Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Working with Unsavory Characters

A reader recently posted this excellent question: "I have many stories in which the characters are not easily appreciated. I am sure many of my stories will be filled with hints of resentment, bitterness and disdain. Many players acted badly, and hurt the lives of many people. I guess forgiveness is due, but the facts are the facts. How do I deal with that?"

Another reader wrote me the same week, very disappointed in the ending of a popular thriller which let the bad guys triumph. Why'd the author do that? he wondered. Such a let down, after a great story.

So here we have the same dilemma, from both sides.

What do you do, as a writer, when one or more of your characters is not very likeable (at best) or downright horrible (at worst)? You'll be spending time with this person. A negative character isn't like a downward turn of plot. Plot changes. People often do, but they don't always, especially if their nastiness is part of who they are.

And how does a negative character affect a reader? Will they stop following your story, or will they read to the end and be so disgusted, they won't want to recommend your book to anyone?

An Example from Tobias Wolff
Tobias Wolff wrote a fabulous short story called "Bullet in the Brain." I teach this story in one of my one-day workshops because it's complex, amazing, and gives writers so much information on working with unsavory characters.

Wolff presents a character, Anders, who is thoroughly despicable. So much so that he gets himself killed halfway through the story. But the way Wolff continues the story, revealing Anders beneath the anger, boredom, and frustration that makes him a really bad guy, is brilliant.

We end the story actually feeling the depths of humanness, even in this miserable person. How is this possible? How does the process work, for the writer, while he or she is putting the story together?

My Challenge with Melvin
Melvin Fisher is the main male character in my novel Qualities of Light. He's the first character that "came" to me, nine years ago, and was the subject for a short story published many years before the novel. Melvin was a pest; he didn't let me stop writing about him, even though I grew to really dislike him.

He's everything you don't want in a friend or relative: self-absorbed, terrifically talented but pretty mean-spirited about it, short with loved ones, a betrayer at his worst. A painter, who hasn't actually had affairs, Melvin falls in love with his models and does everything but sleep with them. Somehow he believes this is OK, justified by his need to "absorb beauty."

Bleech. My writing groups, three of them over the years Melvin has haunted me, agree. The first one actually told me they really didn't want to hear more Melvin scenes until he got nicer.

So what's a writer to do?

I would've dumped Melvin like a bad lunch date if he hadn't presented some interesting writerly problems for me. I needed to learn how to make him less evil. In other words, if my basic belief in life and in writing is that human beings have many sides, not just bad or good, where was Melvin's compassion, beauty, shades of gray? Could I show him as vulnerable, learning and growing? Who in my story would help me do this?

It turned out to be Molly, his teenage daughter. She saves the entire family in Qualities of Light, but mostly she saves her dad. From himself.

One reader told me, "I loved your book, and by the end I even got to like Melvin." That was my biggest complement.

This Week's Exercise: Write a "Good" Bad Character
Find someone bad in your story, be it a real person or a fictional one, and interview them on paper. Pretend you are a very skilled interviewer who knows how to get to the truth about someone. First ask them what bad stuff they've done. Get them to be specific--who have they cheated, lied to, stolen from, or worse? Then begin asking them about good stuff they've done--even small.

Finally ask your character about their missed chances, their longings, what they wanted from life but never got. Go beneath their bitterness if you can, into the innocence they once had.

If you can, get ahold of "Bullet in the Brain" (search for it online, or better, get ahold of the short-story collection--you'll love Wolff's other stories too). Read it as a writer, asking yourself how Tobias Wolff allows us to see a bad character in a good light.

The ending lines are particularly important, so pay attention, but don't read ahead. It's a great surprise.


  1. I found the story and read it; it is powerful. This is so interesting; I'm working on a longer work about a father and daughter, and am struggling with writing about him in a nuanced way. So I read "This Boy's Life," and then went to Geoffrey Wolff's "The Duke of Deception" to see how they handled writing about flawed male characters, and especially their father. I guess I've been in a "Wolff" phase trying to learn from these great writers.

  2. Thanks for writing, Gail. I've learned so much from the Wolff bros' work. Tobias Wolff's short stories are astonishing. Have you read "Say Yes"? Or "Hunters in the Snow"? Both about or featuring misguided characters who are fully revealed and fully human by the end. Not easy reading but so worthwhile to study from the writer's point of view.