On unsympathetic characters…

Nobody loves a Mary Sue.

Right?!

This is something we’re taught early on as writers. Don’t make your characters perfect. Make them sympathetic, but flawed. Make them complex, make them grow, make them earn that HEA.

I’ve written some sympathetic characters. But the pattern I’ve noticed over the last few years is my characters are often unsympathetic. They don’t think they deserve a Happy Ever After, and they demonstrate why, sometimes in ways that make me cringe.

So, of course, that means yesterday, while taking a break before writing the “black moment”, I was Skyping with Liza Gaines, and the conversation turned to “these assholes” I keep writing into my books. And I’m not talking about sex scene assholes.

*ponders last sentence, decides to roll with it, shouts “YOLO!!!”, and continues on*

As an author, sometimes I wonder if I’ve gone too far.  I’ve had them lie. I’ve had them fat-shame. I’ve had them kill without regret or remorse.

I mean, I wouldn’t choose to spend my time with fat-shaming, murdering assholes, so why would I write about them?

This is something I think about a lot while I’m writing, and even more while I’m editing/revising a story. Because truly? It’s about the story, and it’s about the character, and sometimes, writing a flaw does not mean the guy is walking around with an untied shoe or a crooked tooth. It’s about making my characters people from the inside out, and sometimes people are vain or smug, or so insecure when it comes to life and love that they lash out preemptively. Sometimes, the most realistic thing a character can think or say will keep me up at night for months wondering if I crossed some moral/ethical boundary by writing it.

Sometimes, I find myself tempted to give a character a Mary Sue makeover so readers will like him better. That’s dangerous thinking–that’s thinking that the readers always want to like the characters. But me personally, as a reader? I want to love a character in spite of their flaws. I want the characters to win me over–but I don’t want it to be too easy for them.

Do you have a favorite unsympathetic character? Someone you love to hate or hate to love? A character you fell in love with in spite of him or herself? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

10 thoughts on “On unsympathetic characters…

  1. For me the characters in The Special Forces series won me over. They are not nice guys by a long shot, but I just got so invested in their stories, and their relationships. Usually I would hate murderous, rapist, jack asses, but something it this story made it impossible for me to hate Dan, Vadim, and company.

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  2. I think these flaws make a “hero” so relatable, even when they might not always be likable. I’m writing a hero right now, who appears very flawed to me, and I’ve doubted the whole way. But I think, I hope, these are the ones who remain in a reader’s minds long after they reach The End. Keep writing true to your heart, V.

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  3. Great post, Vanessa. I write RS so I always have a character or two who are not nice. I also have a crit partner who pushes me. I almost didn’t finish my second Prime book because I had, in my first go-round, made the hero so unlikeable I didn’t want to give him an HEA. Sometimes it is a fine balance. Whatever i do, my readers seem to like it, so I stick with it. I think you have to be true to yourself as an author — and from what I read in your blog, you’ve found that. So, keep it up.

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  4. I am a Kresley Cole fan and Lothaire was a HATED character all through the books. And then you read his book (which to this day is still my FAV) and see the world from his POV. I loved realizing that he does have a moral code he lives by and that we see so little of who he is till he lets us in. He was stuck in his course and unwilling to change until [spoiler so NOT TELLING!]. I think so many “bad guys” are like that and it takes a strong author to help set them right.

    I LOVE your books V!

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