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?