for terrible characters (*cough* Asmodeus *cough*): it helps if they’ve got a code, even if it’s a horrible code, because we tend to value highly people who stick by principles. It also helps if their goals are things we approve of, even if the means they then deploy to achieve them are horrendous, again because–as a society–we tend to judge strongly on intent: Magneto wants to protect all mutants from being persecuted, Holland in VE Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic series wants his London (which was unfairly shut off and devasted) to be prosperous again. Asmodeus in my own The House of Binding Thorns wants to protect his own House and his own people in an environment of scarcity.
Sarcasm and honesty also help: again, values vary, but hypocrisy in our societies is particularly hard to swallow. Sarcasm/irony in particular have high correlation to fascination: we pay attention because we want to know what the characters will come up with next, and because it feels like they’re speaking truth and/or seeing things more clearly than the other characters (they may not actually be seeing things more clearly, but that’s another issue!). Think of Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: part of his appeal is that he always seems to puncture holes in the main characters’ earnest plans.
Power dynamics–how terrible characters behave with their inferiors–is an easy but neat trick. The expected is they’ll be terrible, so if you buck it you get a lot of extra mileage (plus, I never really believed the dark lords who kept killing their subordinates would have many subordinates left after a few months–everyone would just leave and find a more reliable employer!) 
Another easy one is the reedemable feature, though “redeemable” is again highly dependent on people (one person’s redeemable feature is another’s breaking point): easiest one is their caring about people, especially forgiving them if they do something terrible character doesn’t approve of (you’d be surprised how often, in media, terrible characters turn out to only pretend to care about their loved ones, or to kill their loved ones as soon as they do so much as stray from the path).
Note that the goal of all of this isn’t to actually redeem the character: all of this is way below the hard work, atonement and change of heart required for redemption. The goal is just to make sure the reader gets invested into the character–you lose, as a writer, if they wander off or throw the book across the room because the character is so horribly a turn-off and the plot so uninteresting they’d rather be doing something else. And yes, a lot of this–like “likeable”– is still highly subjective: again, the trick is appealing to your readership (trying to appeal to everyone with “universal” values has, at least for me, always resulted in character design by committee: the results are bland, unlikely to make anyone throw books at all, but also unlikely to make people want to fight for your characters!).
Another word of warning that you probably don’t want to try this trick with every single character in your novel/short story/etc.: terrible characters tend to shine best when they’re mixed with other characters that readers care about. Or at least characters who are decent. You can make every single character in the novel terrible–it’s been done and it’s been done with great success–but it’s going to be a more difficult tightrope to walk because terrible characters will have no one to be contrasted against, and no one they can bounce off, either. A little goes a long way.
So basically, my recipe: give the reader something to cling to, make sure that said thing doesn’t break halfway through the plot (and if it does, replace it with something else before it completely breaks)–and throw in enough unexpected to be surprising. That, and doing the usual prayer of the writer aka “please please let everything not implode in mid-flight”!
(and yes, speaking of mid-flight: I have a book that just came out. It’s set in a ruined and dark, decadent Paris; it has dragons, Fallen angels, alchemists, revolutions and betrayals; a terrible character and decent ones, and I had a lot of
anxiety fun writing it–I would love it if you checked it out. Sorry, had to say it. Sales are how I get the chance to write other books °=°)
In The House of Binding Thorns I balanced the power dynamics of a particular scene on a knife’s edge: I had one scene which involved one character in the power of a terrible one, and I deliberately played with the expectation of terrible things happening to create tension–in particular, at one point, consent is asked for, which very much went against the grain of such scenes. It was a deliberate choice.
So, in the interest of actually being held accountable for stuff…
I’ve joined the Clarion West write-a-thon: my goal is to have 50,000 words of my (untitled) novel set in a post-apocalyptic, colonial Paris completed by August 2 (ok, maybe by end of August). Can’t say much about it (I *hate* talking about what I’m writing while I’m writing it), but it’s got fallen angels, Vietnamese dragons and immortals, and plenty of magical fireworks.
You can see a snippet from the WIP on my write-a-thon page–as well as information for donating, and links to all the pages by fabulous other writers such as Rochita Loenen Ruiz, Stephanie Burgis and Floris M Kleijne.
