Characters we love to hate: Engaging with readers part II

Last week I talked about qualities to give your hero(ine)s to make them likeable characters, so your readers will engage with them and root for them.

The other side of the coin, of course, is unlikeable characters. Whether it’s your Big Bad (think Voldemort), a persistent but lesser antagonist (like Draco), or just an ornery minor character (think Kreacher, Sirius Black’s house elf), it’s always good to give your reader someone they can hate. Here are some qualities you can stir in to sour the pot:

  • The Know-it-all who acts with Certainty. Everyone hates a know-it-all.
  • Superiority complex and arrogance. (Especially if they’re incompetent!) This goes right along with the first one.
  • Hypocrisy. This is a great one; characters who expound beliefs and then don’t follow them.
  • Fanaticism.
  • Unjustified success, like when a character succeeds because of plot reasons, not because of character development. Watch out for Mary Sues (a character mapped on the author’s personality), who often succeed only because the author wants them to. Also remember: even when success comes through character growth, it still has to make plot sense.
  • Pleasure in cruelty (which is a shortcut to evil). But watch this one: you can flip this on its head by providing Justification! If we sympathize with the rationale, then we start to like them again.
  • Cowardice. We just don’t respect cowards; thoughtful retreats are ok, but not quitters.
  • Self-serving.
  • Cheats/oath breakers/liars/deception. Again, Justification can turn this around. It’s why we end up liking characters like Locke Lamora.
  • Taking the easy way out.
  • Kicking people when they’re down Unless they deserve it, of course. Also this goes back to a bunch of the likeable qualities; Redemption, Justification, owning their flaws, recognition of their flaws, and readers identifying with the motive.
  • Never feeling apologetic or remorseful.
  • Laziness. They need to earn what they get.

So, now you’ve got a bunch of qualities to deliver. How do you get the reader to know your character? Not by telling them, that’s about as interesting/exciting as these lists. Instead, telegraph those qualities with one of these techniques:

  1. Actions. Especially when other characters are not looking, likeable actions show character.
  2. Dialog. Snark is fun, but hard; real dialog is inane, but written dialog must be tight and do a couple of things (show character, move plot along, etc.)
  3. Voice is key, that is often what grabs first.
  4. Other people’s perspectives: when one character talks about another one, it telegraphs the second character’s qualities. This is the only place where you can just ‘tell’ about a character–because at the same time, you’re showing things about the character that’s talking, and moving plot, etc.

Finally, there’s how characters deal with crap. Any of the previous methods can be used to show this, but the reaction of a character to regular day-to-day stresses tells a lot about them. As Mercedes Lackey said, “Even evil wizards get up in the middle of the night to eat chocolate chip cookies.”

Okay, it’s exercise time. Take your hero, and especially your villain, and list out 5 negative and 5 positive qualities. No silly stuff or clichés! Then write a paragraph from another character’s P.O.V., someone not part of the main plot, about that character. See where that takes you; I’ll bet you get a lot out of it.

If you can think of any more likeable or unlikable qualities, or have any comments, please feel free to join the conversation!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Characters we love to hate: Engaging with readers part II

  1. Pingback: Don’t Write What You Know | mugsters

  2. Pingback: Writing Art, Sketching With Words – The Character Sketch | mugsters

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