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.

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A new low for gaming

Xbox360-ringofdeath

Let’s try to look at this week’s gaming news without dying a little inside.

Zoe Quinn, the game developer for Depression Quest, was targeted by a vicious harassment campaign headed by her ex-boyfriend. The boyfriend started a blog about her, accusing her of cheating. This ballooned into him and his 4chan army posting nude photos and YouTube videos with personal information including her home address, sending her death threats and rape threats, and on and on. In order to pretend this campaign was anything other than some douche whining about his ex, 4chan accused her of sleeping with a journalist at Kotaku in order to get a favorable review of Depression Quest. Since the journalist in question never reviewed Depression Quest, that excuse quickly fell flat.

Meanwhile, Anita Sarkeesian released the next episode in her series, Tropes vs Women in Video Games. This episode was part 2 of Women as Background Decoration, and pointed out the many, many, (many, many, many) games where women are used as sexy props, or murdered in sexualized ways, or raped just to make a game seem gritty. This, like all of her other videos, was meticulously researched and impeccably presented, which naturally resulted in a surge of misogynistic frothing and wailing. At this point it’s coming routine.

This time the rape and death threats were horrific enough that Anita was forced to call the police and evacuate her house for an evening. Yes, men threatened to rape and kill her in very graphic ways. Because she was talking about video games.

Phil Fish, founder of Polytron and creator of Fez, had his Twitter account and website hacked and personal information, including banking information and passwords, released on the internet. On his now-deleted Twitter account he wrote:

I would like to announce that Polytron and the Fez IP are now for sale. No reasonable offer will be turned down. I am done. I want out. RUN AWAY. Just don’t do it. Give up your dreams. They are actually nightmares. Nothing is worth this. To every aspiring game developer out there: Don’t. give up. It’s not worth it. This is your audience. This is videogames.

What was his crime? He’d publicly supported Zoe Quinn.

Saturday, hackers posted a bomb threat on Twitter about the flight carrying Sony Online Entertainment president John Smedley. The flight was diverted to another airport. The hackers also took down the Playstation network under a DDOS attack the same day.

Yesterday, someone called 911 and reported an active shooter in the home of Jordan Mathewson of The Creatures while he was livestreaming Counter-Strike. This is called SWAT-ing, and, as intended, resulted in a SWAT team bursting into the house and throwing Mathewson to the floor, on live camera.

Dan Golding’s article The End of Gamers suggests that these events–or at least, the ones involving Anita and Zoe–mark the end of gamers. ‘Gamer’ in this case refers to members of the community of video game players whose identity is constructed around the idea of being “outsiders.” It’s a demographic that has been targeted by video game designers in the past, but now that more adult women play video games than teenage boys, the market is going to change. For guys who are beginning to realize they’re no longer the target demographic, that’s scary, and they’re reacting with psychotic violence in a futile attempt to stop it.

Screen Shot 2014-08-28 at 2.19.39 PMOne can only hope.

 

Further reading:

An awful week to care about video games by Chris Plante

Video Games, Misogyny, and Terrorism: A Guide to Assholes by Andrew Todd

 

top image is from Wikipedia, and is in the public domain

“If you want women writers, go down the hall”

Random House of Canada’s Hazlitt magazine posted an interview today with author David Gilmour. The relevant quote you’ll be seeing all over Twitter and writing blogs is this one:

I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf. And when I tried to teach Virginia Woolf, she’s too sophisticated, even for a third-year class. Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.

Gilmour then gave a vague apology in the National Post, saying that it wasn’t that he thought women writers were bad, just that he wasn’t enthusiastic about them and wouldn’t teach what he couldn’t teach well. He also wrote that normally he wouldn’t apologize for this, but since people seemed offended, he was afraid it might affect the sales of his most recent book.

Maureen Johnson responded (pre-apology) with her post “It is entirely possible to be a good writer and an asshole.”

I realize that I have simply equated someone who says they don’t teach books by women because they simply don’t like enough women writers with being an asshole. I could have said many other things. Like it was ignorant, or strange in its selectivity. I went with asshole, and I feel good about this choice.

I think ‘asshole’ was the correct word choice there, Maureen. This reminds me of Jezebel’s article from last December: Want to Be a Successful Writer? Be a Man. Hey, there’s a good reason why I’m writing this blog under the name Bennett North.

 

A couple book recs

A while back I was asking around for e-book recommendations, and Rob suggested Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (which is the pseudonym of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). It’s hard sf, about the politics of an interstellar war. I enjoy hard sf occasionally, although it runs the risk of being a little dry. As @kennethhite recently tweeted, “”Hilarious” is the failure mode for horror; “nonsense” is the failure mode for conspiracy; “stereo instructions” is the failure mode for SF.” However, Leviathan Wakes neatly sidestepped that pitfall with its excellent set of characters. The dialogue was so natural and effortless that the characters immediately became real. Dialogue is one of the most important parts of telling a good story. Your character might act like a total badass, but if he talks like he’s reading off a teleprompter, the story is going to fail.

When I finished Leviathan Wakes I discovered that  the full text of The Dragon’s Path by Daniel Abraham had been tacked on the end. Free book! It was an odd combination, to stick an epic fantasy novel onto the end of a hard sf one, but I enjoy both genres, so it was fine with me. If the failure mode of sf is “stereo instructions”, I’d say the failure mode of fantasy is “RPG campaign setting”, but The Dragon’s Path was far better than that, and again it came down to the characters. There was a certain honesty to these characters. They reacted like real people, and they acted their ages, and their character arcs were hard-earned.

I heartily recommend them both, both because they’re great books and because James S.A. Corey/Daniel Abraham definitely understands how to do characters right. As a bonus, The Dragon’s Path had a pretty equal gender balance, and the female characters were hanging around being real characters just like anyone else rather than being Shining Examples of the Gender, which was refreshing!

In other news, Nanowrimo is coming around again. This’ll be my 11th year. I haven’t lost yet. By this point, it would be such a break with tradition not to do it that I just can’t turn it down. Still, I’m not sure what I’m going to work on this year. I certainly don’t need to start another new project, so I’m toying with the idea of doing a massive revision of one of my current novels. As long as I write at least 50,000 words of new material, it’ll work out.