Likability. It’s something – especially if you’re female – that is ground into us from a young age. Don’t speak up too much because someone may call you bossy. Be nice and always share or else other kids won’t play with you. Wear the right clothes, say the right things, laugh at the right jokes so others like you.
I say fuck that.
Real people have unlikable qualities. Maybe they’re a drug dealer (like Reggie in KKLHS) or a klepto (like Livie); maybe they’re a chronic womanizer (like Fletch in Crushed); maybe they’re a loud chewer and talk with their mouth full. Whatever it is, everyone has some sort of unlikable quality.
I write unlikable characters, and I’m okay with that. In fact, I’m more than okay with that. I love it. It gives my characters room to evolve, just like real people.
When I sit down to write, I don’t come up with a list of personality traits for my characters. Rather, as I draft, the characters begin to solidify, and their outer and inner selves reveal both good and bad qualities. For me, this works. I don’t believe anyone is all good or all bad, and if I wrote my characters that way, they’d be flat on the page and unbelievable.
No, it’s better for me to write messy, confused, hurtful characters. My favorites are those who start off as unlikable, but change, much like real people, over time. They’re the ones readers hate, but come to love. I also enjoy taking a well-liked character and have them do something downright devastating (Lark in Nightingale). After all, perfection on the page is perfectly boring – much like in real life.
My characters are flawed and unlikable…and that’s just the way I like them. They are hurtful, vicious, secretive, and a host of other things. But boring, they are not.
I read on Pinterest that you should aim to be a person who leaves a mark, not a scar, on others’ lives. While I agree with the sentiment (who wants to intentionally hurt another?), as someone who has been deeply scarred, I disagree overall. Scars are interesting. They tell a story. They show strength and perseverance. And as painful as an experience is, you can often look back and be thankful for being put through such an ordeal. You overcame, grew stronger, and went on to better things.
We are not perfect, and unlikable characters remind us of that. Perhaps that’s why we’d rather leave little marks instead of raw scars. They remind us that we, too, are unlikable to someone.
But really, the scars left behind are marks of the unlikable growing and changing into something greater. Even the seemingly evil learn from the ordeals left in their wake. Characters grow and evolve, as do people.
And you never know, underneath those unlikable qualities may be a good heart waiting for the chance to shine. That chapter just hasn’t been written yet.