Are the Best Characters Bad?

This Week’s Bit of String: Kindergarten boyfriends

I fell in love with a kindergarten classmate, pretty much because he helped me out of my smock in Art class. He played rough at recess and made fun of the other kids sometimes. Still, for the next couple of years I proudly let him haul me to a back corner of the library or under the slide for a kiss.

Once I tried to explain something to him in class, and he rolled his eyes and cut me off: ‘Shut up, dear.’ I thrilled inside, that he’d called me dear.

See, I didn’t like him because he could be uncouth and unpleasant. I liked him despite those things.

I believe it’s that way with characters too. This week marked the twentieth anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone being published. As the series developed, Snape —‘Professor Snape, Harry’—and even Draco emerged as fan favourites among many beloved characters. However, I doubt many readers liked them in the first or second books.

My theory is, we enjoy reading about unpleasant characters because they’re different from ourselves, and they thicken the plot. But most of us only love those characters when they’ve got something else going for them. What do you think?

After all, ‘badness’ comes in different shades. So without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce…

The Scale of Badness
  1. The rehabilitated
    These characters are recovering from terrible pasts, but often end up being quite good, out of guilt. Think of Magwitch from Great Expectations; Sonia from Crime and Punishment; Cassie and maybe St. Clare too, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Adam and (later) Cal in East of Eden.
Rose
‘Roses have thorns, they say…’

2. The cheeky buggers and grumpy gits
They’re not particularly pleasant, but they’re funny about it. They may be a little tortured inside, trying to hold the world at bay, or they may just be too cool for school. I’d put Yossarian here, and Rhett Butler.

3. The rebels
They have a bad reputation, but they aren’t really hurting anyone. A lot of the girls from Girl, Interrupted would be here. Anna Karenina, Holden Caulfield, Hester Prynne, Elphaba, Kevalier and Klay.

4. The bullies
They’re mean, but usually ignorant of, or indifferent to, their effect on people. When forced to confront the consequences, they may make excuses and shy away from remorse—but they’ll probably also stop. I’ve got one of these bullies in my book, and I believe through most of JK Rowling’s books, this is the category for Snape.

5. The desperate
These characters are in the opposite trajectory to Category 1 characters. Instead of powerful guilt moving them to be good, aching need moves them to be bad, possibly very bad. Raskolnikov starts out here, before moving throughout Crime and Punishment towards being a 1. Most villains probably fit here, too: Francis Davey in Jamaica Inn, Bob Ewell in to Kill a Mockingbird, Lady Macbeth.

6. The sadists
It’s rare to find characters who actively enjoy inflicting pain. They’re more commonly found in genre fiction. We’re talking Voldemort, or various serial killers from psychological thrillers.

Tipping the Scales

These categories aren’t distinct; their borders are fuzzy and crossable. And we writers have tools to tinker almost any type of ‘bad’ character and endear them to readers.

First, we give them backstory. Let’s face it, who isn’t a sucker for a character who’s had a tough life?

Second, we can give them a sense of humour. A little banter can help someone get away with a lot. (Joss Whedon is the boss of writing dastardly yet hilarious villains.)

Sunset-lit chapel
Even churches love sinners. They’d be pointless without them.

Third, give the character a degree of self-awareness. If they’re doing something hurtful, let them be conflicted about it or feel badly afterwards.

Finally, let them love. Love is the ultimate redeemer; all is forgiven once we know a person is capable of it. Sure, Snape was brave, but it’s his ‘Always’ that weakens readers’ knees.

‘Give Me Your Misfits, Your Rejects…’

These tricks manipulate readers to accept characters’ unsavoury actions, even if they don’t ameliorate the consequences. We need all the tricks we can get because chances are, we’ll keep writing about people who fall somewhere on The Scale.

There’s nothing wrong with good characters. They can be nuanced too. But we deal in accessibility and believability, and those require imperfection.

My novel Artefacts tackles religious differences. During a brief conversation, the Christian character (by no means perfect), argues for his beliefs:

              ‘Jesus actually was human, and divine, so that’s as accessible as it gets, right?’
              But He never sinned, Helen thought. Being human would be a cinch without guilt.

The guilty—whether that guilt is perceived, exaggerated, heavy or nagging—they are the ones whose stories beg to be told.

As I think this through I picture something like the Statue of Liberty. A writer stands at the foot of a giant, formidable yet beckoning Muse that guards vast frontiers of story. There at the entry point, we hold signs like Emma Lazarus’s poem: ‘Give me your misfits, your rejects, your hunched and shamed yearning for redemption.’

Do you see it too?

The Borders of Sympathy

This week’s bit of string: That person you disagree with, maybe even deplore: What’s their story?

