Monday, April 19, 2010

Unlikeable Characters

Have you ever read a published work, and found a character that you absolutely hated. Not necessarily because of what they did in the story, but because they were a horrible characterization, one in which the characters felt more like cardboard cutouts than living beings. I just finished a book in which I felt one of the minor characters was terribly done.

I won't name the book, because I don't think it is appropriate to bash another writer's work without them having the chance to defend themselves. Sorry but I'm not a book critic.

So what was so bad about the character? First of all the character was whiny. I don't know of anyone who likes a whiny character. It's one thing to have your character speak out, but it's quite another to have them whine all the time, and not do anything about the situation.

In this book the mother was put in a situation where she had to step up to help defend her family. It was really a do or die situation, and she kept whining about how they needed to talk to the armed aggravated pursuers. Or maybe they needed to call the cops, or maybe they could simply run away.

It was totally unbelievable because I'm a firm believer in the saying that a mother will protect her young, no matter what. The mother continued to whine about their situation even when the son was put in harms way. She didn't lift a finger to do anything about it. Sorry, not buying it.

Near the end of the book she finally performs an action that helps save them, but it was done more out of idiocy, rather than concerted effort to solve the situation. So it felt like she did the right thing, finally, but not on purpose. Excuse me? That doesn't help.

I think the thing about this character that annoyed me the most was even though she was put in a situation where she had to shoot a gun or die, she still held to a misguided principle that she couldn't have anything to do with guns. I'm sorry, if there is a group of armed individuals on your front lawn, who are planning on breaking into your house, raping and then killing you, any principles you have about using a gun are going right out the porthole. Any other actions are unreal, and make me doubt that the character could actually exist.

What about you? Have you had similar experiences with bad characters? What about them annoyed you? or made them seem unreal?


  1. I have experiences like that all the time. But then, I'm a book doctor, so I see a lot of unpublished fiction from authors who are still learning the ropes.

    Overly-passive characters, like the one you describe here, are a very common malady in my clients' work.

    At the end of the day, just like you experienced, readers simply can't root for a character who never acts--or even attempts to act--with the intention of changing the course of events.

    I don't really care how the plot turns out--with success or failure for the protagonist--so long as I see the protagonist _trying_ to affect the outcome. Succeed or fail, I have to see the character make the effort.

    Failure can be a great option for a novelist, too: character failures, when coupled with spirited attempts at success, can be wonderfully dramatic. But failure coupled with complete lack of initiative on the character's part, that goes by another name: "Just Desserts."

  2. Awesome post!

    "I'm sorry, if there is a group of armed individuals on your front lawn, who are planning on breaking into your house, raping and then killing you, any principles you have about using a gun are going right out the porthole."

    This in books irks me to no end. It's like an author arguing with herself, trying to prove that she is morally superior for picking a irrational action.

    This doesn't jive with the women I know. It's like the author is basing her book on the reality as presented by Hollywood, not as it really is.

    Oh, and Jason, your comment rocked.

  3. I read a very engaging book two years ago that had a horribly annoying character. She was so annoying in the first 50 pages of the book, that I almost put it down.

    The annoying character disappeared as the protagonist acted to get away from her, and my enjoyment of the book improved dramatically.

    At the end of the book, Ms Annoying came back and all the rest of the characters around her were just as (or more) annoyed with her as I was. So, was it foolish of the author to make a character that was so annoying it almost made me put down the book? Or did it point towards her skill as an author that the character she meant to be annoying came through so clearly on the page?


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