Writing about unattractive characters

I’m wading my way through A Game with Sharpened Knives by Neil Belton and thinking about how people write unlikeable characters. When I say wading, I don’t mean that the book is badly written because it’s not; it’s an allusive, complex, disjointed narrative that opens up the lives of Erwin Shrodinger and his associates to scrutiny.

The issue is Shrodinger – he was a peculiar, weak, oddly ego-less but selfish person. His strange personal life (not to give anything away to those who don’t know his story) might have passed with less notice in a different age, but as a man whose scientific career straddled the two world wars, who spent some time looking like (but perhaps not actually being) a Nazi apologist and ended up marooned in an Ireland seeking an identity in its own neutrality during World War II he acted, bluntly speaking, appallingly. And I am finding Belton’s depiction of him painful, ugly and depressing.

On the other hand, I love the late and much lamented Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen – granted Zen is fictional, he appeals to me so much that I feel a tiny pang each time I remember that there will never be another Zen novel. Aurelio is equally weak, strange and badly behaved, but I adore the way Dibdin drew chis character. And yet … Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley leaves me cold. I know Ripley has an actual fan club, has been much adapted for film and TV etc, but I just find his kind of unpleasantness unbearable. And yet … I do love Hannibal Lecter – a serial killer with few redeeming features (as an aside, both he and Ripley love forms of music which do little for me so it’s not that) who has become an international film figure too. And yet … and yet …

So how do we write these nasty types? It seems to me that there’s a warmth to Lecter and Zen – not so much a warmth of depiction but a warmth within them, which is lacking in Ripley and Shrodinger – or perhaps the warmth isn’t in them – but they have a kind of warmth that resonates with me, while whatever warmth there may be in the other two (and surely there isn’t any warmth in Ripley?) doesn’t.

As I’m revising – with hideous slowness – a historical novel in which my lead character is pretty nasty in many ways, I’m trying to unpick what makes some unlovable characters work for me, while others don’t – but I’m coming to the conclusion that liking and hating may be more visceral than intellectual and that means that I should write my dubious hero for myself and hope that there’s enough other people out there who feel as I do if he ever sees print.

Aurelio Zen’s Venice courtesy of ezioman at Flickr


  1. Elisabeth
    16th January 2010

    Have you read Australian writer, Kate Grenville’s ‘Dark Places’?

    Now hers is an unlikeable character, in the form of Albion Gidley Singer, and the novel is beautifully written.

    I think it is one of the best understandings of what it’s like to be in the mind of a deeply disturbed man that I have ever read, all written from Gidley singer’s Point of view. It’s brilliant and well worth the read.

  2. Jim Murdoch
    18th January 2010

    I wonder if people would be as fond of Lecter if Hopkins hadn’t made him such a personable monster? No one is likely to feel the same for Michael Myers. Have you watched Dexter? He has much in common with Lecter. But even more so: he’s a serial killer with a life, marital problems, work-related issues. I think all of us recognise that there’s a side of us that could be very scary if let loose but the real fear is that we might lose ourselves in the process. Wouldn’t it be nice though if we could just be a monster when we needed to be one? I suspect that’s why vampire stories stay so popular because the best vampires are charmers.

  3. Lou
    22nd January 2010

    As you know I’ve been having the same problem with my “Man-character” and got some good advice on my blog post about it: http://louisehalvardsson.blogspot.com/2010/01/this-charming-man.html

    I do think it’s key that you feel some love for him yourself … what draws you in?
    I think your character is very sexy and his troubled background gives him credit.

  4. Minnie
    22nd February 2010

    Fascinating post – and so many questions raised/addressed here which also trouble me. Tom Ripley? I think perhaps what repels us is his utter coldness + the sense that he is, at core, empty. Hence your stressing the elements of warmth in eg Hannibal L. I agree – but is it ‘passion’ rather than ‘human warmth’, I wonder? And then there’s the factor of victims – do we feel for their loss, or are they just fodder or even possibly, in some cases, deserving of a grisly fate? That’s another factor (might explain why Mark Tavener’s comic murder mysteries involving eg bank managers worked so well). Sorry, could go on for ages so won’t!
    Thank you, Kay.


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