Monday, April 20, 2015

#AWP15 Recap--Sympathy For The Devil: Writing Unlikeable Characters

April 8th through 11th, I had the great fortune to attend AWP, the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, in Minneapolis. I hadn't been to this conference before, and since I'm a bit of a conference junkie, I was eager to see how it was different from my standard fare-- BEA, ALA, RT, and MWW.

It was fantastic. More literary, very craft-focused, with a gathering of bestselling and award-winning geniuses I think we'd be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. I attended fascinating and challenging sessions on everything from issues women face in writing (especially YA) to putting violence on the page, from how teen sex is portrayed in adult fiction to the techniques of creating suspense at the story and line level. I've got notes on all of them, and I'll be posting my recaps here on Pub Hub for the next few weeks. To avoid inaccurately summarizing, accidentally attributing a quote or point to the wrong panelist, or any other issue due to the hurried, enraptured scribbling I was doing during these sessions while trying to listen, I'm going to format my notes as "Ten Takeaways" which will all be my thoughts in reaction to the content of the session, unless I specifically state otherwise.

One session I attended was "Sympathy For The Devil: Writing Unlikeable Characters" with ,  ,  Tom Franklin,  , and  Here's the session description:

Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, Morrison's Sula, J.M. Coetzee’s David Lurie, Claire Messud’s Nora Eldridge: some of literature’s most memorable protagonists are also the most difficult to like. On this panel we’ll discuss what draws us to off-putting characters, what makes them compelling to a reader, what problems they pose for a writer, how we embrace them or work around them. We’ll tackle both the nuts and bolts of craft and the deeper questions of the roles of morality and empathy in fiction.

Ten Takeaways: Writing Unlikeable Characters

1) What do we mean by "sympathetic" and "likeable"? We often require that characters we write and read be sympathetic and likeable, but that definition varies from reader to reader, and many great characters aren't either of those things. It's very possible that what makes a compelling character has little to do with being sympathetic and likeable to the broadest section of readers.

2) In fiction, we're often drawn to characters we would avoid in real life. We love following damaged characters, criminals, heroes, teens who have hit rock bottom, and people making choices we probably wouldn't make. Yet so many reviews claim "I could never be friends with this character." But friendship isn't what these characters are here for. They're here to show us something besides ourselves. A somewhat one-sided book friendship may develop, and that's great, but that's not what they're here for. We need to stop asking "is this character a potential friend?" and instead start asking "is this character really ALIVE?"

Don Draper

3) What we normally call unlikeable characters are characters who have reached breaking points and chosen culturally unacceptable things. It encompasses everything from struggling teenagers to serial killers and  pedophiles. Damage and pressure create these breaking points either in the character's past or during the timeline of the story. The damage may be a specific traumatic experience, or it may be something as toxic and subtle as systemic neglect, violence, or discrimination. Of course, some "unlikeable" characters can't have their traits traced to specific causes, and that's fine. The panelists also remarked that traumatic backgrounds may be a frequent choice for the development of these characters, but that is often how people reach negative or culturally unacceptable behaviors. And if it's not a created behavior, are some people born with these behaviors? If it's something they're born with, then, should that factor into how we react to them? Does it make them more easily condemned, or no?

4) Unlikeable characters tend to draw us because we're looking to understand the worst in us. It gives us a window into who we might be, who we could be, in different circumstances. To help us process, understand, and deal with impulses, desires, and actions we stifle. It's a low-risk way to explore and understand these things. We're fascinated and compelled by these characters-- often as much by their bravery, motivation, and competency as we are by their darker elements. Sometimes we're drawn to these characters, but sometimes we stumble across them and object, because maybe we don't want to see the darker parts of what it means to be human. This kind of discovery can rattle us, shake our self-concept, and make us question things we don't always want to question.

Scarlett O'Hara

5)  Sympathy with characters isn't nearly the most important factor in character development. One of the panelists said, "Sympathy is irrelevant. Empathy is what matters." If readers can develop empathy with a character, whether or not we would be friends with that character, we'll be well on our way to wanting to follow that person for 300 pages.