Quite rightfully, we’re hearing a lot now about tolerance and empathy. It’s not easy to strive for these things. One may well deplore people from the opposing political camp. As I watch events unfold, I sympathise with people in the LGBT community or in immigrant populations and other minorities, who fear losing their rights. However, seeing footage of protesters cheering in LA while burning an effigy of the new President-Elect and holding signs saying, ‘We want an inclusive America—’ that gives me some pause. I don’t think of effigies as being inclusive. Can’t we muster up some sympathy for the other side?

I like to think that we writers are in the sympathy-mustering business. We’re the ones who witness a street scene, walk away heavier under the burdens of every single person involved, then transfer that burden into a story. Just last week I walked past a multigenerational family having a cup of tea outside a cafe. The mother was berating a small boy, shouting, ‘You’re stressing Granny out! Remember what happens then? Do you want Granny to have an accident?’ It was hard not to feel sorry for the Granny whose difficulties were being broadcast to half the street, the small boy who was probably rather confused at being blamed for his grandmother’s issues, and even the shouting mum, with her straggly peroxide hair and haggard eyes, who looked pretty stressed herself.

Abandoned high-heeled shoes on front garden wall in Cheltenham
Like these shoes I spotted walking to the Cheltenham Literature Festival. What miles had they walked?

Naturally, I didn’t agree with how the situation was handled. Nor do I agree with people supporting a candidate who mocks prisoners of war and disabled persons, and boasts about forcing himself on women. But I ask myself why they’re handling things this way, and my mind is whisked down a different path. I believe writing is the process of planting yourself and your reader sometimes quite mercilessly in someone else’s shoes.

Rebecca Mead wrote an exceptional New Yorker article a couple years ago, encouraging readers not to shy away from characters different from themselves. “To reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure.”

Still, people don’t always want to acknowledge that stupid or unpleasant acts have motivations. They might feel victimised by the very people who commit those acts. How do we elicit sympathy for our characters, whoever they may be?

First, let’s consider the difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy can be defined as a tendency to feel alike, whereas the definition of empathy goes so far as to ‘vicariously experienc[e] the feelings’ of others (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary). Maybe empathy is what we should strive for as writers. Instead of searching for sympathetic characters to portray (those with similarities to potential readers), we can create empathetic characters—depicting a diverse range of people so realistically that readers can’t help but feel the story.

I think the key here to reveal our characters’ pain. Most of us, when we see another human being suffer, will recognise that. That was my experience working in health and social care. I’d go about doing my job for all sorts of people who weren’t always sympathetic types. Some made racist or sexist remarks, or were unkind to their families. But when they were afraid or in pain, and said things like, ‘I wish my mum was here,’ the differences fell away and I was fighting back empathetic tears.

It’s not just bits of string we gather as writers; sometimes we feel with particular strength the heavy ropes of understanding that bind us to the rest of humanity.

Many of us writers want to aide the voiceless through our work. But it’s not just the blameless who feel voiceless. After all, if pain is what most draws our sympathy—what’s more painful than guilt? In his epic Les Miserables, Victor Hugo wrote not just about the heroic Jean Valjean, but also about an abandoned unwed mother, and even delved into the background of the brutally strict Javert. By exposing each character’s background, he made all of them sympathetic, allowed none to stay voiceless, and more fully exposed the effects of poverty and oppression.

In my own work, I’ve given voice to a young Haitian earthquake survivor, a mother who’s left her family to live with her girlfriend, an Evangelical teacher desperate to convey his faith to his students, and so many others. (See more about my work here.) Sometimes, my characters hurt each other, and they pay the consequences as the plot advances. I can’t protect them even when I wish I could, but I ache on their behalf, no matter what wrongs they’ve done, because I know their story. By conveying that story, hopefully I pass that empathy on to my readers as well.

Abandoned mill building with waterfall
Abandoned mill in my hometown.

So, what’s the background of the people who aligned themselves with the KKK-endorsed presidential candidate? David Wong has written a very insightful, if saddening, article for Cracked about what many Trump voters, often from depressed rural areas, have gone through. As it happens, my stories often take place in similar depressed rural areas. And it’s worth remembering that people can feel voiceless or victimised, even when they’re shouting at the top of their lungs and someone else might be cowering in fear at their feet.

I’m not saying we don’t hold people accountable for how they vote, just as we hold politicians accountable for how they respond to the vote. And you may be feeling so frightened, so scarred by what’s happened in your own life, that you don’t wish to look at the horrors in anyone else’s. But if you can find the strength, let’s not tune in just at the end of their story; let’s walk the full miles with them. After all, these are people who were desperate enough to elect a man most accurately described on Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe as ‘a sort of guinea pig staring at you through the porthole on a washing machine.’

Doesn’t it almost make you feel sorry for them?