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.

Why Do You Write?

This past weekend, I was in the company of hundreds of other writers at Muse and the Marketplace 2019, “a three-day literary conference designed to give aspiring writers a better understanding about the craft of writing fiction and non-fiction, to prepare them for the changing world of publishing and promotion, and to create opportunities for meaningful networking.” For three glorious days, I was surrounded by a diverse group of people united in their love of books and writing. So many aspiring writers, so many stories, so many reasons for writing.

The theme of the conference this year was writing during a time of upheaval (personal, political, or cultural), and the message was clear: we must not allow ourselves to be silenced by fear or opposition or hardship. Bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize finalist Luis Alberto Urrea kicked off the conference with a keynote speech that was passionate and funny and mesmerizing. He spoke openly about overcoming shame and intentionally writing about life experiences that he’d been told to keep quiet about. He encouraged writers to notice the details that make their stories uniquely their own, stories only they can tell.

In the sessions I attended over the weekend, presenters spoke about finding their voice and writing despite the risks to themselves and their families. Lawyers for the family of convicted child molester Ricky Langley did not want Alex Marzano-Lesnevich to write about him in her memoir, The Fact of a Body. She fought the federal lawsuit while she continued to write. Anuradha Bhagwati received threats and risked the ire of family members and the Marine Corp when she wrote about her experience of racism, misogyny, and sexual assault in Unbecoming: A Memoir of Disobedience. She refused to give up. Kelly Ford, author of Cottonmouths, spoke passionately about writing stories with “unlikable” female protagonists and the negative reactions of agents, publishers and readers who disapproved of characters who didn’t conform to their expectations. She then handed out a list of bestselling books that have broken the rules. (Contact me if you’d like the list.)

All of these writers had stories they were burning to tell, whether or not anyone wanted to hear them. In fact, even as they were writing their stories, they knew there were people who definitely did NOT want their books to be published or read. But nevertheless, they persisted. They had a story inside them that needed to get out. They couldn’t stop writing if they tried. (Though Ms. Bhagwati, speaking from experience, emphasized the importance of self-care and restorative breaks when writing about trauma.)

Despite the critics and dissenters, these writers suspected there were people out there who needed to hear what they had to say—and they were right.

To persist with your writing during difficult times, to get past all the obstacles in your way, ask yourself why you are writing what you’re writing.

Why do you care? Why does your particular story or point matter to you?

If you’re writing during a time of upheaval—and that includes writing while raising kids or juggling a full-time job or caring for a sick parent—and you want to be successful, then write something that’s meaningful to YOU, something only you can write.

What Makes a Character “Likable”?

I recently finished reading The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian, which has gotten some mixed reviews so I was interested in seeing what readers did and didn’t like about it. The protagonist in the story is an alcoholic, promiscuous flight attendant who (not surprisingly) has a history of bad decisions, broken promises and outright lies. Not exactly the sort of person I’d describe as “likable,” and yet I was drawn to this deeply flawed character and eager to find out what would happen to her.

Front Cover of The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian

I then started thinking about why I tend to like stories involving characters I probably wouldn’t want to spend time with in person. What is it about them that makes me keep reading? Why do I care about what happens in their lives?

And what if Mr. B had decided to downplay his flight attendant’s seedier side, or allowed her to make smarter decisions—would I still have been as interested in her story?

The challenge for any writer who is struggling to portray a flawed character without alienating too many readers is to figure out how to show a genuine human experience that rings true but also leaves room for empathy. On the flip side, the challenge for writers portraying a virtuous character is to balance the “good” with glimpses of the “bad.” That may sound like Writing 101 advice, but when the person you’re writing about is yourself, achieving an effective balance can be hard to do.

I once worked with a memoir writer who was reluctant to go deep and reveal her less admirable side. (I don’t mean to single her out here: who doesn’t strive to keep their imperfections covered up most of the time?) This particular writer was a warm and courageous woman who had overcome some difficult challenges, but the sanitized Pollyanna version of herself showing up on her pages was too perfect to seem real, too idealized to be interesting. Her story was falling flat and didn’t feel credible.

When I pushed her to show not only what she did well but also where she had struggled, where she had failed, what she had to overcome to succeed, she asked me, “How honest do I need to be?”

How honest do I need to be?

She wasn’t asking if she should lie—if she had, my answer would have been an emphatic “no”—but she did want to know if she could choose to omit thoughts and feelings that embarrassed her or made her uncomfortable. Why would anyone want to read about unpleasant things? she wondered. Couldn’t she just leave some stuff out and still have a good story?

“How honest should I be?” is a tough question but it’s one we ask ourselves all the time. Behind the question is the fear of not being liked. If you show your full self, or the full character in your story (or memoir), will people decide this is someone they don’t want to know?

They might. When I looked up reviews of The Flight Attendant, I noticed that among the various criticisms were complaints about the main character not being likable, and for some people that was enough reason to stop reading.

For me, though, the flight attendant in Bohjalian’s story still managed to be appealing because (in my opinion) he’d found a way to put readers inside her head and didn’t hold anything back. He showed the bad and the ugly, sure, but he also showed the good in her. He gave me an opportunity to see for myself that this character was basically kind (well, kind to animals and other people, not to herself) and well-meaning. She wanted to do the right thing but couldn’t seem to get out of her own way. Though she kept making the worst decisions, she was (as one reviewer described her) “a lovable hot mess.” I think that’s why I cheered her on, rooting for her to turn things around.

When a memoir writer tries to keep her “flaws” to herself, she prevents readers from getting to know who she really is, which makes it hard to care about what happened in her life. A character who is too perfect to seem real is too perfect to be likable or relatable. By taking a chance on being more honest, sharing her inner life more fully, the writer I worked with was able to tell a compelling story. She showed her readers why events mattered to her, why she struggled, and how she had been transformed by her experiences. By being honest and acknowledging her vulnerabilities, she became easy to love, both on the page and off.

For more on the topic of likable characters (because there’s SO much more to be written about it—I’ve only scratched the surface), check out: