Thursday, June 30, 2016

Love to Hate: Unlikeable Characters

The other day, a friend and I were talking about Game of Thrones, and she throws out there that she loves Ramsay Bolton. You can imagine that this gave me a moment's pause. Ramsay Bolton is one of the most sadistic, horrible creatures to every grace the television (or movie) screen.

I got to thinking about two things: 1.) Why do people like characters who do terrible things? And, 2.) if you think about it, my characters are kind of horrible....

I guess I can only speak for myself as far as liking the bad guy. I have my limits. Unlike my friend, I don't like Ramsay Bolton. I kind of loved to hate him, but honestly I loved to hate Dolores Umbridge more. Why? Well, to quote George Washington in Hamilton, "Dying is easy, young man, living is harder." That, to me, is pretty close to, "Murdering and maiming people is easy, making them suffer in other ways is harder." To me, it verges on lazy to go the slice-and-dice route. Life and death is clearly the highest possible stakes, but not every moment of a person's life is that way. I want some variety in the way characters screw each other over. While the occasional physically ruthless character is nice, I want some psychological game-playing, too.

Let me give a few examples. Back to Dolores Umbridge. She's amazingly awful for a lot of reasons, but the big reason she's so particularly hateful in Harry's eyes is that she's destroying Hogwarts--the only real home he's ever known--right before his eyes. It's his safe place; she's demolishing that. Another example, this one from a historical novel I recently read (America's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie): the narrator's father-in-law is a horrible old man: he marries another woman after the narrator's mother-in-law dies, disowns his eldest son (the narrator's husband), and then saddles that same son with all his debts (but none of the family wealth--so he just has to pay everyone else's debts!). How's that for sick? And no one died--well, the old man died of natural causes, but no one was murdered.

I'll give a related example from my own writing. One of my manuscripts, The Cotton Wars, features an old man who threatens to disown his twin sons (two of our main characters, who are a little twisted themselves) unless they marry women whom he deems acceptable. Because of this, the brothers end up embroiled in a feud. This hits the brothers right where it hurts, because they've always thought of themselves as inseparable, yet they learn that they're more than capable of hurting each other deeply. For me, that's also the fun of the story: the ways they find to hurt each other. They just can't help themselves, even though at heart they don't want to lose one another. Again, no one's being killed, but their minds are being royally messed with.

But why do people like terrible characters? Why do people like antiheroes and villains? A couple of obvious explanations come to mind. The villains are splashy; they don't play by the rules. Villains are a form of wish fulfillment. We can't kill and torture and maim without consequences, but that doesn't mean we don't have the urge to hurt other people. And we can come away thinking, they're splashy and cool, but I'm a better human being because I would never do that (in spite of that devil on my shoulder), and we also get the pleasure of watching those dastardly deeds. And antiheroes? Well, we can say to ourselves, Hey, if they can do all that bad stuff and still come away as the hero of the story, then maybe there's a chance for me yet.

So, when a beta reader for The Cotton Wars said, "My biggest concern is that I dislike both Charlie and Archie....Do you expect your reader to sympathize with them?", I gave a little cheer: "YES!" Because, no, I wouldn't expect readers to like them (though I love Archie to pieces). In fact, I don't want readers to like them, because they're morally questionable at best. I do want readers to enjoy reading about them. There's an important difference there: liking a character isn't the same as wanting to read about them.

I like getting into the morally gray areas. It's no fun if everyone's all rainbows and sunshine, but it's also no fun if everyone's just a murderous bastard. I want to see characters who are complex, who are doing interesting and creative things. What makes a good bad guy or a antihero is that mixture, that ability to jump back and forth. Because then you can really believe that they see themselves as the hero of their own story. 

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