Lisa A. Kramer

Author, Speaker, Theater Artist, Creativity Facilitator

How to Write Terrible Characters

I'm not talking about the characters we love to hate--they are usually layered and intriguing.

I'm not talking about the characters who seduce you into believing they are charming and good but then reveal their inner demons. I believe that darkness and evil hide itself in beauty sometimes, that's what makes it so fascinating. I also believe that interesting characters have layers of complexity, and that good stories uncover some of those layers as we go.

I'm not even talking about a distrustful narrator, one whom you are never sure whether you are supposed to like or dislike them, and question the story they tell. Those characters are intentionally complex and layered, you aren't supposed to like them necessarily, but you are supposed to empathize and understand that life is complex.

What I am talking about here is a disturbing trend I've discovered lately. Maybe it's the books I choose to read, or maybe I am layering my own biases over my reading, but more and more often I am reading about characters that I either hate or just want to shake and tell them to grow up, the world is not about you.

These are protagonists in books by authors from across the spectrum: newbie self-published who have (possibly) published a little too quickly; seasoned best-selling authors from traditional publishing houses with huge fan bases (but I no longer believe that means much of anything, as I've written before); authors whose stories I've read and loved; authors with numerous credits; authors who have movie deals; and authors with hundreds if not thousands of followers and book reviews. Yet, they are writing characters that make me want to scream, and not because they are terrifying.

They are simply bad.

While I don't want to name specific books or authors, I might argue that this all started with the success of one series in particular--one in which the main character showed as much backbone as a slug and whined her way through the first book (which was the only one I could get through) while falling in love with a particularly sparkly creature of the night. I know many of my friends loved the series (both in book and movie form) but for me it was the beginning of protagonists I want to slap in the face.

Maybe I'm the problem.

Or, maybe I should take on the "if you can't beat 'em, join them" philosophy and work towards writing bad characters. I think I know how:

A character
  • Make the character be falsely self-deprecating. People have self-doubt, that's natural. People don't like everything about themselves, and that struggle to discover their uniqueness can make for an interesting story. But if I read one more story about a woman in a size 2 who can't possibly believe that anyone could like her because she isn't the picture of perfection--even when that woman has other qualities that are likeable, including intelligence, talent, quirkiness, etc.--I think my head might explode.
  • Make the character be a total narcissist. While completely denying there is anything about them that is worthwhile, these characters have absolutely no sense of the people around them. Of course, this sometimes happens as characters get more involved in whatever the main drama is, but here I am talking about characters who: are narcissistic from the very first page, ignore everything that has to do with anyone else, blame everything bad on someone else because it couldn't possibly be their own fault, and at the same time convince themselves that they live their lives fully for the benefit of other people. They might have an epiphany when everything comes crashing down, but by the end of the book very little has changed and they are back to their narcissistic ways. Or, alternatively, they seem to change but my gut tells me it is superficial and unconvincing.
  • Make every character unlikable, except one who then looks like a limp noodle by the end. This is one of my favorites, when every character is worse than the rest except for one of the semi-peripheral characters (although never the protagonist). This person will inevitably get the girl or be welcomed into the victory, but I just want to tell him/her to turn around and walk away. They are better off not being connected with this bunch of jerks.
  • Protagonist as prop. This character has no personality of their own, but simply lets the story happen to them without participating or making choices.  It is still, technically, their story--but they live it by not doing anything. It makes for an exciting read. (NOT!)
I'm sure, with a little work, I can write one of these characters. (And, to be honest, I probably already have.) The difference is that I am not willing to share the story of a character who doesn't interest me. Maybe I should, though, and then I can get the next multi-million dollar movie deal. You never know.

Have you ever read a book where you don't like any of the characters, particularly the protagonist, or where the characters bore you to tears? Do you keep reading?

Discover the characters in P.O.W.ER and let me know if any of them fit this list.  I hope not.

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