On unlikeable characters

This guy can be kind of a dick too.

This guy can be kind of a dick too.

I’m working on finishing up my most recent writing project, and as I wrote a scene today, I realized that one of the main characters in the novel is unlikeable. I knew this already because my writing group had mentioned having issues with her character, but it was only today that I began to figure out why I myself didn’t like her.

Then I thought, should I fix that? After all, it’s not a bad thing to have an unlikeable character. There’s a world of difference between an unlikeable character and a bad one. A bad character is one that isn’t developed well or doesn’t contribute much to the story. An unlikeable character can be well written and indispensable for the plot, but is just kind of an asshole.

On the other hand, I think there’s also a world of difference between a character who’s unlikeable to people in the story, and a character who I personally hate. I might not want to be best friends in real life with Darth Vader or Dexter or Dr. House, but I love them as characters and love watching them on screen. However, the character of the cowardly lion in Gregory Maguire’s book A Lion Among Men was so detestable that I will still rant angrily about him to anyone who expresses interest in reading the series.

Maybe the clearest example of this is the difference between Draco Malfoy and Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter series. Draco Malfoy is a jerk to Harry, but he’s a very popular character among readers, partially for the glimpses of his rocky home life. Umbridge is also a jerk to Harry, but readers universally despise her because she’s disgustingly smug and always in control.

Making a character likeable is often as simple as giving them something a reader can relate to, and perhaps a way to justify their bad behavior. Dexter is a serial killer, but he has a family to protect and he tries to only kill other serial killers, of which there are a disturbingly large amount in Miami. House is an absolute dick to everyone he meets, but he’s brilliant and he suffers from chronic pain. Sherlock Holmes, at least in the modern BBC adaptation, is also a dick to everyone he meets, but he’s a lonely genius. Hannibal Lecter eats people and cuts off someone’s face, but he’s a gentleman who respects Clarice and helps her track down another killer. Even when we see them at their most brutal, it’s usually turned against people we dislike. Dexter can violently stab someone else to death, but as long as that someone is a serial killing rapist and not a character we know and love, the viewers will root for him.

I was reading the Pitch Wars wishlist blog hop yesterday, and one of the things I noticed several authors and editors looking for was unlikeable female characters. Since women in novels are often presented as the hero’s reward for completing his quest, they’re written as nice and morally pure. Even if they kick ass, they can’t run the risk of being unlikeable because then they wouldn’t be an adequate reward. When they’re the only female in the whole work, they usually show up as the platonic ideal of womanhood. There’s not a lot of leeway in there to be unlikeable.

It follows, then, that if you have an unlikeable female, it means that her purpose in the novel is not simply to be a romantic interest and/or the representative of her whole sex. An unlikeable female can’t be replaced by a sexy leg lamp, because in order for her to be unlikeable, she has to do something that provokes emotion other than sit there and look sexy. Yes, that’s a very low bar to clear, and having an unlikeable female character isn’t the key to a great story, but it is a sign that the writer is putting a little more effort into characterization than the bare minimum. What those #PitchWars mentors want when they ask for unlikeable female characters are women who are allowed to be flawed and human; characters who don’t need to be likeable for the sake of being a romantic interest.

Your female protagonist.

Your female protagonist.

So where does that leave my unlikeable character? She’s unlikeable because she believes that since she’s the good guy, the morally reprehensible things she does are justified. Her holier-than-thou attitude is irritating. If, as the writer, I never presented a differing opinion to hers in the story, readers might think that I also thought the bad things she did were justified.

Maybe that’s the key. I’m willing to put up with unlikeable characters in stories as long as I assume that the author is intentionally making them unlikeable. I know that Rowling was making Umbridge insufferable because that was the push Harry needed to make Dumbledore’s Army. When I don’t finish a book because of its unlikeable characters, usually it’s because I feel the author is trying for cool and snarky but is failing. Sherlock, unfortunately, has been crossing this line more and more; the writers seem to think that his intelligence excuses his obnoxious personality. I much prefer Elementary, where Sherlock can be a jerk but we’re not expected to love him for it.

In my character’s case, I don’t think I’ll be making an effort to make her more sympathetic. Now that I fully understand why she is the way she is, I can write her a lot better. As long as her motivations are believable, I don’t think she needs to be anyone’s best friend.


Camp Necon and the dog days of summer

These jellyfish were very photogenic.

These jellyfish were very photogenic.

This blog has been sleeping for a little while. I wrote a long post a few days ago but finally had to admit it was too incoherent and meandering so that’s not going to see the light of day. Perhaps I’ll revise it at some point once I try to figure out what point I was trying to make.

