Writing the unlikable character
Why take the risk?
When you write a novel you want people to read it.
Of course you do.
You actually want them to read it quickly, to find it impossible to put down. You want them to engage fully with your characters – to like and support some, to feel sympathy or fear for others, to be confused perhaps by someone’s motive or circumstance, and to dislike the bad guys. You also want them to be gripped by the plot. However, as I discussed in a previous blog (Characters and the Inevitability of Influence) if readers aren’t engaged with your characters they are unlikely to care about the storyline.
Simply put: if you want to make sure readers feel compelled to read to the end of your novel, give them a lead character they care about, and/or admire, and/or would secretly like to be. Then present that character with a challenge or problem that sets the odds against them and, ideally, associate that challenge with a character (or characters) the readers won’t like. Then make the drama unfold in an appropriate sequence.
Your lead character doesn’t have to perfect. In fact, it might well alienate some readers if they are. Your lead character does, though, need a good degree of likeability, or be committed to a cause greater than themselves, or be funny, or possess any other quality or mix of qualities that will draw reader-support.
If they don’t, you are taking a real risk. After all, why would a reader commit to a story about someone they either don’t care about or actively dislike?
Having just completed a trilogy about a seriously flawed protagonist - Marcus Kline – it’s a question I’ve had to address and answer. When we first meet Marcus in book one,Influence, he is brilliant and arrogant, helpful and manipulative, successful and aloof. For every good quality he possesses, he has an equally significant counterpoint. No matter what good he does for others, everything is calculated to promote him, his brand, and his genius. In the world of Marcus Kline, Marcus Kline comes first. Always.
So, as an author, why take the risk with such a character? Why not delete the negative elements of his personality or, at least, tone them down? After all, I do want readers to keep reading, don’t I? (And many did let me know how much they disliked Marcus.)
Well, the answer is a simple one and it’s this: there’s plenty of evidence to show that we are drawn to follow the exploits of a flawed protagonist, an anti-hero, as much we are any other. James Bond would be one obvious example. Just take a moment to list the unpleasant character traits of 007 and you will realise there are many. Then think of Holden Caulfield in JD Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye, or Randle P. Murphy in Ken Kesey’s equally brilliant One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, both classic anti-heroes. Both irresistible.
We are drawn to the flawed protagonist because we recognise their essential humanity; they are more like us than the perfect, invincible hero; they are battling not just other people and situations but themselves and, therefore, the drama is heightened – ultimately, anti-heroes are more likely to fail. They also encourage us to keep reading because, if we’re honest, we want them to pay the price for their flaws; we want to see them suffer at least a little bit en route to some form of conclusion.
As real-life individuals struggling to achieve our goals and make sense of it all we might experience the feeling that we are a mixture of different, competing parts. Often when we first meet a flawed protagonist they haven’t realised that yet; they are either not aware of their weaknesses or, if they are, they have no desire to change them. That’s why it’s easy to find them unlikeable.
Did I like Marcus Kline when I first began writing about him?
Truthfully, not a lot. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to go for a drink with him. And we could never have been friends. But I did admire his skill and commitment. I did respect how hard he must have worked to become as good as he was. And I did know that eventually he was going to become aware of those competing parts of his personality, that he was going to suffer and that, when facing the greatest challenge of his life, victory was by no means assured.
Why take the risk with Marcus Kline?
Because he’s as magnificently complicated as every person I’ve ever met; because his story came with no guarantees; because his weaknesses, as well as his strengths, make him human.
Just like the rest of us.
And complex, multi-dimensional human beings are definitely worth reading about.
Faith, the final book in the Marcus Kline trilogy is published by Urbane Publications, 20thSeptember 2018.