Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Risk of Writing Unlikable Characters



by Linda K. Sienkiewicz
What kind of fictional characters do readers enjoy most? Good-hearted people who somehow find themselves in trouble? Or shady characters who create mayhem? Likability in fictional characters can be a complicated matter, especially for a writer.
In an essay from last year, author Jennifer Weiner noted that some writers are being urged by their agents and editors to make their characters more likable, in the interest of sales. Yet, writer Mohsin Hamid confesses, I read fiction to fall in love. And in fiction, as in life, characters dont have to be likable to be lovable.
As writers, are we ever too concerned that characters be so likable that we cant let them disappoint our readers?
An agent once told me that no one enjoys mildly interesting characters. It was her impression that readers these days read novels for the same reason they gawk at accidents. If traffic is slowed because a car is on the side of the road because it ran out of gas, no one pays attention. It takes a paramedic and two police cars and some crunched cars for rubbernecking and involvement.
I agree. I enjoy reading about flawed characters because they're more believable, and more like me. Its the writers job to make flawed characters deserving of a readers attention, as well as likable on some level. If readers understand a characters motives, I believe they will find a way to empathize with the character.
The narrator in my novel, In the Context of Love, (Buddhapuss Ink LLC July 2015) is a married woman who, at a low point in her life, has an affair. Her marriage is on the skids, shes sinking fast and desperate for love. Early in the writing process, I feared her lapse in judgment might turn off a segment of moralistic readers. A fellow writer told me not to worry. Its okay to have your readers get angry with your characters, she said.
In the end, my character redeems herself. I hope she does, anyway, because I know some readers will label a book as bad if the character does something bad. Others will go so far as to judge the author as bad. As writers, thats a risk we have to take.
I think we should allow characters room to slip and fall. I like characters who make bad mistakes, those who dont stumble blindly, but walk directly into the darkness.
What do you think? Have you ever encountered a character whose actions were so morally repugnant that you put the book down? Or did that make you want to read more? As a writer, do you worry readers will judge your characters, and you as well? I'd love to know.
©2014 Linda K. Sienkiewicz
 
Sienkiewicz is a writer and artist who's always in search of a good story. Her poetry, short stories and essays have appeared in over fifty literary journals in print and online, and among her awards are a poetry chapbook and Pushcart Prize Nomination. She has an MFA in Fiction from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine. Her first novel, In the Context of Love will be released in July 2015 by Buddhapuss Ink LLC.
 

Thanks Linda, for a terrific piece on a sometimes thorny topic for writers when it comes to writing characters!
READERS: We hope you enjoyed this week's edition of our #WW Writer Wednesday Series and that we'll see you again next week when our guest poster Georgia Ruth tackles Naming Your Characters. Till then, "Butt in chair, WRITE!
~ The Black Cat
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