I’ve actually been really busy in the last couple weeks, doing summery things like going to the New England Aquarium for my birthday and going to Cape Cod with some friends at their timeshare and saying goodbye to a friend who’s decided to strike out west and find her fortune there. Oh, and I went to Camp Necon, the Northeastern Writers’ Conference. I don’t know why the “wri” is silent in that acronym. Let’s talk about that for a bit.

She died as she lived

She died as she lived

Camp Necon is a very tiny conference mainly focused on horror writing, with shades of speculative fiction thrown in. This year’s guests of honor were Chuck Wendig and Seanan McGuire, who are two of my favorite authors, and since it was close by I decided to commute in every day and attend panels. I went with R.K. Bentley, who’s the head of my writing group and is also local. We were two of only a handful of newbies there, and everyone was very welcoming. The con has been going on for 35 years now and most of the people there attend every year, so it’s very close-knit. I can see why they want to keep their registration capped at 200. It’s more of a gathering of friends than a conference. Still, there were interesting panels and it was tiny enough that I got a chance to talk briefly with both GoHs, so that made my weekend.

The con left me with a massive pile of books to read, more on my list to buy, and a lot of motivation to write darker fantasy. With the pile of books I’ve already borrowed from Rob, and the stuff on my Kindle, I have my next few months booked (heh heh get it) solid. Better get to work. (Just kidding, I’m totally going to play Borderlands).

These are just the books I got on day 1.

These are just the books I got on day 1.

Oh and I booked my excursions today for the Writing Excuses cruise in September. I can’t wait!

“A starship, not a nuclear missile”

This'll be me soon.

This’ll be me soon.

I’m heading out to the airport soon, but I thought I’d mention some of the updates to the Hugo Awards controversy that have happened in the last few days. You can refer to my last post for a more in depth run down of the events, but in short:

Connie Willis was invited to present the Hugos this year, but declined. She wrote up her reasons in a blog post titled “Why I Won’t Be a Presenter at the Hugo Awards This Year“, but they boil down to the fact that the Sad Puppies et al. have threatened to continue to spam the Hugos with their own nominees if they don’t win this year, and Connie refuses to host the awards and pretend everything is fine and dandy.

In my own particular case, I feel I’ve also been ordered to go along with them and act as if this were an ordinary Hugo Awards ceremony. I’ve essentially been told to engage in some light-hearted banter with the nominees, give one of them the award, and by my presence–and my silence–lend cover and credibility to winners who got the award through bullying and extortion.

Meanwhile, one of the nominees from the Sad Puppies slate, John C. Wright (who shows up an unprecedented six times on the ballot, three of which are under “best novella”) had one of his stories disqualified because it had been previously published on his website in 2013 and was not eligible for a 2014 award. Additionally, Jon Eno, nominated for Best Professional Artist, had no eligible works in 2014 and was also taken off the ballot. Apparently the Sad Puppies have seen John C. Wright’s removal as further proof of the liberal conspiracy that has taken over the Hugos, since in 2006, John Scalzi was nominated for his work, Old Man’s War, despite having been serialized on his own blog in the year previous. Why was Scalzi considered eligible then, and Wright disqualified for the same thing now? Scalzi points out that nearly a decade has passed since then, and ideas about self-publication have changed in the meantime.

In 2002 there was no Kindle, no Nook, no tablet or smart phone; there was no significant and simple commerce channel for independent publication; and there was not, apparently, a widespread understanding that self-publishing, in whatever form, constituted formal publication for the purposes of the Hugo Awards. 2013 is not 2002; 2015, when Mr. Wright’s story was nominated, is not 2006, when OMW was nominated.

Indeed, it was only two months ago that SFWA decided to allow self-published authors to become members of their organization. Self-published authors have done a lot of advocacy to be considered professional authors in the last few years, and as a result of that, self-publication is now counted as publication for the purposes of award eligibility. Times change.

Finally, George R. R. Martin has been writing extensively about the controversy, holding a long conversation with Sad Puppy coordinator Larry Correia. Not surprisingly, GRRM has been quite verbose on the topic. I’ll link you to his most recent post. You can find the rest on his blog if you’re so inclined.

If I could clap my hands and make everybody play nice, I would, but I do not have that superpower. But it is interesting that you talk about “scaring the hell out of authors” on your side. Fear is a big part of this. People on the other side of the fence are scared as well, and when people are afraid, they lash out. Both sides here feel they are being attacked, and the war of words just seems to keep escalating, and all that can come of that is mutually assured destruction.

I like to think the Hugo represents a starship, not a nuclear missile.

Well said, Geroge. And now I’m off to Ireland.


