Thursday, May 17, 2012

Unlikable Characters by Carolyn J. Rose

Carolyn J. Rose is the author of several novels, including Hemlock Lake, An Uncertain Refuge, A Place of Forgetting, and No Substitute for Murder. She penned two humorous cozy mysteries, The Big Grabowski and Sometimes a Great Commotion, with her husband, Mike Nettleton. Through a Yellow Wood, the sequel to Hemlock Lake, will be published in the late spring of 2012 and By the Sea of Regret, the sequel to An Uncertain Refuge, will emerge in the late fall.

She grew up in New York's Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She founded the Vancouver Writers' Mixers and is an active supporter of her local bookstore, Cover to Cover. Her interests are reading, gardening, and not cooking.

Carolyn will be giving away a copy of No Substitute for Murder to one lucky person who leaves a comment here before the end of Friday, May 18th (midnight Mountain Time). Be sure your e-mail contact information is in your profile or the body of your comment so we can find you if you're the winner. The giveaway results will be announced here on Saturday, May 19th.


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Unlikable Characters by Carolyn J. Rose


Recently, on the recommendation of a friend, I read a thriller by a bestselling author. Twenty pages in, I put it down for a day. The protagonist was so full of himself and his attitudes toward women were so counter to what I find admirable—or even barely acceptable—in a man, that I didn’t want to spend time with him. In fact, I hated his guts.

But, a lot of people had purchased this book and (presumably) read it. Many of them posted favorable reviews. As an exercise in persistence and broadening my literary horizons, I picked it up again and read on.

At fifty pages, I put the book down once more. I still didn’t like this guy. In fact, the more I learned about him, the less I wanted to be in the same hemisphere.

A day later, I picked up the story again, telling myself that perhaps he changed significantly as the plot unfolded. Character growth and development might be what the deeper story was about, and I’m always intrigued by the ways in which characters evolve.

Alternately slogging along and skipping chunks of narrative, I finished the book, still loathing the character, still longing to spot an illuminating back story incident that would provide enough information for me to understand, to empathize, to relate to some part of his humanness. There were interesting plot points and incidents, yes, but none that allowed me to connect with the character on a satisfying level. When I finished the book, it was with a sense of relief, with a feeling of having completed a distasteful task instead of a fascinating journey.

The process, however, started me thinking about my own characters, their functions in the stories, and whether readers would try to understand and engage with them.

Ronny Miller from Hemlock Lake is a man losing control and seething with rage. Many of us know people like that. Do we like them? Usually not, unless we’re the same way. It’s hard to like Ronny, but his actions illuminate the protagonist and others because they react to him and define themselves through those reactions.

I definitely don’t like April from A Place of Forgetting. She’s self-centered and possibly a sociopath. But she sets the plot in motion and creates all kinds of conflict for Liz Roark. Without her, Liz would wallow in self-pity and never leave home, meet Delia, and grow up. To my delight, a few readers wrote to tell me they thought I’d done a good job of creating April, that they couldn’t stand her, and that they kept hoping for her to get what was coming to her.

Evie’s son in An Uncertain Refuge is an unpleasant one-dimensional person, but he’s a catalyst for events in the second half of the book. He’ll reappear in the sequel, By the Sea of Regret (due out late in the fall), and I’ll do more to explain him through back story and give him the opportunity to change.

Those three are secondary characters and have definite purposes. My intention was that most readers wouldn’t like them.

But it turns out that a few of my main characters, ones I intended to be likable, aren’t always. There were moments when I admit that I wanted to strangle Kate Dalton, the protagonist of An Uncertain Refuge. She made a number of decisions ranging from stupid to ill-considered to downright risky. If she had paused to think again, however, the story might have been over before the end of the first chapter. Beyond that, reviewers have made the point that she spends too much time blaming her parents for the shape of her life.

And some readers have told me that they didn’t like Liz, the protagonist of A Place of Forgetting. They felt she was too much of a baby, even given that she was the only child of a protective father and the book is set in 1966.

But back to that character I didn’t like and couldn’t engage with. Because a friend had recommended the book so highly, I worried over my reaction for weeks, assuming the flaw was in me. But then I gave myself permission to not like him.

Not every book is for every reader. And not every character is, either. We all have different experiences before we pick up a book, and we carry those with us as we read. That baggage colors our perceptions and determines how we relate to characters and their actions.

And that’s what makes reading—and writing—such an adventure.

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Carolyn, thanks so much for joining us here today. In my own writing, I sometimes find the unlikeable characters I create are the ones I enjoy writing about the most. When they outshine the main character, however, I know I have a problem.

You can find out more about Carolyn and her novels at Deadly Duo Mysteries website. Carolyn can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

Don't forget to leave a comment here before the end of Friday, May 18th (midnight Mountain Time), if you want to enter Carolyn's giveaway for a copy of No Substitute for Murder.

22 comments:

Carolyn J. Rose said...

Thanks for inviting me to hang out here. I'm looking forward to others' thoughts on this topic.

