Many of my favorite characters are, to put it gently, unlikeable people. I’m not talking about your stereotypical “bad boys” here. Not those soft-edged miscreants. No, I’m talking about the people you absolutely would not want to meet on the street at night (or some similar feeling).
There are characters like John Wayne Cleaver in I Am Not a Serial Killer that I reviewed previously because I liked his voice so much—he’s a sociopath, a potential serial killer and likes to think about taking people apart, yet he manages to be sympathetic and engaging. Felix in Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths books often made me want to literally reach into the story and throttle him. He’s verbally and sometimes physically abusive to the one person who cares deeply for him, he’s condescending, he’s cruel, he’s obnoxious and he wrecks his life with a single-minded purpose that makes it seem almost intentional. The thing is: Felix is one of my favorite characters ever. Why is that?
And, a subject near and dear to my heart for the past year while I've been working on a new book-project, how do you make it happen when you’re writing? When you know that the character you’re writing about (and likely adore in some way, because they’re part of the story you’re telling) is failing on one or several points you might call “socially acceptable behavior,” how can you still make that character sympathetic and enjoyable to read about? The difficulty comes from the fact that, the further down that scale of bad/icky/scary you go, the less likely the reader is to identify with this person. If they aren’t going to identify, it’s harder to make the character sympathetic.
I’d say that the inclination toward the less-than-pleasant protagonist isn’t universal—I know plenty of people who can’t stand to read books that pull them around by the emotional threads and make them angry at the characters’ behavior. But, I know just as many who love it like I do. I enjoy it because it’s something different. I like the good guys and gals as much as the next reader, but after awhile, it’s tiring to read about, say, the qualms an urban fantasy lead has about having to kill to save their lives or the lives of their loved ones. Necessary qualms for most characters? Yes. But that’s where the potentially “evil” protagonist comes in.
You can do more with your emotional tension and story when you aren’t limited by the generalized concerns a normal, run of the mill person would have. In I Am Not a Serial Killer, or the Dexter series by Jeff Lindsay, the potential solutions to the mystery are wildly different than the solutions available to, say, Harry Dresden (who I also love, make no mistake). The investigation is different, the methods are different, and the tensions are different—it’s something new. That difference in narrative is what makes some potentially “evil” protagonists wildly successful… and some less so. Because it’s a different path, it has less of a blueprint than the normal lead character. And, you know, generally speaking, you can’t base the serial-killer-lead or the sociopath-lead on yourself and the reactions you or people you know have to given situations. It requires a huge amount of research where the “normal” lead doesn’t. If it’s done cheaply or sensationally, it lacks resonance and might offend a few readers here and there, too.
Hollow Spaces, that project I was hinting around about, is narrated by two men—and one of them would admit to you that, while he does what he does legally and is paid for it, he’s a serial killer. The job is a means to an end; he would be killing regardless. It’s just that he made the justice system (in the book’s world) work for him. I have sticky notes. The big words on Vincent’s sticky note are “pathology of CONTROL.” That internal conflict and that set of needs, needs that are alien to a “normal” character, inform every word of his narrative. Structuring that is hard, but I’d like to think it has a good payoff. The unlikable lead can’t be undertaken lightly, because if the writer slips up, it’s ridiculously obvious—suddenly, your arsonist or serial killer or what-have-you describes another person like a normal narrator, or their reaction to a crime is horror instead of the appropriate response, and the audience will notice. It’s difficult.
And just doing it right in the technical sense isn’t enough to make it work in the narrative sense. I give you again my ongoing example of Dan Wells’s recent book: his proto-serial-killer narrator works because the voice is absolutely engrossing and it mixes enough trauma and realism in with the “evil” part that the reader cares deeply about John even though he’s not a socially acceptable kind of guy. There has to be enough realism beyond just getting the facts of the character’s pathology/methodology right. They need to be people underneath all of that scary-factor. People who have dreams and hurts, people who aren’t 2-D cutouts. After all, what do the neighbors always say about the real-life serial murderers? “He seemed so nice and normal.”
Emotional investment is the most important thing in making the unlikeable lead… Likeable. Felix from The Doctrine of Labyrinths is a prime example for this, and he’s hardly what one would call evil. He just does really, really bad things to himself and other people on a regular basis. If he acted like a flagrant asshole all the time and the reader never saw further into his psyche than that, he would be an awful character. Truly a chore to sit through. The thing is, Monette goes so much deeper than the surface with Felix. She pays delicate attention to his trauma, his formative personal mythologies, his social problems, his defensive maneuvers in those social situations—you can pick up why he does what he does, even though you might want to scream at him for it. It’s not being a flagrant asshole because he can see that what he’s doing is problematic and hates doing it, but not until it’s too late. In the heat of the moment, things just happen, and his defense system is not kind to others. That’s good writing. (That’s the kind of thing I hope I’m doing right, heh.)
Writing one of these sorts of people takes research, precision, and a hell of a lot of revision with beta readers who are willing to tell you that “this is stupid and Vincent wouldn’t think that.” (Or whoever.) I promise it’s rewarding, though, when it’s done right. It provides a more nuanced narrative and one that doesn’t match the usual pattern. It gives the reader something different, something challenging. Plus, dammit, people with trauma and problems are just more real to me. Give me more of them, please, I beg of you. Be they serial killers or just jerks, if you can make me love them, I’ll read you forever. Promise.