An Argument for Writing Characters You Don’t Like
I’ve written before about some of the differences between novels and short stories, but for the past several days one of those differences has been sitting in the forefront of my mind: character. With only several thousand words to work with in a short story, there just isn’t space to really develop more than one character. But a novel needs at least a handful of well-defined characters, and the more complex the story’s plot, the more complex and varied the characters need to be.
My current WIP is more complex than any of the other (even novel-length) stories I’ve written before. With a Byzantine plot swirling with clockwork diplomacy, revolutionary intrigue, assassination, and Great Powers espionage, I’m juggling a more varied cast of characters than I’ve managed before. It’s hard work keeping their motivations straight, their voices distinct, and their reactions true. And while I would love to have coffee or play a game of chess with some of these people, others I’d want to throttle. And that brings me to the crux of the issue that I’ve been thinking about for the past week or two: how to tell a story from the perspective of a character that I don’t like?
Unsympathetic perspective characters are nothing new. They span a spectrum from the truly vile who we come to like despite our best instincts, like Vladimir Nabokov’s amazing Humbert Humbert (Lolita). Then there’s Charles Dickens’ amoral but ultimately redeemable Sidney Carton (A Tale of Two Cities). More true to life, the real Emma Goldman’s autobiography Living My Life comes across as unsettling today. And Gregory Maguire spends pretty much all of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West humanizing an erstwhile villain. And finally, Nnedi Okorafor’s powerful Onyesonwu (Who Fears Death), whose heart is in the right place, but whose personality often made me gnash my teeth in frustration.
Each of these authors uses a different technique. Nabokov fills the book with Humbert Humbert: the monster in a very real sense transcends the role of narrator or memoirist. Every single word, every punctuation point, and every pause between sentences is filtered through the all-too-human mind of Humbert Humbert. By drawing us in through such a unique and compelling voice, Nabokov slides in Humbert’s vile nature almost surreptitiously. It is subtle, and oily, and all too awe-inspiringly impressive. Thankfully my current WIP lacks an unrepentant, irredeemable Humbert-esque villain, and so I won’t have to try pulling this off (Yet! I’ve got another book I want to write someday where I’ll hopefully give it a shot…just because it’ll be a lot of fun to try!).
But the unsympathetic Sidney Carton, the zealous Emma Goldman, the tragic Elphaba, and the quick-to-anger Onyesonwu all have at least one central trait fundamentally tied up in their very nature that shines pure and noble. The traits might vary across the characters, and the authors may choose to present them using different techniques, but for all of their pettiness, their villainy, their zealotry, and their fury there remains something inherently noble about them.
Dickens paints Carton as a professionally-stunted, self-indulgent alcoholic. We can see his nobility in his reaction to Lucie Manette, and in his self-deprecating gallows humor. He is drawn in stark opposition to his double: Charles Darnay, whose inner nobility is readily apparent and who fails to evidence the slightest doubt in himself. By showing us Carton’s struggle, by showing us his doubts, Dickens makes us identify with Carton and look past the superficially unsympathetic traits: his biting humor, his self-pity, his self-indulgence. He is the underdog, and we want to give him a firm kick because we know that Carton is worth more, even if he does not realize it himself until the very end.
Emma Goldman – an actual historical personage – was as complicated as any real individual could be, and I believe her positive and negative traits stem from the very same root. Her autobiography paints a picture of an unsettling and strangely compelling zealot. Throughout her amazing life, she was an unrepentant revolutionary: mere facts and science would not get in the way of her convictions! She practiced what she preached, both politically and in her personal life. She forced herself to live true to her mission, even when it caused her much heartache. This unwavering belief in her revolution – however misguided, misattributed, or wasted – offers her a nobility that her (more hypocritical) contemporaries lacked. Goldman remains an unsettling person, and while I cannot agree with her views, I can respect the lifelong commitment that speaks so clearly through her words.
Maguire shows us the Wicked Witch’s perspective in Wicked. He takes pains to show the development of a conflicted character, with noble intentions that just work out unfortunately. Elphaba’s primary flaw is that she has human failings, of which her quickness to anger and her father-issues are just two examples. In many ways, I always found the book to be almost a revisionist apologia for the Wicked Witch, but Maguire makes Elphaba’s tragic rise and fall compelling precisely by showing us her internal rationalizations and the noble intentions that went so wrong.
And Okorafor introduces us to Onyesonwu, whose intentions are noble, whose heart is pure, but whose failing is simply that of being too quick to anger. Alone of the characters I’ve mentioned in this post, I do not believe we are ever for a moment meant to believe her unsympathetic. Okorafor makes us feel deeply for Onyesonwu. We meet her as a young girl, and we are shown painfully the development of her defensiveness character. We understand how she came to have that defensiveness. We understand that her anger is a part of her, and that in fact it helps her with her magic. I consider her “unsympathetic” simply because of how infuriating I found her. I wanted to tell her to get a grip: that her anger would hurt more than it helped. But the root of my frustration with the character was my understanding of what had made her: through an understanding how she developed into the strong, angry young woman she became, Okorafor grounded Onyesonwu’s “unsympathetic” traits in sympathy: she made the character so sympathetic that I recognize her flaws and want to help her learn to deal with her flaws.
This is a technique frequently used in YA (I suspect it may come naturally to Okorafor, considering her earlier experiences in YA). Maybe it means I’m getting old, that the little foibles of human emotion that are so frustrating to me come so naturally to teenagers. Harumph. Those kids should get off my lawn. Nonetheless, I can appreciate it when an author pulls it off the way Okorafor has, and I can also see how introducing that flaw was natural to the character, given her history. The net result makes me more invested in the character, thus raising my engagement with the whole story.
And that – I think – is what unsympathetic perspective characters ultimately do. They make us invest more in the story, either because we root for the underdog (Carton), respect misguided nobility (Goldman), lament tragic failure (Elphaba), or sympathize with the source of the characters’ flaws (Onyesonwu).
What are some of your favorite unsympathetic characters? And how did their authors make them appeal to you?