Pamela Deane said...

I know what you mean, Carolyn. But being an unlikeable jerk is not the only problem. Not too long ago, I read a book that had a cleaver plot idea, but the protagonist was sooooooo good and forgiving, and sweet, and soft-spoken, and, and, and....yuck! I wanted to gag. Give me a good old main character who is likable, but heavy on the flaws any day. At least I can relate.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Hi Carolyn,

I had to run out early for an appointment, but I'm making the rounds now to spread the word you're here. Thanks for being here.

Pamela, I know exactly what you mean. It's hard to keep reading when the main character has no inner challenges to overcome.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

So true! All depends on how much a reader relates to a character as to whether he will like the character or not. I know I struggled to make the main character likeable in my first book. For the most part, it meant toning down certain negative aspects. Of course now, I know how to "Save the Cat!"

lizy-expat-writer said...

I might have tried a second time but not a third, Patricia, so I admire your persistence! I read a Dan Brown book once and only kept going because everyone was raving about it. I thought it was badly written and just churned out to show how much research he'd done. I have put another book down this week because the first chapter was too awful for words. Even on this book-barren island, life's too short to read rubbish, even in the interests of researching what NOT to do in my own books!

Dean K Miller said...

Unlikeable characters....kill them all...unless, of course, they really are central to the story!

I'm working with one character, who might need to be a little more un-likeable during the first half of the novel so his transformation of self at the end is more agreeable and believeable.

Thanks, Carol and Pat for hosting and posting...you've got me thinking!

SixtiesDad said...

I almost never read but am a fan of characters none-the-less. One of the best ever was Angle on the TV show Rockford Files. He had no redeemable characteristics what-so-ever and yet we all loved him. Go figure.

Lesa said...

Carolyn,

I can handle unlikeable characters, but it better not be the main character. If the main character is unlikeable, I'll drop the book. I've read 150 pages in a book already, and said forget it. I can't stand any of these people. I have to be able to like or at least understand the main character in some way in order to bother reading it. Too many books with likeable characters waiting.

Carolyn J. Rose said...

I'm with you, Lesa. That main character better be someone I can relate to and want to spend time with.
And yes, SixtiesDad, he may seem to have nothing to redeem him, but there's usually something - often a weird kind of loyalty to the protagonist.
And, Pamela, I agree that too good can be no good.

Lynn Proctor said...

oh i think some of the greatest books in the world have the most unlikable characters---that's true life!

Maryann Miller said...

Patricia, thanks so much for hosting Carolyn. This was a terrific post, and it was especially refreshing to read that I am not the only one who cannot like a character others do. Having despicable people, like serial killers, as secondary characters in a mystery makes perfect sense, but the central character has to be likeable. And I did learn in one writing class that even the villain should have one small redeeming quality, or at least something shared in the story that explains why he or she is so vile.

Carolyn J. Rose said...

Lynn, I agree that there are plenty of characters we "love to hate," but there are many more I just plain dislike on so many levels, don't understand, and who don't get what I feel is coming to them. Without that feeling of "oh, yeah, take that," they're too much like "true life." My true life, especially the years in TV news, introduced me to enough unlikable characters to last me for the rest of my years.

Deadly Duo, Duh Blog said...

When Carolyn and I wrote THE HERMIT OF HUMBUG MOUNTAIN, a YA fantasy novel that has become DRUM WARRIOR in it's revised form and will soon show up on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, I visualized a well known blowhard talk-show host when creating Spid, the pretentious troll who wants to terrorize the world. I'll leave it to you to decide which one.

Clarissa Draper said...

Exactly. I won't like every story just because everyone else does. And others won't like my characters just because I do.

The Golden Eagle said...

Agreed! Different people will relate--and not relate--to different character elements.

Carolyn J. Rose said...

It's that subjective factor that makes writing so interesting - and so challenging.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Carolyn, thanks so much for being here with this excellent post. You're a great guest.

Donna Volkenannt said...

Stimulating post.

I have a hard time getting into books when I can't connect with the characters or when the characters don't change. Most of the time I continue reading and hope it will get better.

Melanie Sherman said...

I liked your protagonist in A Place of Forgetting, and I hated the rotten April. OOooh, she was such a horrid person. And she even had me believing her when she offered to drive, so I was just as amazed as Liz when Liz woke up. 'Nuff said.

Carolyn J. Rose said...

Thanks, Melanie. April didn't change as the story developed. I don't think I could have stood to have her around for the whole book.
And, Donna, I'm not as "forgiving" as you are, but there have been times when I've been glad I didn't give up on a book because I was rewarded for persistence later in the story.

Jemi Fraser said...

I have put down books because the MCs were so unlikeable. I need to connect with the MC in order to really like the book. A good, nasty villain is always good for the story though!

Carolyn J. Rose said...

Nasty, snarky, selfish. Oh yeah, but I want them to get what's coming to them - or at least have it appear that payback is on the horizon.