On characters you hate

As an author (I love saying that), I’ve written a lot of different characters. Most, of course, are the “background” types, what players of role-playing games would call NPCs. But a few of them get the limelight all to themselves. These are the “point of view” characters, the protagonists or whatever term you’d like to use.

The way I write, I prefer a style where the narration is from the point of view of the character in question. Usually, this remains in the third person (in Nocturne, the title character is first-person, but that was mostly an experiment), but it’s not the “omniscient” third-person of a lot of books, where the narrator knows everything. In my writing, the character in focus doesn’t hear other people’s thoughts, he or she doesn’t know for sure what’s in someone else’s head. On the other hand, this style makes it more natural, in my opinion, to get into that character’s head. I find it’s better for extended thought processes.

The characters fit the story, but they’re also people, and that’s important. Since I get a good look at their minds—and I provide this to my readers—I can see what they’re thinking, how they think. (Yes, I’m aware that I decide how they think. That’s not the point.) On a few occasions, I’ve found that I’ve written characters I simply don’t like. In at least one instance, I’ve created someone I hate.

Now, it seems pretty easy to write a character you hate, right? Just tell the story from the point of view of the villain. Write the inner narration of a psychopath, a murderer, a terrorist, somebody undeniably evil. Simple as that.

But it’s really not. Sure, that gives you a character who’s easy to hate, but if it doesn’t help the story, what have you accomplished? No, I’m talking here about a character who has naturally developed into someone you just don’t like. Since I use a more “organic” writing style, where I don’t do a lot of detailed planning, this happens more often than you might think.

I’ve written characters who are devoutly religious (including both earthly and fantasy religions). I don’t hate them for that; the way I see it, I have to respect their choice the same as any person in the real world. I’ve made rich or noble-born characters, but I don’t hate them.

No, this post came about because of a character from my Chronicles of the Otherworld series. Her name’s Ayla, and she was mostly a major NPC throughout the eight parts of that work. She started out as a kind of foil for one of the main characters. The way I wrote the series, though, she gradually changed, becoming more and more bitter about the situation she found herself in. Others reacted to that, and she reacted to them. (Her actions, in fact, were the catalyst for the entire sixth volume.)

At no point in the first 400,000 words of the series did I write the first word from her point of view. She was always seen from the outside, and the reader doesn’t get a look at her inner thoughts until the final chapter of the final part, and that’s only for a single scene lasting about three or four pages. After I wrote that scene, though, I realized how much I couldn’t stand her. She was insufferable, a know-it-all who saw herself surrounded by lesser minds, lesser people. (This makes more sense if you’ve read the series, but it’s not out yet. Sorry about that.) She’s blunt to the point of offensive, she only cooperates when there’s something in it for her, and she’s just a generally unpleasant person to be around. If I were the type to use such language, I could think of a few choice words to describe her.

And thus I’ve written myself into a corner, because there’s a sequel to Chronicles of the Otherworld. It’s “season 2” of the story, picking up a year later and building on the events of the first eight parts. In between, though, is something I’m calling A Bridge Between Worlds, a six-part anthology of short novellas that fill in the gaps. Four of those six stories are written for the four characters who (spoiler alert!) stay in the Otherworld rather than coming home. One of those is Ayla, which means I get to write the better part of 20,000 words stuck in the head of someone I’d rather not be in the same room with. Yay for me.

I do think it’s educational and even productive to write a character you truly despise. It’s different from writing one you simply don’t agree with. I’ve done that plenty of times, and it’s not too bad; the hardest part is forcing yourself to write things you think are wrong. (Another character in the series, Jenn, is one of those religious types that I can’t stand, and she can be a pain to write. Fortunately, I have a whole family of people just like her that I can draw on for inspiration.) But a character you hate is something else entirely. It’s a balancing act between the story’s needs and your own. I can guarantee you, for example, that there will be times I’ll want to write a gruesome death scene for my problem child. I know I can’t, though. I’ll just have to deal with her. Hey, it’s a learning experience.

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