Hugo Nominations 2015, now with more scandal!

hugo 1 Hugo nominations were announced yesterday, and in much the same vein as last year, there’s been a bit of an uproar over the results. This year there was an organized effort by GamerGaters to troll the nominations and nominate people just to anger so-called “social justice warriors” (people who try to promote gender equality and sexual and racial diversity in fiction). In particular you’ll note that Theodore “Vox Day” Beale is nominated twice, for Best Editor, Short Form and Best Editor, Long Form. I’ve talked about Vox Day before. Once is enough. However, he’s not the only one on the list who was nominated as a result of this organized effort. To read more about the “Sad Puppy” slate, read these two posts by Steve Davidson. In short:

At its base, Sad Puppies is about a few authors who have twigged to the fact that controversy, outrage and building an army of sycophants is good for their bottom line – especially if they can gin up a Judas goat for everyone to love to hate.  The fact that the prize at the end of all of this bullshit might be a Hugo Award for one or more of them – along with bragging rights over how successfully they’ve managed to corrupt fix the system – is the plum in the pudding.

In case you haven’t been in the internet in a couple years and haven’t heard of it, GamerGate is a movement of violently racist and misogynist video gamers who actively work to drive women and racial minorities out of both playing and developing video games, in the bizarre theory that video games are only for white men. They attempt to achieve this goal by sending rape and death threats to people, hacking their accounts and posting home addresses and bank information publicly, threatening mass shootings at places where video game players might be talking about diversity in video games, etc. One thing you might notice from my description is that they have nothing whatsoever to do with literary awards.

hugo 2Patrick Nielsen Hayden has a post with screenshots of GamerGaters talking about trying to rig the voting. John Scalzi talks about how to vote for those nominees you feel deserve an award, and how to note your displeasure with those who don’t. io9 has a nice overview about the drama.

hugo 3I am not a WorldCon member and therefore cannot vote in the Hugos. I’m beginning to think I should pony up the cash for the privilege, however. The Hugos need more people who are willing to nominate and vote for fiction on its own merit. (Incidentally, I see Ann Leckie is once again up for Best Novel, this time for Ancillary Sword. I just bought that one and can’t wait to read it.)

I feel a little bad for the authors who only got on the ballot because of this campaign. Not all of them had a say in their own nominations. It must suck to wonder whether you were nominated because you were actually talented, or only as a joke to piss people off. If I were them, I’d distance myself from the Sad Puppies and GamerGaters, to cut the stench of politics off my nomination.


See You Next Tuesday

Decorative Gourd seasonThere’s been some discussion today about a new app called Clean Reader, which will allow you to read your favorite ebooks with the profanity edited out. Not surprisingly, some authors are vehemently against the idea, seeing it as, at best, censorship of their work, and at worst, unlawful editing of a copyrighted text. Others point out that the app doesn’t actually change the text in any way; it simply blanks out the offending word, and the app user has the choice to read the uncensored book if they want. The Clean Reader blog says that customers, having paid for a book, should be allowed to consume it however they want.

It reminds me of the controversy a few years back when an Alabama publishing company decided to replace the n-word with ‘slave’ in their reprint of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The publishing company argued that some people can’t get past the word in order to grapple with the actual issues of the story, and their edition allowed more schools to add the books to their summer reading lists. Critics pointed out that making the book more palatable was missing the point. Pretending people didn’t use that word meant ignoring the very reason the word is considered harmful today.

It’s twee to say that good writers don’t need to use profanity, or that clean writing is quality writing. Authors use words for specific effects, and the words people use can tell a lot about character and setting and class. Anyone who has seen movies edited for television can understand the comical effect that the sanitized language can have on a story. Words are tools to be used, and there are some effects that can only be achieved with the use of profanity.

On the other hand, I can see good reason why people should be allowed to convert the media they consume into a more accessible format. Many video games have colorblind mode for gamers who wouldn’t be able to distinguish between the default colors of the game. Visually impaired movie viewers can watch movies with audio description tracks that sometimes change dialogue. Abridging stories for audiobook is a common practice. Publishers translate books into other languages to make them available to larger audiences. The Harry Potter series was edited to make it less British for American readers.

A dislike of profanity doesn’t exactly constitute a disability, but I can appreciate that some people have a far greater distaste for dirty words than I do. If they prefer to read bowdlerized versions of their favorite books, even knowing that the edited content might be inferior or even incomprehensible, then that’s their choice. Perhaps Clean Reader should allow authors to opt out of having their text available, and let readers read the rest however they like.

Further reading:
Joanne Harris’s post, “An Email from Clean Reader
Chuck Wendig’s post, “Fuck You, Clean Reader: Authorial Consent Matters


Talent is a myth

A mid winter walk through the woods.

A mid winter walk through the woods.

Late last week, an article on The Stranger made the rounds on Twitter, shared among furious writers of all kinds. The article, “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One” purported to have advice for aspiring writers, by a former professor who had seen it all.

