Sunday, September 18, 2011

Angry or unlikable characters

Today I want to talk about unlikable characters. We all know it's important for readers to find something they like... or maybe like isn't the right word, but something that connects them with a character. What I want to talk about today is those characters that are a little harder to like. Characters who are angry or tough and well... not always nice.

One of the first YA books I wrote had a female character like that. Life had dealt her a really bad hand and she was angry about it. Not only angry, but hurting and to deal with that she built a huge wall around herself. Her wall came up in the form of sarcasm, and pushing people away. I let quite a few people read that book and a number of them came back with the same comments, "she is TOO hard" "she is TOO angry". It's a fine line, I think. It's hard to straddle it well. But for me, she was HURT. Yes, she was angry. Yes she was tough. Why can't a girl be angry? LOL. Obviously I wasn't doing my job well enough to make the reader bond with her, but there's a part of me who thinks some of us, myself included, tend to be a little tougher on female characters than male. When it comes to those angry, tough characters, I think girls don't get away with it as easily. *ducks for cover* I don't mean that to sound bad, but I'm pulling from my personal experience in regards to my reading and writing experiences. I think *I* am subconsciously guilty of being tougher on girl characters who are angry sometimes than I am boys. Thoughts?

One example that I'm thinking of as a character that's hard to like is Jade from the show Victorious.

I fully admit to watching too much iCarly and Victorious with my daughter, but I'm curious how people who have seen the show feel about Jade. She's DEFINITELY angry... she's not nice. With her, I'm not sure WHY though. I think that makes the difference. If you understand where the character is coming from, if you know the circumstances that made them the way they are, I think it's easier to be more forgiving.

What are your thoughts on angry or unlikeable characters? Do you feel like you or others are harder on male or female characters?


  1. Great post! I too watch them with my 9 year old. With my first YA manuscript I was told my MC was always pissed. I had to give the readers a reason to like her, balance her out. With Jade...she has a boyfriend so she can't be all that bad and I remember an episode where she opened up a little bit. I like her character because it balances out the goody two shoes in the show. Almost like Sam with iCarly.

  2. I think it's definitely a fine line when writing an "unlikeable" character. When I was writing Quinn, I had very few people come back saying they liked her. The fab Tara Kelly read my ms and recommended I check out Courtney Summer's novels because she was the master of writing a mean girl and still making her likable. And she was right, CS characters are so well layered and even though some of them aren't very "nice," you can still relate to them and empathize with them. That's where you have to find the balance. There are TONS of unlikable people in real life, but for some reason, a vast majority of readers don't want to read about an unlikable character- you have to find that line that connects them to the reader and makes them CARE about them even when they are being a total jackhole. ;)

  3. Great post.

    I think what we have to get across in writing is that there are things we don't like about people, but most aren't 100% unlikable. In school we might have had that one girl that was unlikable in almost every way, but there's usually something that makes us see a piece of ourselves in her.

    I think of Santana in Glee... not sure if anyone watches. I mostly watch for the musical numbers but for whatever reason Santana is my favorite character (next to Sue Sylvester). She's a witch and unlikable in most ways, but there are parts of her, the fact that she's in love but afraid to admit it, that makes us connect.

  4. I think angry or unlikable characters are perfect when balanced with flaws and something I can relate to, you know? Who'd want to read about someone they absolutely can not relate to?


    Can Alex save Winter from the darkness that hunts her?

    YA Paranormal Romance, Darkspell coming fall of 2011!

  5. I think you're right- there needs to be a reason why, whether we know it right away, or we gradually find out as we get to know the characters.
    I watch iCarly with my daughter too- it's her favorite show.

  6. I think what's hard is when that character is the main character. There has to be something redeeming about them. With Jade and Sam (yes, I watch too much Victorious and iCarly as well) I think people still like them (at least I do) because they are so undeniably themselves. And every once and a while they have these vulnerable moments where you really want to help them feel better. You realize that they are so 'hard' because they are trying to keep people away from them, and that makes you want to understand why.

