Loving to hate

Posted: November 6, 2014 in reading, watching, writing
Tags: , , , , , ,

Sometimes terrible people make great characters.

I was reminded of this as I was working on my NaNoWriMo story this morning. One of the two protagonists is rude, mean and inconsiderate towards others. But I’m really enjoying writing her, because she says the sort of things I’d love to say but never actually do.

Sure he’s cool, but would you work with him?

This is part of the appeal of any character with an unpleasant streak, whether protagonist or villain, from Archer to the Joker. They say and do things that we half want to say and do because they would help us to vent our feelings, but that we don’t say and do because of the impact on others and the consequences. It lets them be witty and insightful in an edgy way that other characters aren’t. It’s fun to read, to watch and to write.

As people we would never want these characters in our lives. Archer is hilarious to watch on TV but he’s undoubtedly a complete arsehole. The character I’m writing might be entertaining on paper, but her snide superiority would drive me nuts in reality. Fiction lets us have our cake and eat it, spending time with these people but not having to live and work with them, and that’s great.

Who are your favourite mean characters, and do you find that you get something out of spending time with them?

  1. Dylan Hearn says:

    My favourite mean character is Flashman. He combines all the horrible attributes of a typical Victorian blue-blood with added bullying and cowardice. The best part of the Flashman books are when the tables are turned against him yet he always comes up smelling of roses. He’ll occasionally show enough compassion or humanity to make you think he’s about to have a change of heart, only to do something so horrible you’ll hate him even more. A great character.

    • I’ve only read the first book but I did really enjoy the character, and for exactly those sorts of reasons. I think he’s a really interesting reflection of Britain’s colonial era.

  2. Jon Taylor says:

    Having just watched the second series of Avatar: The Legend of Korra, the character that springs to mind isn’t so much mean as a egomaniac Howard Hughs character. He has uttered some of my favourite amoral lines from the past few months:

    “The best way to deal with crazy women is to lie big and leave fast!”
    “If you can’t make money in a war… you just flat-out can’t make money!”

  3. There are a lot of great horrible characters out there. Liiiike everyone in Black Adder. But yeah, you wouldn’t want to live or work with them. I’m writing one myself, and working to keep him edgy enough that his relation to another character never devolves into secret-heart-of-gold or sadistic-buddy-comedy territory. Difficult but fun.

    • What do you do to get that balance right? Any particular things that you use or avoid?

      And a big ‘hell yes’ to Blackadder. I grew up watching that show, can probably talk along with half the scripts by heart. Blackadder in particular is a great example of the obnoxious yet weirdly admirable.

      • Hmm, I think I do a combination of trope-analysis and other characters’ reactions to him. It’s easy for an author’s favorite character to become a Mary Sue/Gary Stu, wherein every other character automatically loves/admires them; I work hard to make sure that my enjoyment of this character does not overshadow the other characters’ largely averse/hostile reactions toward him. He’s dangerously erratic; it would be inappropriate of me to have anyone like him for that.

        At the same time, I’ve always found villainous tropes to be interesting — particularly those that deal with the dividing line between the sympathetic villain and the utter monster. A writer can do a fair amount of hopscotching back and forth around that line, but any misstep can really sink whatever you’re trying to accomplish. Since I use the character a lot, I have to be extra careful. He’s not just in the background.

        In my opinion, the villain makes the hero, and is often more interesting than the hero. I’m just doing my best not to mess it up.

        • How much we define characters through other characters’ reactions is something I’m only just starting to properly appreciate. It’s amazing how much you can direct readers to love or hate someone, or to accept that the story is good while the character is evil, through those responses.

  4. jhmae says:

    I think we can live with rotten people in books – more than we can in life – because we understand the fictional villain. We know where he’s coming from and why he’s being an arsehole. We aren’t afforded that luxury in real life. I hate/love Nucky Thompson, Cersei Lannister – real jerks, but very compelling.

    • That’s a really interesting point. We do often overlook the sympathetic side of real life jerks because we’re so busy dealing with their jerkness, whereas with fictional characters the other side is thrust in our faces.

      I find Cersei Lannister to be pretty much the only GoT character who hasn’t become more sympathetic after however many books. We’ve gained more insight into her over time, but she still just seems so awful to me.

      • jhmae says:

        I totally agree. However, I will say this in her favor: She’s a strong willed feminist in a (albeit fictional, but still based on real life) time when women were supposed to look pretty and make babies. I think everything cruel thing she does is a response to that limitation on what she’s allowed to do. Obviously, she doesn’t respond to it well, but that point is where – awful and psychotic as she is – she has my sympathy. (And though she wishes she’d been born a man, she sure exploits all of the petty nastiness women have to offer) A very strong, but misguided woman.

        • That’s a really good point, and I wonder how much readers’ reactions to her are shaped by their gender. So do women empathise with her more easily because what she’s going through is more connected to their lives and experience, or at least those of women who’ve come before them? I think it’s a really interesting decision by Martin not to shy away from the level of unpleasantness she stoops to in what is, from some angles, resistance to gender oppression.

          • jhmae says:

            I think women would relate more to her, yes. Because all women, even today, have come up against the same kind of oppression Cersei does. It’s my only element of sympathy for her.

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