I tend not to stop when I’m writing a draft, unless it’s for something really vital (for instance, the precise headdress that someone is wearing is something I can always work out later; the layout of the rooms where the nobleman was murdered and that my characters are searching is rather more vital to the way the scene plays out, and requires me to have actually done the research/invention/work). Accordingly, my first (and subsequent) drafts are peppered with little notes to myself, that I generally smooth out in the next revision.
I stole a leaf from a friend’s book, who marks such places in his manuscripts with @; except I upgraded to square brackets because 1. there’s less risk of me accidentally using them in anything, and 2. Square brackets enable me to see the beginning and the end of my own annotations.
(cut for length) Continue reading →
Articles on Language and Culture:
–“On Worldbuilding, Patchwork and Filing Off Serial Numbers”, at Khaalidah’s blog
–“Drawing Inspiration from Further Afield: fantasy set in non-Western Cultures”, at Aidan Moher’s blog
–“Narrative, Resonance and Genre” at SFnovelists
–“Traduttore, Traditore: translations, languages and cultures” at SFnovelists
(with thanks to Brian Dolton, for sparking this one off)
The above is something that I’ve often heard quoted when speaking of “writing the Other” . And I’ve been struggling with it ever since I heard it; because it rings fishy to me. And yet there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it; and indeed, much that is right. Of course we’re all human beings. We’re born and we live and we age and we die. We love and we care and we hate and we fear. We have parents and grandparents and some sort of family; and a non-insignificant bunch of us will have friends and children and partners. There’s a whole spectrum of experiences and emotions that we share on what, for want of a better word, I think of as the human continuum. And, given that a few centuries ago people of a different colour or gender or creed were thought of as no better than beasts, I’m certainly not going to complain at the impulse to declare us all part of the same species.
At the same time… I think the main problem I have with the above sentences is that they’re too reductive: they go straight to what they see as “the essential”, and forget that our lives are often made up of many large and small details, of a mosaic of beliefs and cultural mores which comes from the environment we’ve been raised in, the society we’ve moving in, the subcultures we’re members of, the people we frequent… Yeah, we’re all the same deep down, but, broadly speaking, life in Hồ Chí Minh City follows very different rhythms from life in Paris; and the social structure and attitudes can also be very different . Similarly, of course French politics are like US politics, but for a matter of degree; but that doesn’t get across the way that those two are fundamentally un-alike, and the myriad differences that make French politics characteristics of France.
Of course there’s nothing like “French-ness”, or “Black-ness”, or “Asian-ness”–and of course you don’t want characters who are walking stereotypes (personally, if I see one more Eastern mystical master, or one more Asian family obsessed with school grades and arranged marriages, I’ll hit someone). But the reverse approach, the one that advocates that “we’re all the same deep down”, is a bit like globalisation to me: instead of being a vibrant celebration of what makes us different, globalisation tends to smooth everything into an over-arching culture (which is a mix of European/US cultural mores, to oversimplify). Or like “universal stories”, which so often tend to be the Hollywood variety (rather than, say, the Bollywood or Nollywood one, to take just two examples).
This approach assumes that everyone in every country wants the same things: which might the case if you go deep enough, but is intensely problematic if you stop, say, at tastes in food, or beauty standards, or cultural values. And, like globalisation, the “we’re all the same” approach tends to lead to characters who might feel powerfully individual, but who basically remain 21st-Century US/European people in costume with a few “exotic”  words thrown in: it makes a mockery of all that makes us different.
In other words, saying “everyone is the same deep down” carries the risk of being boiled down to “everyone is like me”, and that in turn can lead to thinking everyone has the same beliefs and culture as you do, aka imposing your own thought processes on others at the expense of their own.
So, yeah. We’re all the same deep down. Except for a matter of degree. But degree is a huge thing.
This isn’t my most articulate post. I’m fully aware that I’m struggling to pinpoint why I disagree with the above assumptions; and I’m not entirely sure I succeeded in putting my thoughts down on, er, blog electrons. I guess it broadly boils to a matter of balance between two ends of the same problem: characters as walking stereotypes, and characters as entirely similar to the writer or the assumed majority audience (both stemming from an incomprehension of difference, and to some extent for me, a tolerance fail). Am I making sense to you? What do you think?
