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I'm currently developing a minor character that will appear as the "shadow" (Hero's Journey slang for an antagonist that has the potential to destroy the hero) of two other characters. In the eyes of pretty much every other character in the story, he's insensitive and, quite frankly, bordering on stupid.

However, I find that I actually like him(*). He's not someone I would be likely to spend much time with, but it's fun working with him, because he's uncomplicated and doesn't mean to hurt anybody. In my experience, this happens to every single one of my characters -- they might start out as obvious, even despicable shadows, but the moment I sit down to explore them a little more in-depth, they start to acquire virtues that I can relate to very well. This usually serves me very well, because it keeps me from introducing annoying, usually shallow and clichéd characters that just bundle up a bunch of negative features that somehow need to be part of the story.

My question is: Have you had similar experiences? Conversely, have you ever written about a character that you thoroughly despise? What were your experiences with that? Did your story benefit from it? Can you think of a context in which it is absolutely necessary to use a character that is "evil"(**) in an unrelatable way?


I apologise if this questions appears too vague. I'm also aware that it is not a question that has a "correct answer". I'm interested in your thoughts about this subject and a range of different experiences. In a wider sense, I am asking about how your relationships to characters look like.

(*) Just to clear things up a bit here: I'm aware that I use the word "like" a little too laxly in this context. So here's a specification of what I mean when I "like" a fictional character, and when I "like" a real person. The fictional character:

  • The fictional character: Needs to be complex and, at least in some way, relatable. If my empathy doesn't find a way to connect to the character, I'm not going to like him or her. In this context, I don't distinguish between "good" and "bad" characters. I may very well end up liking the villain of a story much better than the hero, because he's the more interesting character that I'd like to explore in more depth. The character doesn't need to share my values. (A spontaneous example would be Lord Grantham from Downton Abbey. I adore him as a character but doubt very much that we would get along very well if we ever met, due to political believes and what-not.)
  • The other person: Well. I just ... want to spend time with that person. That generally requires that I feel comfortable in his or her presence and that we are able to easily communicate with each other. We might not always share the same values, but it definitely helps.

(**) I know, the concept of "evil" depends strongly on your cultural background. But most people would agree, for example, that abusing children is "evil".

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    If you're writing a WWII story and your bad guys are Nazis, there's not a hell of a lot that's redeemable about the top echelon. Those characters can be complex and still pure evil. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jun 23 '17 at 12:29
  • WWII was the first thing that came to my mind, too. And I keep wondering, if I would be able to write a story about this time, because I really have trouble understanding what was going on in these peoples's heads. I'm afraid I would produce artificial characters. But in the end, I suppose that's what makes a great storyteller -- to get into the head of a character that is very hard to relate to. Does anybody have tricks how to accomplish this? – Filip Jun 26 '17 at 12:14
  • Read Susan Elia MacNeal's Maggie Hope mystery series, set in WWII and featuring plenty of Nazi bad guys. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jun 26 '17 at 14:51
  • @LaurenIpsum: And Flip, too, but unless you are top national leadership level Nazi your general attitude at work would be a strong interdepartmental rivalry, which is how no one really rose up to challenge Hitler... they were too busy fighting other departments within the German Government. – hszmv Sep 25 '18 at 20:54
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I don't write fantasy so I don't know how relevant my answer will be. I think the genre is a law unto itself because the writer is unable to rely on social norms.

I don't have any feelings towards my characters either way. I see them as a product that I have engineered. I am better creating some archetypes than others.

Rather than 'like' or 'dislike' I must have some empathy for my characters. e.g. I've couple of old racist white men. The first fully reveals himself when his daughter becomes engaged to a black man. Whatever my personal opinion on his views I must understand how a person raised during a certain time in a certain place, and raised in a particular way might think the way he does. Subsequently, whilst writing his part - I fully agree with him.

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    The "empathy" point helps to clarify the question for me, thanks. For me, there's a difference between "liking" a fictional character and "liking" a real person. When I like a real person, I usually want to be friends with him or her. In contrast, I can absolutely adore a fictional character that I would not want to spend a single minute with in real life. – Filip Jun 23 '17 at 11:40
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Yes. And the reason is fairly simple. You're not out to "promote" the characters you dislike. Instead, the idea is to make your favorite characters more likable by comparison.

Your favorite characters need a good reason to dislike someone. The better job you do of making this person genuinely dislikable, the more your audience will relate to your other characters.

