Laure: Hi, my name is Laure and I am addicted to unlikeable characters
Chorus: Hi, Laure
As a scene setter, if you will, here are my favourite characters from some things you may know:
The Lord of the Rings – Boromir. Watching him struggle against his weakness and losing is interesting to me. Aragorn is super hot - but Aragorn is super noble. I find nobility laudable… but not interesting.
Star Wars – obviously Darth Vader. Obviously. But specifically, it’s the bit where he has his mask taken off before he dies and suddenly you see how goddamn ugly he is. But as masked Darth, he was rather chillingly beautiful. Unmasked and powerless, he is now ugly. We find power beautiful, however evil it is, because we are attracted to it at a very fundamental level. That is interesting.
Gladiator – Commodus. What an amazing villain. I love him because I absolutely and totally believe in and understand all his motives. He is a great reflection of our baser nature and we find him repellent because he shows us the truth about ourselves. He is not a cool villain. He is not an attractive villain. That makes him interesting.
Buffy – Spike. Oh, this is going to be controversial. I massively fancied Spike in the first five seasons (way, way better than Angel. Sorry Angel fans). However - where he really levelled up for me was the infamous attempted rape scene in season six. That to me was an incredibly bold, risky move on the writers’ part, to completely trash his sex appeal by having him make such a huge, terrible error due to his own entirely selfish agenda. And then have him come back from that, rather than disappear to remain forever a villain in our minds. They made him complicated. That’s when he got interesting.
You may see where I’m going with this. I write what is interesting to me.
I’m into people. People you might not like much. People you might not ever actually want to be. People who make embarrassing, unlaudable mistakes and don’t see things the way you see them.
I’m into villains. Not attractively damaged antiheroes (although okaaaay let’s be fair I’m pretty into them as well), but villains – people who actively hurt others to get what they want - and not in a cool, sexy way.
People who do questionable things for a perhaps horrible but nevertheless interesting agenda of their own.
People who do/say things that an older them will be unable to shake the consequences of, even if the only consequence is that the memory of what they said or did is stuck in their mind like ground glass, reminding them constantly of how flawed and deficient they are.
Because this is true, and I’m interested in truth. A bit obsessed, if we’re doing some writer psychoanalysis. People can be deeply, viciously, unconsciously shitty to each other, but that doesn’t make them straight up evil. Those same people give to charity, and help their friends out no questions asked. We’re complicated. We’re heroes and villains and everything in between, and sometimes on the same day. No wonder we’re so fascinated by ourselves as a species.
But this all means, when I’m writing a character that interests me, I’m taking a big risk that this character will not interest you. You might not be able to get past the fact that this character’s voice is tainted with the way they see the world, with the things they desperately want to be true, and the way they are presenting themselves to others. I’m interested in that dark, messy swamp that lies between truth and the perception of truth.
Some people don’t want that in their fiction - and I get it, I very much do. Sometimes I want to read about characters that are easy to root for, and this includes villains, because there are some amazingly likable villains out there (Loki, anyone?). We’ll forgive a villain so much when they are attractive, charming or funny.
So it stands to reason that I only want to spend time with people I like. Right?
Well, yes – in real life.
But in fiction – no. Fiction reflects real life, but it is not real life (if it was, oh god it would be so dull and frequently utterly unbelievable to read). It is used to expose things about our world and ourselves. This includes the shit, unlaudable bits.
So yes, I want to write something that people want to read. But I also want to write something that I find interesting – and everyone’s mileage on that varies hugely. Book taste is so very subjective – that’s part of what makes books so much fun. My unlikeable but interesting character might be your dull asshole. That’s the risk I run.
For me, it’s a risk worth taking.