Creating the unlikeable character

“I write because the world is an imperfect place, and we behave in an imperfect manner. I want to understand why it’s so hard to be good, honest, loving, caring, thoughtful and generous. Writing is about the only way (besides praying) that allows me to be compassionate toward folks who, in real life, I’m probably not that sympathetic toward. I want to understand myself and others better, so what better way than to pretend to be them?” Terry McMillan

Terry McMillan says she writes to find out why people do what they do. Why do they behave the way that they do. And this means getting into the heart and soul of people we don’t like, people we avoid. Most of us see others as one dimensional; they are either bad or good; they either have good motives or bad ones. I disagree. Good people can make bad choices on a given day. We are complex individuals who move and think and act and react based on our hearts. Sometimes our hearts our pure and we move towards good, other times we are selfish, self-serving; even bitter or angry. The complexity of our makeup causes it to be impossible to say we are good or bad.

Even within the confines of a story characters are often the nemesis to one character and the best thing to happen to another. When we develop characters that are all good or all bad our stories tend to become stale, stagnant and predictable. One thing I like about McMillan’s stories as that she has mastered the art of creating those types of characters that I would call misunderstood. To understand why a mother would abandon her children does not mean that you will like her once you know the reason; it just means her story is not as simple as it seems. And that is all. No judgment. It is just the way it is.

We all have motives and corresponding actions, hang-ups and childhood issues, fears and doubts that we express in a number of ways. To understand them and even feel a sense of compassion doesn’t mean that we will embrace them but only that we will not jimmy them into stereotypes. They will not be forgettable, carbon copies of like characters from other stories.

I try to create believable characters—describe people at their worst and then seek to understand why they can’t be their best. Sometimes you won’t completely get them until you see their development over time. And sometimes you will never get them. Our personalities and makeup often make embracing us all unrealistic. But it does broaden your perspective and give you a better understanding of the world in which you live.

When developing your characters try to seek motive or understanding for their makeup. Don’t be afraid to shine an unfavorable light.  And we may never fall in love with them, but we certainly won’t forget them.