  • I can't agree with this. You don't make characters more likeable just by setting them next to someone less likeable. This may sound plausible, but I can't think of a single example of this actually working. – Chris Sunami Sep 26 '18 at 19:37
  • @ChrisSunami: In "Moby Dick," the whale is the villain, and he makes certain other characters more likeable such as Captain Ahab, and even the narrator Ishmael (named after biblical villains) more likeable. – Tom Au Sep 26 '18 at 21:35
  • Having never made it through Moby Dick I can't judge this example. But it at least seems plausible to me that Melville "liked" the whale, since he created such a memorable character out of him. – Chris Sunami Sep 27 '18 at 14:24
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I suppose if a writer told me that he's really getting to like this character he's created who kidnaps and tortures small children because he thinks it's funny to hear them beg, how he can just really relate to him, I might find that disturbing!

But if you have no sympathy at all for a character, I suspect it is hard to make him realistic. I've read many stories and watched many movies where there was a character who shared my social, religious, political, whatever views, but the story was clearly written by someone on the opposite side, and they had no concept at all how "people like me" think. That is, the writer needed a villain, so he said, "I really hate people from political party X, those people are stupid and evil, so if I just say that the villain is X, than that instantly explains why he is stupid and evil, and I can make everything he does pointlessly evil and/or mind-bogglingly stupid with no further explanation."

For a minor character who passes by quickly, that might be okay. But for a major character, I think you have to be able to get inside his head at least somewhat to make him believable. If you can't come up with some basis or justification for his beliefs and actions that sounds at least vaguely plausible, your character is going to be flat. In real life, it is very rare for someone to say, "I will kill my enemies because I love violence and destruction! Those people make me sick with their compassion and intelligence and culture. The world would be much better off if everyone was stupid and irrational like me!" No, it's far more likely that they'll say something more like, "We have no choice but to fight these people because they are trying to destroy us and we must defend ourselves." Whether there's any truth to that or not.

You don't have to agree with someone to be able to say, "Yes, I understand why he would think that way."

Very late follow-up thought: I recent read a book called "Memoirs of a Time Traveller". The villain goes back in time and is wrecking havoc with history, destroying civilizations. But he does it because life in his own time is intolerable, with poverty and tyranny and so on, and he hopes to change history so that his time will be better. So you don't have to agree that what he is doing is a good thing, or even likely to succeed, to sympathize with him. He is trying to improve his life and the lives of billions of other people, and the question comes down to his methods. I thought he was a believable villain.

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    +1 for emphasizing that the characters have to be believable - which translates into - they have to be relatable. And the only way that's going to happen is if the author can identify with them enough to make them feel real. We all have our dark sides. C. G. Jung made quite a lot out of embracing our shadow selves to become whole. It's there. It's real. Allowing it to be without giving it free reign is an important piece of life and maturity. Something has to be within us for us to love or hate it when we see it outside. If it wasn't, we would be indifferent to it. – Joe Jun 28 '17 at 5:13
  • I.e.: If you want to grow, you have to work with the characters that you don't like who are already within you. Writing about them is a natural way of doing that. Fiction writers just create them as external characters and make them easier to see. – Joe Jun 28 '17 at 5:23
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Sure but in my experience it makes the process a lot less enjoyable. Said experience is of a piece that involved a real person I'm none too fond of so the comparison may not be fair. Working on/with a character that you dislike often makes writing hard(er) work, much like having a work colleague whose mere presence is irritating. The character is necessary to the narrative, every character in any work should be, otherwise you're wasting your time and your readers'.

Unrelatable and unrelentingly evil characters are always at least a little unbelievable, most people love their children regardless of how they treat others for example. Very rarely are people all one thing so presenting such one dimensional characters causes problems, they don't read as real people.

  • +1 Your second paragraph is right on target. – Chris Sunami Sep 26 '18 at 19:39
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I think as a writer (just like as a teacher with a class), you need to like all your characters "professionally." You may not like, or admire them as people, or their traits, or their personality, or their actions, but you understand them, you can emphasize with them, you can see through their eyes, and from their perspective. You know their full potential, and you want them to live up to it. You know why they do the things they do. In a certain sense, you love them.

As with anything you put love into, this will give your characters --even your villains, your comic relief, your bit parts, and your petty antagonists --more vitality, reality, and memorability.

It's important to distinguish between what it means to like your characters and what it would mean to like a real person with the same traits as your character. You are in a different relationship to your characters than to people in your life. It's entirely possible to be very fond of characters who resemble people you would hate or be horrified by if they were real. (Conversely, the traits you admire in real-life people may not necessarily make for compelling characters.) Your bad-news characters may be solving problems for you, the writer, at the same time as they are creating problems for the other people (characters) around them.

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