I Love Complicated Characters

Like many people, I read stories because I want to understand human nature. What makes us do the things we do? What thought processes do we go through, and what beliefs inform our decisions? What do we value, and how do we prioritize those values? My favorite stories—fictional or nonfictional—are the ones that show me characters who are a complicated stew of laudable and nefarious impulses, forced to act in difficult situations.

That’s why I was delighted with a session I attended at Muse and the Marketplace 2019 entitled, “She’s Terrible, and I Love Her: On ‘Unlikable’ Female Characters.” The presenters, Kelly J. Ford (author of Cottonmouths) and Michelle Hoover (author of Bottomland), provided a handout with a list of tricks used by successful authors to round out the humanity of “unlikable” female characters. I’ve since taken their list and organized it into three categories of strategies:

  1. Reveal who the character is in relation to other characters:
    • Give the character someone to love.
    • Include other characters who like or love her.
    • Show her beside a comparatively worse character.
  2. Temper the character’s unlikable traits with more likable ones:
    • Show her performing a redeeming action or pursuing a worthy goal.
    • Give her a redeeming skill, talent or interest that others don’t have.
    • Give her a compelling narrative voice—witty, intelligent, humorous.
  3. Develop (the reader’s) compassion for the character’s motives, if not her actions:
    • Weave in an intriguing or tragic backstory.
    • If she’s an outsider or isolated, show us why.
    • Give her agency and culpability, some control over her circumstances.
    • Let us see her breaking rules—unapologetically.

One more trick that didn’t fit into those categories: go “all in” on the female character’s disagreeable qualities. Ask yourself—or anyone who objects to the character—why they find her unlikable. Would the same set of traits be a problem if the character were male? To make a point, consider going over the top and creating a character who is everything a woman “shouldn’t” be (e.g., loud, crass, manipulative, self-centered, unfriendly, scowling).

The presenters provided interesting examples of authors who used one or more of these tricks to make their female characters more palatable. Of all the titles, the one most familiar to me was Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, which portrays an outsider, Olive, who is flinty and coarse but volunteers for the Red Cross, talks a former student out of committing suicide, and deep-down loves her son. By the end of the book, I had become quite fond of Olive, perhaps because she reminded me of someone I love. (More on that below.)

Revealing Who the Character Is in Relation to Other Characters

I have always been fascinated by differences in perspective. For example, how is it that two siblings, after having been raised in the same home by the same parents, can look back on their upbringing with entirely different impressions of what transpired? Memoir writers certainly struggle with this predicament: in writing the story of their lives, they have to decide whose memory to trust when their own memories differ from the recollections of friends or family members. Whose perspective is the most reliable? Why is theirs the one you would choose to believe—or ignore?

We are all of us more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell. This is especially true in families.

Tara Westover

By showing who a character is to someone who loves her (or who is loved by her), you give readers a chance to see her in a new light.

Tempering the Character’s Unlikable Traits with Likable Ones

I grew up with a grandmother who some might describe as “unlikable.” She was cranky, irritable and pessimistic. If she thought you were overweight or didn’t like what you were wearing, she wasn’t shy about telling you. She was impossibly hard to please and drove my parents absolutely bonkers.

In this story, I was the “character” who adored the “unlikable” woman. Though she was cantankerous even with me, I valued her authenticity. She dispensed with niceties and never pretended to be cheerful or friendly when that wasn’t how she felt. I could always trust the face she was showing me, and her tiny apartment was where I felt free to be myself. When it was just the two of us, she told me stories about how she had become a teacher and raised a child on her own during the Great Depression, after her husband (my grandfather) had deserted her. She’d never owned her own house or had much money in the bank, but she made whatever she had on hand feel like plenty. She showed her love for me by turning triangles of toast into boats floating on a sea of Campbell’s soup, sewing fabric scraps into doll clothes, and transforming walks through the woods into treasure hunts.

Black and white photo of woman circa 1918.
Grandma Mac

In the story of my mother’s life, my grandmother was the most likely candidate for the role of antagonist. In the story of my life, Grandma Mac was the hero. I can’t predict whether you would have found her likable. I suppose that depends on your point of view and how well these “tricks” (her backstory, her redeeming actions and talents) work for you.

Developing Compassion for a Character’s Motives

The last item on the list of tricks—developing compassion for a character’s motives— is especially interesting to me, because it reinforces a fundamental truth about storytelling. If you show readers why a character does what she does (her motivation), they’ll be more likely to care about what’s going on in her story. As we all know, it’s far too easy to judge and misinterpret a person based on actions alone.

I believe this is the most powerful storytelling trick: To help readers relate to your unlikable character, show us who she is on the inside. Use her intriguing or tragic backstory to reveal why she feels the way she does. Show us what’s influencing her thinking and driving her decisions. What’s at stake for her? If she’s breaking all the rules, maybe they need to be broken. If she’s keeping to herself, maybe she has a compelling reason for doing so. We might still disagree with the choices she’s making, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t empathize with why she’s making them.

A Final Note

For an excellent article on the importance of “unlikeable” female characters, check out Not Here to Make Friends by Roxane Gay, author of Not that Bad and Difficult Women.