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Writing a character you don’t like

Sometimes a story or poem requires a character (or narrator) you don’t like.

In fiction it’s often the antagonist. While this person isn’t always evil, s/he is generally unlikeable. After all, the antagonist is thwarting your main character for some reason.

So how do you approach writing a believable character you don’t like?

Here’s how I approach it:

Look at who you know. First, I think about people I know and model the character after him/her. I don’t have to hate the person. I may even like the person, but I see something useful there. Pretty much everyone has bad traits and ways of expressing them. Maybe it’s that backstabbing co-worker. Does he fold his hands in a certain way just before conniving?

I may steal some gestures from one person, a turn of phrase from another, and the shifty eyes of yet another. This is a great place to start thinking of descriptors and gestures that bring a character to life. This, however, is just the shell of a character. A well rounded character requires more.

Fill in their speech patterns, word choices. Next I think about my pet peeves in speech. Generally, I make characters I don’t like say and do things I wouldn’t. Phrases that annoy you could be when someone talks in all jargon, uses platitudes, or says whatever is the “it” word of the time. An example for me is I hate when people say something is “retarded.” I’m sure plenty of people will think I’m being hyper sensitive. My reason, however, is this: plenty of people who are “mentally retarded” know exactly what you mean when you say it. And it hurts them. Know who else it hurts? The people who love them. (Stepping down from my soap box.)

So, while that isn’t something I would say, I would give that line to a character whom I don’t like and who is the type who might say that. So, I think of the phrases that annoy me and the type of person who says them and match the phrases to characters.

Find their motivation. Finally, to get to the juicy stuff—the motivation—I try to be reflexive. I think about the characteristics I don’t like in myself. Greed. Desperation. Envy. (There’s a long list.) These are the traits we generally try to suppress.

But a bad character, an unlikeable character, revels in these. So for me, understanding the motivation in an unlikeable character is understanding these traits in myself. What makes me feel envious? How do I behave when I’m being greedy or self-centered? If I can understand my own actions and behaviors, I can start to translate them into the action/motivation of a character.

Writing a good bad character is hard work. The important part is making it fun. Spending time with this character (and you will spend much of it), be so grueling. As you bring this unlikeable person to life, just imagine all the horrible just desserts s/he will get by the end of the story.  In some cases, the bad guy doesn’t get what s/he deserves. Then delight in secretly knowing your character is made up of pieces from those around you–including some people you may not like.

2 comments on “Writing a character you don’t like

  1. averythorne
    March 2, 2013

    Generally I try and make them as nasty as possible. Cause that way, it’s fun. It’s like a contest, to see just HOW evil they can be.

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