Monday, January 4, 2010

Creating Unlikeable Characters


My daughter was a little bored yesterday afternoon, so I offered to play a game with her. I didn’t want to play a long game with her (like Monopoly), and it happened that there was a deck of Old Maid cards very handy.

She did not want to play that game.

When I finally persuaded her to play, she shrieked whenever she got the card and did everything in her power to give it back to me. She was a wreck.

Luck was on her side and she won 2 out of 3 games. The one she lost really upset her. And she doesn’t even know what an old maid is. She just didn’t want the card with the leering, goofily-unattractive woman on it. She seemed to associate some really sinister feeling to the card.

I need characters like this sometimes. I need characters that no one wants to be around, that throw monkey wrenches into my plot.

I’m not talking about flawed characters. Flawed characters are interesting and fun, well-rounded, and sympathetic to readers. I’m talking about characters that other characters run away from, screaming.

You know them—the Uriah Heeps of the world.

Ways to Conjure Up the Ick Feeling for the Reader

Other characters’ negative perceptions of the character. Do they cross to the other side of the street when they see them? Does a chill go up and down their spine when someone mentions their name?

Invade the reader’s personal space. Have the character stand too close to the protagonist in conversations. Bestow them with unpleasant smiles full of bad teeth and malodorous breath.

Grate on the reader’s nerves. Conjure up that fingernail on the chalkboard feeling with a whiny, discontented voice or the habit of arriving at houses uninvited and staying far too long.

It’s not too hard to do—we’re basically going to imbue the character with annoying habits, poor table manners, and anything else that personally bothers us. We just have to be careful not to overdo it—make it a character that goes onstage only for short periods of time or after long intervals offstage.

Have you delved into the world of unlikeable secondary characters?


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Gosh, I remember playing Old Maid as a kid! And as an "old maid" I really resent that she's that unlikeable. :)

When I created Mike Steele, Odelia Grey's obnoxious, womanizing, snide and shallow boss, it was with the idea that he would be the character everyone avoided. Then something happened - my readers fell in love with him. He's the JR Ewing of my books - the man everyone loves to hate - and can't get enough of. Who knew?

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

That's so odd when that happens! I guess some bad guys are just irresistible. I'll have to check your JR Ewing out!

We do have one deck of cards with a sweet looking old maid....she is surrounded by a lot of cats, though. We should get them to redo these card decks!

Mystery Writing is Murder

Alan Orloff said...

For me, creating unlikeable characters is easy--I just think back to many of my old bosses and voila!

Hey, wasn't Keith a professional card player? Maybe he has some Old Maid tips for you, Elizabeth.

Keith Raffel said...

I had a similar experience to Sue Ann's. Ricky Frankson, the avaricious Silicon Valley billionaire in Smasher, is the character everyone is talking about. In articles, journalists are even opining on his "real" identity.

Alan, it's been awhile since I played cards for money. Is there an old maid in blackjack?

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Alan--Old bosses...bleh. Yeah, that'd do it.

I do need some tips. Because, despite appearances to the contrary, being an Old Maid is clearly in my cards. Ouch. :)

Keith--IS there a real Ricky? You can tell me...I won't blab to anyone. Really! :)

If there's money in Old Maid, I haven't found out about it. And I've been playing it for quite a few years now. And I never seem to improve. The Old Maid card is all bent to pieces, but I still somehow end up with it..

G.M. Malliet said...

Keith - you and Alan playing poker with an Old Maid deck. Priceless.

The Lit Chick in Death and the Lit Chick - people think she's based on a real person. I absolutely swear she's not. She's not really even a composite.

Cricket McRae said...

At least your daughter is alarmed by the actual appearance of the Old Maid, not the outdated social stigma. I think I might be more afraid of the version with the cats, cozy writer or no.

I always end up with a few truly unlikeable characters in my books, though I don't necessarily set out to create them. They balance out the nice guys, and may (or may not!) provide a red herring or two.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I've never been married and I have two cats. Enough said.

Cricket McRae said...

I've never been married and have two cats, too, Sue Ann.

And I bet neither of us remotely resembles the sweet looking Old Maid on the card. Heh.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Gin--Surrrree they're not based on real people. :) Maybe readers just *wish" she was alive...sounds like a good character.

Cricket--Love those red herrings. And the unpleasant types can cause enough distractions for us to slip a clue in, too...

Sue Ann--But you look *nothing* like the Old Maid. :)

Cricket--See, if my daughter pulled a card that looked like y'all, it wouldn't be traumatic at all! This is what these card companies need to learn...we'd play a heckuva lot more Old Maid if the cards didn't scare my child!

Kim Smith said...

Admittedly, something I should do more of. Thanks!