I also have issues with this expression, but I’m going to stick to one problematic assertion per blog post…
They can also be eerily similar in some respects; and yes, they’re going to hugely depend on who you are and where you live in both cities. But my point is that they don’t coincide 100%, or even 90%. There’s overlap, but no equivalence (yes, I’m a maths geek 🙂 )
”exotic” is another of those words that makes me want to hit something, just in case you have a doubt. Especially when it’s applied to food I happen to have eaten and enjoyed since childhood.
(picture credits: nanarmitvn on stock.xchng)
Part 2 of the Codexian blog tour, in which the amazing Nancy Fulda tells us about writing and sculpture:
The Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo once said: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
He also said: “The marble not yet carved can hold the form of every thought the greatest artist has.”
In this, I think, sculpting is not so very different than writing. As authors, we stand like Michelangelo before the lump of our incompleted stories, stupefied not by lack of ideas, but by their plethora. An unfinished story is full of potential. It might become anything: an action-adventure saga, a conflicted character story, an incisive satire.
It is this potential that dazzles us. And it is this same potential which so often causes us to stumble.
A story is defined, not so much by what it is, but by what it is not. Faced with the rough surface of a draft that has not yet been freed from the stone, the writer might feel tempted to do it all: concentrate on character and plot and symbolism and prose style. He is afraid to cut away too much, and so his chisel strokes are awkward, and hesitant, and ultimately unsatisfactory. The angel within the stone remains buried beneath a jumble of beautiful clutter.
Michelangelo said, “The more the marbles wastes, the more the statue grows.” This is, I believe, an early incarnation of the well-known injunction to Murder Your Darlings.
All life is nurtured by death, and a story is defined not so much by what it is, but by what it is not. Our fiction cannot take on life unless we are willing destroy all of the beautiful possibilities but one: the best one. We must be willing to slay the poetic character story in order to set the action-adventure free. We must murder the satire so that drama can rise from its ashes.
I hear objections shouted from the crowd already.
Yes, of course it’s possible to mingle plot with characterization. Like Abraham, we are sometimes spared from destroying something precious in the pursuit of something we treasure even more. But let’s remember something about Abraham: he was firm in his priorities.
You want a deeply conflicted protagonist who fights bad guys with paperclips, and by the way, he loves to compose limericks? Fair enough, but you’d better figure out which of those three elements is most important to you, because if any of the others get in its way, you’re going to have to clear them out. Failure to do so will imprison your angel.
This is why critique groups can be so frustrating, by the way. Each critiquer gives voice to one of the thousand Stories-That-Might-Have-Been. Each of them calls for a distinct, if superficially similar, narrative. It’s no wonder new authors sometimes feel lost in the babble.
The only solution is to find your angel. Your angel, not anyone else’s.
In other words, find your rough draft’s dominant draw — the aspect of the story that ignites your aesthetic passion, the part of it you love most. That’s your angel.
A story’s ending is often indicative, here. Critiquers may complain that the end doesn’t mesh with themes presented earlier. That’s because the writer was still exploring ideas. At the end of the first draft, when it’s time to wrap things up, his subconscious emphasizes those elements which have become most meaningful to him — and they are often not the same elements that dominated the opening scenes.
For heaven’s sakes, folks, don’t smother your angels! Be very cautious if someone tells you to change your ending. Ask yourself whether it’s the beginning that ought to change, instead.
Find your angel, writers. Don’t stop carving until you’ve set him free.
And if it seems like a lot of work along the way? And if we’re tempted to feel jealous of the people who do it better than we do?
Well, a certain Renaissance sculptor once said: “If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.”
Nancy Fulda’s fiction has appeared in venues including Asimov’s, Jim Baen’s Universe, and Norilana Books’ Warrior, Wisewoman anthology. She is a Phobos Award recipient, a two-time WOTF Finalist, and an assistant editor at Jim Baen’s Universe. Nancy also manages the custom anthology web site at http://www.anthologybuilder.com, where visitors can assemble a print-ready anthology of stories by prominent authors. Nancy keeps a blog at http://nancyfulda.livejournal.com. She lives in Germany with her husband, their three children, and no cats. You can order a collection of her short fiction here.