It wasn’t great advice. The very first tip said that writers are born with talent, and the odds were that you don’t have it. It went on to say that if you didn’t start writing as a teenager, it was too late now. If you don’t read the hardest, densest prose you can get your hands on, you’re a failure, and—in a very weird paragraph—if you write a shitty memoir about being abused as a child, the author wishes you’d been abused even worse as punishment for your crimes against language. No, seriously, he says that.

Chuck Wendig responded to the article with a couple posts. The first, “An Open Letter to that Ex-MFA Creative Writing Teacher Dude“, dissected the article point by point and is a good read. His second, “The Toxicity of Talent (Or: Did You Roll a Natural 20 At Birth?)” focused on that first point in the article, and that’s what I’d like to talk about right now.

When I was in school, I was a quick learner. I happened to be the kind of person who did very well in structured learning environments. That, paired with a terror of getting in trouble, meant that I did all my homework and read all the assigned textbooks and got straight As. I was good at school, and I got a reputation for being the smart kid.

Because of that, whenever I did something well, like write a short story I was proud of, kids would roll their eyes and say “Yeah but that’s just because you’re talented.” All that hard work I’d done on it? Yeah, no one cared. When they called me talented, even though they meant well, it was an insult. ‘Talent’ meant that the story was worth nothing, because I could have mashed my face against the keyboard and it would have been good.

So I’m going to call bullshit on the whole idea of talent right here. People do well at things because they work at them. I think the author of the original article had the wrong idea when he faced his students. He thought writers were born with talent, and the best writers he saw were ones who had started in their teens, yet he never made the connection that the ones who started writing in their teens had worked at their craft longer than the ones that started later.

Maybe you’re better at grammar because you read a lot as a child. Maybe you have a talent for dialogue because you watch a lot of movies. Maybe you’re a great artist because you enjoy sketching and people learn better when they’re having fun doing it. Those strengths didn’t spring from a vacuum. You have them because you worked for them, and the exciting thing about that is that you can develop any skill you want if you keep trying. ‘Talent’ is a myth. Start appreciating the hard work behind it.


Nanowrimo Now What?: The Synopsis

A hot air balloon over Lancaster, PA.

A hot air balloon over Lancaster, PA.

In the second part of my “Nanowrimo Now What?” posts, I’m going to talk about writing a synopsis. This might seem like jumping the gun; after all, you’re not going to be querying agents for this monstrosity you’ve written just yet. But a synopsis can be used for more than just getting an agent interested in your story. It’s a key editing tool for figuring out what the heck your story is even trying to say.

When the rough draft of your novel has been spewed out onto the page, it might not look like what you first planned, if you planned at all. For people who write organically, you probably didn’t know where the story was going to end up until you got there, and that’s fine! For people who outline, you probably discovered along the way that the story needed to take a different direction at a certain point, or some key plot elements that seemed obvious in the pre-writing stages turned out to be unfeasible when you actually got to them in the story. When that happens, you need a synopsis.

If you really want to learn about writing a synopsis, go to Miss Snark’s blog and check out her critiques of various synopses. Actually, read everything she has to say about everything, because she’s got a lot of good advice.

A few things I learned from her:

The synopsis does not need to talk about every plot point in the story. It’s not really possible to fit your whole novel plot into the two to three pages (or less!) that a lot of agents ask for. So instead, look for the main character arc, and summarize that. Where did the main character start? What did she work to accomplish? How was she changed along the way? How does that fit with the theme of the story? What is the point to the whole thing? Forget all the side characters and details. This isn’t your story bible. This is just a broad summary of the main theme of the book.

On the other hand, you don’t want a character study. We need to see the specific events that changed your character, not just how they changed. You don’t need to follow the chronology of the book. Write the events as they logically lead into each other.

Make sure you put the stakes front and center. What does the main character stand to lose? What is her motivation? What does she want, specifically, at the beginning of the novel, and how does she get it?

Forcing yourself to whittle down your novel into a svelte synopsis makes you focus purely on the bones of the novel. If you can’t answer the questions I asked above, then there are some big things missing from your novel. This is why you want to do the synopsis now, when you’re beginning editing, and not wait until after you’ve polished the fifth draft to a high shine and are ready to send it out. If you have any major plot holes, you’ll find that out now. If your main character doesn’t really have any strong desires and just lets herself be wafted about on the winds of fate, that’ll show up too.

Once you finish your synopsis and find all the incoherent plot points and unmotivated characters, put that synopsis aside and write a new one. This time, make sure it makes sense. Keep it broad. You don’t need to go into the details now. What you want is to make sure your story has strong bones before you start putting the meat on it. And yes, I know you’ve already written this thing, but the first draft is really just a method of piling up a heap of words so you can pick through it later to find the good stuff. You’re going to need to do another draft or two (or three or four) before this story is really done. So take this time to fix the mistakes you found in your first draft.

There. You’ve finished the synopsis. Now you have your blueprint for how the second draft is going to go. Time to get to work.