6) All of the panelists voiced a struggle with the term "unlikeable." If a character isn't "nice" does that mean the character isn't worthy of being liked? If the character reacts a way we wouldn't, is the character unlikeable? Is the character unlikeable simply for being not like us, and too far beyond what we're comfortable understanding? And if there are unlikeable characters, does that mean there are people not worthy of being liked? I'd love to see us do away with the term, and allow for wider acceptance of and empathy with diverse character types and personalities. (The panelists suggested the term "complicated" to use instead.) If we have objections to characters, or if there are characters who don't resonate with us, to look at whether it's an issue of execution, or our own prejudice, or just a result of one of the wonderful things about books: no book is for every reader, but  that also means some books are exactly what you're looking for.

 Jaime Lannister

7) Expectations for characters seem to be different for female characters than they are for male characters. Susan Steinberg remarked that writing "not nice" women upsets something culturally. We have a much stronger reaction to women who don't fit "nice" than we do to men who aren't nice. The panel as a whole discussed how when women write characters who aren't traditionally nice, we run the risk of having them called "crazy bitches," but when men write the same type of character as a male, they are celebrated for being "rebels" and innovating in their genre. Women writing nontraditional, antihero, or unreliable female characters also run the risk of of having readers tie the character to the personality or mindset of the author, assuming the authors are writing from personal experience.

8) On the craft side of writing complicated or unlikeable characters, we need a window into their central goodness. Few characters think they are the bad guy, so what motivates them positively? No one is one hundred percent bad all the time, so what moments of grace are present in his or her actions? Where in this character can we see ourselves, even if it's expressed differently than we're used to seeing? A great example given was Harry Potter's Draco Malfoy. While we hate him in the earlier books and he's frequently a cruel antagonist, in the final books J.K. Rowling puts his character in perspective-- he's a kid in a war much too big for him, without the support and care he has needed, searching for approval from the people who matter to him.

Amy Dunne

9) Also as a note on craft, the author must empathize with his/her characters. We can't be above them or think we are better than they are. We can't judge, because when the author judges, we are invited to judge in the same way as well. It's inviting a moral condemnation, which lends a didactic lens to the story, instead of bringing a genuine experience and letting the reader react to the questions in the story. Though it might not be right for every story, ending with a moment of grace (even a subtle one) for the character can help avoid this.

10) A very interesting question the audience and panelists debated was how readers often seem to like and support antagonists with one redeemable trait more than they support heroes with two or more flaws. Following the Harry Potter example, many readers have more patience and understanding for Draco than they do for say, Harry in his angsty years. So tell me in the comments-- why do you think that is?

Are you writing an unlikeable/complicated character? Do any of these items resonate with you? Do you know of any great resources for writers who are writing these types of characters? Comments are a great resource for those reading this, so please let us know!


YA author of HOW WE FALL
Senior Editor at Entangled Publishing
Optimist, Enthusiast, Fangirl


  1. Thanks so much for this recap, and for highlighting the conference itself. I'd never heard of it before, but I'd definitely like to go next year.

    I'm currently struggling with the unlikeable character in my own writing, and this post has opened my eyes as to some of the the possible reasons why. I think I've been trying to write unlikeable characters who have no redeeming qualities, and I just don't like mean people, so I've had trouble writing them. Your post made me realize my unlikeable character should at some point exhibit some decent qualities, which will help me get past this block and make my characters much more realistic.

    Your point about having an unlikeable character represent something we don't like about ourselves or are afraid to explore also resonated with me.

    I'll be thinking about this post as I develop my latest novel. Thanks so much for such a valuable lesson on characterization!

  2. In my WIPs, I always seem to have at least one secondary character that people in my writing groups don't like. I, however, really empathize with them, and even consider their arcs tragic. I've always chalked this difference in reaction up to me not explaining their thoughts/actions well enough, but I wonder if it has something to do with these women not being "nice" or "likable" because their actions are outside certain norms.