Writing Characters You Don’t Find Likeable

Villains. As a child I used to root for them in all of my favorite cartoons (memorably G.I. Joe, He-Man, and Transformers, and amongst them especially Destro and then later the denizens of Cobra-La when they were introduced). The good guys were just so bland, so one-dimensional, and their victories so banally predictable that even my young mind found it hard to root for them. Maybe it was the intrinsic appeal of cheering on the underdog, or the beautiful shine of all that struggle for all those lost causes that got to me. And if we’re honest, haven’t at least some of those bent on world domination arguably done much good with the bad when a long view of history is taken? Cases can be made for Napoleon, Julius Caesar, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and others. (Although those cases do require the almost impossible task of ignoring all that blood – but then who of our heroes have clean hands?) It is only a romanticized and indoctrinated view of democratic institutions as contemporarily practiced that make us think we’ve got it all worked out and that what is can be said to be “the best” (or, if one is more thoughtfully inclined, the “least bad”). Does it come down to a frame of mind?

Perspective, it’s unavoidable. So much so, as I’ve argued elsewhere, that our hopes for arriving at truly objective conclusions ought to be replaced by an acceptance of what I call perspectivism: that unavoidable view from within. Even the results of our most rigidly controlled empirical experiments will contain elements of (data) interpretation and analysis that are inevitably prejudiced in one way or another. Scientists of course make allowance for this in keeping their conclusions open and in welcoming criticism (most of the time, anyway), and we are grateful to them for that. The point remains, however, that there is no really undeniably solid ground upon which to stand. Thus it is that we operate solely out of our own blinkered headsets. And this is what we must keep in mind when writing.

Stories need character interaction, and interaction needs conflict. What is driving anyone along if not goals, objectives, and the obstacles on the way? Even within a plot wherein everyone is friends and everyone is always on the lookout to help one another achieve their cherished X there will be something to overcome – else why tell the tale at all? “Once upon a time there was a young girl who wanted to do Y and her friend helped her and she did it.” My eldest daughter – nearly five now – insists on daily bedtime stories from me, can you imagine how she’d react if I offered that up? The results would be disastrous.

Everyone acts nobly from their own point of view (or at least justifiably), and that, I think, is the key to writing characters that serve necessary roles within your work vis-a-vis your main character(s) but whom you personally may find less than savory. These characters too, whether “villains” in the traditional sense or not, are also acting with their own interests in mind and in the real world very rarely do such ever include the complete and absolute disregard of others. When they do, in fact, we look for diagnoses of psychopathy and expect to find them. Humans are simply not, on the whole, built to behave that way. However warped or embittered or self-regarding any particular character’s perspective may have become there will be a long history of experiences and considerations behind it, and all of that will exist for the character on conscious and preconscious levels. She will move out of her past as she has been shaped by it and as she has adjusted to it in countless ways rationally and intuitively. Surely as we write her we can find some empathy within ourselves. After all, not even cartoon villains are without their charms.


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