    It's definitely a hard line to walk, but it can be done. Good luck!

  7. We just have to be inside their head enough to KNOW why they're unlikable.

    Steph did an AMAZING job with that in Grounding Quinn, and I just read Courtney Summers, and my heart's still breaking for the girl who couldn't just let herself be in love with the boy already.

    And yes, there's a TOTAL double standard with guys and girls. It's like we swoon over the asshole who makes one nice move, and we're pissed at the girl when she's snarky. NOT fair, but I see it all the time.

    My biggest thing is that if I'm in their head enough to see/hear/feel/know where it's coming from. I love a good bitter person.

  8. Yep and yep. (Never seen Victorious, but "yep" to all the rest!)
    I thought Rose was an angry m.c. in Vampire Academy, but I got it. I understood why, and her anger played into her badassness. Plus, her sweet bff sort of balanced her out. So it can work if it's done really well.

  9. I'm just happy to hear I'm not the only one who watches iCarly and Victorious, and actually enjoy it. (I need help).

    I'm not sure why Jade is the way she is either, I keep hoping they give us a clue. The thing you do see a a verneral side to her, same with Sam in iCarly- They are characters that if they were gone, the shows would not be the same.

    Okay I really need help. LOL

  10. It's a tough one to balance, but so long as there is a tiny hint of vulnerability in there, you can go a long way with an angry character.

  11. I feel like Sam and Jade are totally different though... I see Sam as a different kind of angry. LOL. I don't know why that is.

    I agree with Cynthia that the shows wouldn't be the same without either character though.

  12. I had a character like that-- hurt, scared, and consequently angry and harsh. My friends responded with "KILL IT WITH FIRE!!!!!!" I turned away from making her cold, and went for a more sarcastic, "Captain Jack Sparrow"-esque mask for her to wear, while surrounding her with more outright ridiculous things that she could snark about without looking like a complete jerk.

    The thing I'll add, though, is that I have a hard time accepting angry men as much as I do angry women. I want to beat Dr. Gregory House to death with his own cane as much as I want to throttle that nasty gym coach from Glee.

  13. This is a great post and I've enjoyed reading all of the responses. I was thinking about this very question after reading a book and trying to assess how I felt about the main character. I totally agree that you walk a fine line presenting a character's pain and also helping a reader to see that character's vulnerability. I think Jackson Pearce does this really well in her latest book SWEETLY. How an author feels about his or her characters goes a long way in how a reader might relate to them. Some authors present angry characters in a one-dimensional way. Authors who really like their characters will find good in even the characters who exhibit negative behavior.

  14. If the author can make me sympathize with them with some kind of background then I can often overlook an 'angry' character for a while. But if their character doesn't arc, or grow then I get tired of it.

  15. The thing with Jade and Sam is they're SO over the top they actually achieve a comedic affect from it. Which is why I think it works so well on those shows. Putting the same thing in a serious drama or action flick would be difficult to pull off. And I think it is hard to pull off in a novel in general.

    I'm working through some beta-reader comments and I have a character one reader told me she doesn't like. Sure, this character has her bad moments but I really, really liked this character. So I was surprised I wrote her as unlikeable. Then I realized I showed how she complicated my MC's life without showing the positive moments where she actually cares about the MC so the relationship was totally one-sided. That's really specific to my WIP but maybe someone will get something from it anyway. :-)

  16. There's definitely a double-standard. Even I'm guilty of it, though I think I'm more lenient than most.

    Like others have said--we just need to know this 'unlikable' character is, in fact, human with human weaknesses and emotions. That there's a reason they are the way they are.

  17. One of my favourite books (well, two - they were part 1 and 2 of one story) featured a character who was hard to like. A lot of the time I didn't like her, but every so often something nice would shine through. Or her very real hurt would shine through, and I would sympathise. I think it's a fine line with a character like this, but it's certainly possible to empathise with an "unlikeable" character if you get those moments, and can see the character is growing.