You know how sometimes when you’re writing a story, you just realize that you and the character you’re writing about would get along really well if you knew each other in real life?
Like, you can just picture yourself going for coffee with them, having mentally stimulating conversations, and they’re just a generally easy person to be around?
Yeah. Doesn’t happen all the time…
I’ve definitely dealt with my share of characters that I just… didn’t like. Like Bridget, for example. Yup, you heard that right: for some drafts, I really didn’t like her. I mean, it was better than having her be a flat character (which she also used to be, in the earliest earliest drafts).
The more Bridget’s character started to come out into the open, the more I saw some things I didn’t really care for.
She was fake.
She was a snob.
She was even a little selfish.
But it turns out that I didn’t let her finish what she was saying to me. There were reasons. And that’s the first thing I can tell you for sure about writing characters that aren’t so easy to get along with:
1. Realistic characters always have reasons for the bad things they do.
Even the bad guys. Or the ones that seem like the bad guys, but are really just misunderstood.
Towards the end of Forget Me [no spoilers, of course] you can basically see that Bridget had a lot more going on in her life than anybody really realized, especially Sabine. At the beginning, Sabine thought she was just a popular jerk, when really she was just a wounded soul trying to mend bruises–all of which hidden beneath a less-than-friendly exterior.
It’s important to remember that whoever you’re writing about, even antagonists or people your main character might not see eye-to-eye with, they are human. They have feelings, too. They weren’t born an antagonist! In fact, they are just as much the main character of their “story” as your main character is of theirs.
Speaking of that…
2. Your antagonist doesn’t think they are the antagonist.
You’ve probably heard it before, but maybe not in that way. You’ve probably heard it said more like this:
“every character thinks that they are the main character of the story.”
Except in this case, it takes it a little further: your character may not even see what they are doing as inherently bad (and it may not even be, outside of the subjective view of your protagonist).
Think love triangles. No matter who ends up with who, somebody’s going home with a broken heart. Character A might see Character B (the one who stole the spouse of their dreams away from them) as the very devil, and think that Character B is the reason they didn’t get a happy ending. They might even swear vengeance. Character C? That dude is going off into the sunset happily in love and sipping a mai-tai, and Character B is loving every minute of it and them.
Character B doesn’t see themselves as an antagonist, and Character C probably doesn’t either (since they’re, y’know, dating). Only Character A does.
3. Your character is not too far for redemption.
You’ve heard of redemption arcs. Personally, they’re one of my favorite things to read and write about, and there may or may not be one present in this story I’m currently editing.
Because, I mean, nobody likes a bully, especially when they’re picking on the gay kid that wants nothing more than to keep to himself and fly under the radar.
And sure, lots of us would want to see that bully getting themselves punched in the face. But after that, especially if the bully himself isn’t merely a caricature but has their own emotions, problems and wounded past, we do want to see them change and become a better person… don’t we?
4. Don’t let your distaste for your character taint the way you write about them.
At the end of the day, it’s looking like you have to work with this character. And no, I’m not asking you to make them out to be a saint, either.
Just write them human.
Because humans screw up sometimes. Sometimes they are BIG screw ups. Sometimes the screw ups change the way other people see them, perhaps forever. It doesn’t change the fact that they’re just another imperfect person going on instinct, trying to stay alive and probably hurting a few people along the way, intentionally or not.
They are only human. Just like you. Just like me.
They do not deserve to be written with the mud-slinging effect of a presidential election race. Be honest about them, absolutely, but also compassionate (if you can muster it). Because who knows: someday, they might just turn out to be one of the good guys after all.