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.


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 prep: Setting

Screen Shot 2014-10-03 at 9.01.08 PM

A lot of story planning can start with setting. Depending on the genre, you could come up with a whole series worth of plots, just from making a map and figuring out what kind of people live in the world you’ve created. The setting can (and should!) be a character in itself. It can help or hinder the events of the story and provide major plot points. There should be a good reason that the story is set where it is. The tv show Dexter wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t set in Miami. Buffy the Vampire Slayer wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t in California. Imagine Portal without Aperture Science. Imagine Batman without Gotham City.

Holly Lisle has a lot of good writing advice on her website, and one of the posts that I’ve found useful is her article on developing the fictional world through mapping. In it, she talks about how to make a map and how to use that to figure out a story. This is great for fantasy or science fiction stories that are set in places other than Earth, but even more local stories could benefit from mapping out a city or town.

Obviously only a tiny fraction of your research is going to make it into your story, because you don’t want to deluge your reader with information. One of the fastest ways to get someone to put down your book is to hammer them with paragraph upon paragraph of detailed description about your country’s history and system of currency and notable citizens. Those are things you can sprinkle in the story when (and if!) they become relevant. It’s okay if you come up with an elaborate system of laws and then it never comes up in the novel. Don’t try to force it in just so you don’t feel like you wasted your time.

On the other hand, you don’t want to suffer white room syndrome. That’s when your characters talk to each other and occasionally do things, all while moving around in featureless white rooms. Your reader is going to need something to anchor the scene. Visual descriptions are good, but using the other senses can be better. What does the place smell like? Sound like? What’s the temperature? The great thing is that this leads right back to character. What does your character think of the smell/sound/temperature? Are they the kind of person who bundles up in the slightest breeze? Does the smell remind them of their grandmother’s cooking? Is it always too loud for your character?

Your characters are going to be physically interacting with this setting, and it’s going to effect them directly in ways they might not even be aware of. They could have adopted the social mores and local dialect without realizing it. Alternately, they could be an outsider to the setting and come up against hostility or uncomfortable misunderstandings at every turn.

One thing I like to do in novels is consider the season and the weather. It’s a cliche to start your novel with a description of the weather, but occasionally referencing what’s going on outside can help set the scene and anchor the story in time. Is there a heat wave? Is there a blizzard forecast for later in the week? Have there been weeks of endless rain? Is it perfect spring weather outside? Mira Grant’s book Deadline, book two in the Newsflesh trilogy, has a major plot point centered around a hurricane that was honestly chilling when it was introduced.

There’s a lot more you can explore when building your setting, including time period, technology, religion, fashion, music, economy, politics, and so on. Just remember two things: try to give just enough detail to be interesting, and make sure not to get so involved in worldbuilding that you never get around to writing the story.

Next time: Themes