Characters I Don't Like

>> Friday, August 28, 2009

I’ve spent a great deal of time telling you all about the characters I love. But, what kind of characters do I hate? What kind of protagonists (because, of course, one shouldn’t be too sympathetic for the antagonists) don’t appeal to me?

Before I go into the characters I hate, let me point out that many “characters” I read or see on screen don’t work for me not because I really like them or not but because they don’t make sense. Often they are contradictory, which exist in reality, but becomes irksome if the author has gone to the trouble to describe/establish a characteristic that senselessly is negated elsewhere. It’s hard to swallow that someone is empathetic or kind when they perform acts of random cruelty for no apparent reason. It’s hard to accept that someone is desperately intelligent if they never do anything wise, logical or even thoughtful. Just as bad are the characters, often described as having certain characteristics, but limp and lifeless in word and deed.

Building a good character is more than knowing what you want the character to be, it’s building dialog that fits that character, even reveals that character (which is much better than the “narrator” telling the reader what to think, it’s making their actions simpatico with that character, even if it might not immediately make sense. I tell my husband, and sometimes he tell me, the reader might not know why my character did X, but I sure as heck should and it better makes sense with regards to that character.

However, one can draw a character masterfully and still have it be a character I despise. Some, of course, are obvious. Some, like rapists, you’d think would be obviously not protagonist material and yet they frequently are. Here are some examples:

Rapists: If you’ve read my blog before, this should be no surprise. Although I can think of any number of good reasons to kill someone, I have never heard an argument to justify rape that I’ve bought. Ever. I don’t care if she really loves you but was scared and needed force to be pushed over, if you were driven mad with desire and/or Hyde potion, whatever. A protagonist that rapes someone else is not a protagonist and I will (and have) shut the book. Unlike almost everything else on this list, once is enough, is irredeemable to me.

True Sadists: Good people can do bad things. They can deliberately cause pain because of immeasurable stress (torture their daughter’s rapist, for instance), maim, kill, whatever, if they are pushed too far. I can have characters do things I think are wrong and still forgive them (with some limits). However, people who take pleasure in hurting others, who go out of their way to cause death and destruction, they aren't people I’m going to enjoy spending time with.

Senseless Killers: As I said, there are many types of people who might kill that I can respect, like soldiers or police or even the right kind of vigilante. I can forgive a gentle soul who killed at the end of his or her rope. It does make a difference who you kill and why. But, if a character does it without cause (or a cause I can buy), for fun, or for his own convenience, thoughtlessly, again this isn't a character I'm going to enjoy. I'm pretty tolerant of violence (in fiction), but senseless violence doesn't do anything for me.

Damsel in Distress: Surely we’ve grown up enough that the old time Faye Wray character who’s main line is “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaagh!” and won’t lift a finger to save herself should sit wrong with us. Admittedly, many people, in a crisis, sit still and wait to be rescued, but why would I have the slightest interest in knowing them better? Since she has no role but to shriek artistically on the train tracks or facing the old saw blade while waiting for her hero to show up (and to bat her eyelashes when she does), she is of zero interest to me. It should be noticed, however, that one needn’t beat up the kidnapper or bad guy to get my interest. Organizing, calming hostages, for instances, is something useful, or providing first aid in a siege situation – both of those work for me. Anything that says, “I’m not just giving up.” Kicking the kidnapper (or other villain’s) butt, however, can work for me, too.

The Doormat: Characters that are repeatedly stepped on who put up with it (for no apparent reason) – there is a difference between someone being used as a puppet because his daughter has been kidnapped and someone who lets her boyfriend slap her around every night, but bails him out when the cops pull him over for DUI. I know people exist who have no interest in saving themselves, but they are not the kind of protagonists I care to follow.

The Sheep: Quiet, perhaps unhappy or dissatisfied person who goes along with an ugly situation because they feel helpless to protest. A character isn’t automatically Joseph Mengele just because he pretends Auschwitz isn’t just over the hill, but he’s unlikely to be a character I want to know more about. Whether this character is dragged along by mob mentality, refuses to do the right thing out of fear, or let’s apathy rule his actions, I find these characters distasteful and am unlikely to follow them.

The Truly Selfish: Everyone has some selfishness in them and it’s perfectly reasonable to have that be part of a character. However, if a character is never able to look past their own (and only their own) interests, they will not engage mine. Unrelenting self-interest, whether it translates to not putting himself out to save others or active self-promotion, is not appealing for me. Rampant greed or avarice with no regard (ever) for anyone else gets old quick and the only way this character can work for me is that they learn it (soon enough I don’t give up on them).

Motivated by Hate: You may think this is just a way to say some of the early characters, but it's more than that. Whether one's hate leads to violence or whether it just dominates every aspect of a person's life, it's not appealing for me. I don't see how one can steep oneself in hatred all the time without becoming a monster, letting it leech away your life and your happiness. I know terrible things can happen and know people are entitled to hatred when they've been misused. I'm sympathetic when a character has what matters most destroyed and gets all interested in vengeance - to a point. Past that point, they've lost all their love stood for. There is beauty out there. Find it.

Bigot: In this case, I define bigot by this. If someone is more worried about "what" you are than "who" you are, she's a bigot. I don't like them and prefer not to have one as my protagonist. I can forgive a character who started out that way but grew, but it's best if it's a side character.

Down-to-the-core Stupid People: I have to deal with stupidity every day just like everyone else. I can't speak for anyone else, but my life's too busy to waste it reading or watching stupid people. Seriously.

I could go on, but I bet you get the picture. What do you know, Lord Byron *fits* here.


  • Jeff King

    i love reading your post, they are the word in my head. all i have to do is say i agree, but this time its only 97.6%
    this part is the only one i disagree with...
    Motivated by Hate:

    now i don't like it if thats is what they are all about and never change for the better...

    but if they start out that way seeking retaliation or revenge and through their journey they find the right path or take the higher road. and learn and grow because of it and can rise above it them i do like that kind of main char...

    thtas just my 2.5 cents

  • Jeff King

    oops didn't read this part, don't know how i missed it...
    "I'm sympathetic when a character has what matters most destroyed and gets all interested in vengeance - to a point. Past that point, they've lost all their love stood for. There is beauty out there. Find it."

    but i figured i would leave my post rather than delete it...

  • The Mother

    I think it would be hard to make a case for any of these as a protagonist. But the Damsel wins for me, hands down.

  • Stephanie Barr

    It's OK, Jeff. For most of these characters, I can work myself to liking them again if they learn and grow. If the doormat grows a spine, I can find sympathy and respect (after all, I've been there). If the one motivated by hate finds that there is more to life than hating, finds something worth believing again...I'm cool. If the bigot opens his or her eyes to a larger world, I rejoice. Some don't get a second chance with me, like the rapists. And, sorry to say, down-to-the-core stupid is usually incurable.

    The Mother, I'm not surprised. What I am surprised with is how many of these characters are cast as protagonists and, sadly, in women's literature most of all. I seriously do not get that.

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