Monday, July 15, 2013

When Your Character Does Not Do Nice Things

I have a brief dilemma on Friday night while working on The Last Song. I did not know, SPOILERS if my main character should cheat on his wife SPOILERS.

Then I thought about it. This guy is a recovered heroin addict rock star in Detroit. I've painted him as rough around the edges, he uses foul language, he drinks too much, before and after the heroin. Of course, in that very specific instance, he would. Why did I even have to ask myself?

Of course, we worry about having a sympathetic main character. We want people to like him or her. I'd written once before, though, about how I don't think a character needs necessarily to be likeable. There are main characters in books I would not care to meet in person and be friends with, like the narrator  from Rebecca, or from Fight Club. These characters can be sympathetic, but do I personally like them? Not in a "let's be friends" kind of way.

I ran into this recently when I read Trickster, by Jeff Somers. The narrator, on occasion, would look at an action he and his comrades performed, or a decision they made, and he would reiterate "We were not nice people." (maybe it was "we were not good people"? I could be wrong. Either way.) I could sense his regret in this. Also the necessity in the non-niceness (or goodness) of their actions. This character had a specific morality to which he clung. This character had a mission that he ended up carrying out to the best of his ability. Did he mean to be "nice" or "good" to do so? Well, not "good" in the sense of "out of the goodness of his heart", but he did need to be good at what he was doing.

Not all characters are likeable. Not everybody is going to do Nice Things™ every time, unless you're Beth from Little Women, and even Beth, I feel, was written that way for a reason. And SPOILERS I think Beth dies for just that reason. SPOILERS

I think this can be a thing that holds us back, the double whammy of "will they like me" and "will they like my characters". Characters must be interesting, I feel. And characters must be true to themselves as they are written. So yeah. My main character has done Bad Things™. He isn't proud, necessarily. He isn't guilty, necessarily. It is what it is. And I need to be okay with that.


  1. I think character flaws are appropriate and I have found that I may not like a character, but it doesn't necessarily mean I cannot relate, and relating is what you want your readers to feel, whether the character is doing good or bad.

    In Dean Koontz's "From The Corner of His Eye", he depicts this vicious killer who is completely evil, but puts the guy in a predicament to where he's about to get caught, and I found myself saying in my head, "Oh my gosh, you're going to get caught if you don't do something right away!"

    Then I was like, what? Why am I caring about this character? It's not that I was caring about the character, I could just relate to the consequences for the particular situation. The character was fleshed out wonderfully evil, and that's what makes a good character, not the good deeds, but how well the author characterizes him/her.

    1. I have yet to read any Dean Koontz, but that's one that's caught my eye (hah!) I'll have to give it a go. I love it when an author has that ability, to make you root for the bad guy (and not just by making the good guys entirely unlikeable).

  2. I love the spoilers warnings here . . . Beth dies?!?!?!

    It is a fine line to walk. Too perfect isn't believable. Bad just for the sake of being bad - also not good. (Awkward sentence construction there, but it makes sense in my head.) If the character is in line with the motivation presented and there is even one small part I can like or relate to, then I can like some pretty bad guys from time to time.

    1. Hey, I don't want to ruin things for anybody!

      I hear what you're saying. Just the right mix of good and bad is necessary. A baddie needs to be bad enough, not just for the sake of it (like the bad guy in Pillars of the Earth. Seriously. You'd think he would've learned eventually. But no.)