Monday, February 13, 2012

Unpleasant Characters

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I'm currently reading The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, an Australian book that provoked quite a bit of controversy a couple of years ago, not surprisingly, as it centers around someone slapping another person's child at a backyard BBQ. Although I find the issues it raises about Australian culture and parenting interesting, I have nearly thrown the book in the bin (and seriously, I'm not sure I even want to bother reading the rest of the book) because of the repellent nature of the characters. 

What makes this strange, for me at least, is that it is the very unpleasantness of these characters that has made the story less rather than more compelling. This is in complete contrast to the previous two books I have read - The Ghost Road by Pat Barker (about shell shocked WW1 soldiers including the poet Wilfred Owen and a character, Billy Prior, who is unsympathetic for most of the book) and A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin - which has a number of pretty unlikeable characters. 

So what makes an unsympathetic character nonetheless compelling? Why is it that in some books, you might dislike, even loathe, a character, but still find the book intriguing - while in others, that same visceral reaction makes you want to hurl the book at the nearest wall and be done with it? 

Although I am not the sort of writer who subscribes to the notion that you have to have a sympathetic main character, I do believe that there must be some redeeming feature, flaw or level of humour that ensures a reader isn't alienated by an unlikeable character. In the case of The Slap I've found some characters so distasteful that I simply don't want to spend any more time inside their heads. In the case of the other books (which are as unlike each other as it is possible - one, historical the other total fantasy) the world and the characters that inhabited it were flawed but intriguing. They hadn't crossed the line to become either dull or intolerable. 

But how, when you are writing a novel, do you avoid falling into this trap? None of us want to read books about one-dimensional goodies or baddies, but neither do we want to hang-out with boring or repellent three-dimensional characters either.

This got me thinking about how to write 'unpleasant' characters, knowing of course, that there are no rules - only pitfalls to avoid. For me, these include alienating a reader, failing to provide any redeeming feature for a character, or 'telling' the reader to such an extent that the reader does not believes the character to be realistic. For me (and I am in the minority as most reviewers loved The Slap) the characters themselves impeded the story. I didn't want to delve into their minds, not because it was an unpleasant place to be, but because it was unpleasant to the point of being dull. It turned me off what I might otherwise have been interested in reading. I had no sympathy. I had no compelling reason to find out what happened to them.

So how do you think writers should tackle the subject of unpleasant and unsympathetic characters? Who do you think does this successfully and why? 

In many ways, tone can be as important as characterization. In Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim, the protagonist is likeable because of the humor brought to his predicament as well as the tone of the book. Perhaps in The Slap I simply didn't like the 'voice' brought to bear for the characters - too strident, too boorish, to misogynistic perhaps. That probably says as much about me as it does about the book...but still how do you feel about reading books about characters you find morally (or otherwise) repugnant?


  1. I know exactly what you mean. I enjoyed reading Lawrence Sanders, but could never finish those featuring his Timothy Cone character. Just too unpleasant to spend time with.

  2. Does the question lie in the fact that we, as authors, have a huge responsibility to make our antagonists real people, with as many dimensions and motivations as our protagonists?

    I mean that, even Hannibal Lechter lost a baby sister which set him on his horrible track. Doesn't excuse his behavior, but lends to credibility.

    Good questions, Clare.

  3. Very interesting question, Clare. I can only think of a couple of times where I've been unable to finish a book because of a character, and both times the character in question was a pederast. The authors in question just went a bit too far into his head for me to continue reading. It almost seemed as if they were rolling around in the muck of his mind and enjoying it. Otherwise, I have a fairly strong stomach.

  4. I've been racking my brain and I can't think of a book I've read that features an unpleasant character as the lead. A character like that would have to be off-the-charts amazing to draw and maintain my interest.

  5. GREAT post, Clare. When I read DEEP END OF THE OCEAN, the mother of the missing child really annoyed me. She was completely distracted about getting to her school reunion and neglected her child long enough for the boy to be abducted. What follows is a dysfunctional family spiraling down a dark rabbit hole. Eventually she comes out on the other side as someone to be pitied and the subplot of the further neglected older brother sucked me in, but that book reminded me that not every character has to be completely likeable from the start so they have a journey of growth by the end.

    I was on a YA panel last Friday when another author mentioned that readers in the YA world (and maybe beyond) are harder on female protags. They accept bad boys and are much more tolerant of unacceptable male behavior than a female with issues. I found that interesting.

  6. Excellent question, Clare. In my workshops I distinguish between positive and negative Leads, and the anti-hero. The negative Lead is as you suggest, someone who is "unpleasant." But why? Because he or she is doing things we don't approve of as a community.

    So why read about such a character?

    1. Hope of redemption. Scrooge. The thing one must do is show, early on, the capacity for change. We see Scrooge's emotion at seeing his childhood. We see Scarlett's brass at the barbecue, etc.

    2. Desire for "just desserts." We may read in the hope the character "gets what's coming to him." That "redeems" the conscience of the community. It helps to have minor characters we care about who are potential victims.

    3. Power. We are drawn in by those who have power which we might like to have, thinking we could do better with it. Hud Bannon has power over women, etc. Parker in the Richard Stark novels has criminal power (and we hope he "wins" because he's opposing crumbs who are worse than he is).

  7. Jordan, that is interesting. I think in YA there is definitely more acceptance of bad boys than bad girls...and I doubt an unpleasant lead female would go down well (and by that I mean unsympathetic) . Jim, these points are really spot on. I do think the power of redemption draws us in as well as the possibility of someone getting their just deserts. In the slap I fear no one gets either! I do think unpleasant but powerful characters intrigue us - like a peek into another world. In this book the characters are just suburban and so that makes them evil Donald Trump types:) Paula, i do think having a three dimensional character with some justification (of sorts) in the past helps though letter was a fascinating character nonetheless (despite the ice factor)! Joe, count me out on on those stories!