Today I hit a sweet spot, the sort of which has been rare of late. I was elbow deep in plot, the cogs of my mind whirling and spinning, throwing out ideas faster than I could write them down. I was getting somewhere, and it felt buzzy and good. Then, I heard a voice from the future uttering the words; ‘I didn’t like this book because there was not one likeable character in it.’
I should say that hearing voices does not worry me one bit, it was what this particular voice was saying that turned my mood sour. I’m writing a book with a cast of characters who aren’t really that nice. Two of out three of the main ones are women and they’re not pretty (I’m not talking about their looks either.) I don’t have a problem with female villains. I wish there were more of them. But I know from experience that book clubs and Goodreads reviewers demand likeability, and it so happens my characters are lacking in that department.
Now, I don’t write for reviews. But I do want my books to sell. Mainly, I want people to enjoy them because if they don’t, the 690 cups of coffee, 100 packets of biscuits and general emotional angst that have gone into writing them are wasted. I don’t want to alienate readers by giving them characters they hate. But having given this a lot of thought, I’m with Lionel Shriver, who wrote a few years ago, ‘Goodness is not only boring but downright annoying… When fiction works, readers can develop the same nuanced, conflicted relationships to characters that they have to their own friends and family.’
The psychological thrillers I write are tethered in reality. And in real life people aren’t always that nice. Look around. In our workplaces, at our kids’ schools, even amongst our friends, there are people who enrage us from time to time. Women can be ferocious without even raising a fist. I am not nice all the time (not even half the time.) Are you?
Maybe one of the reasons we struggle with unlikeable characters is that we don’t just see the faults of others reflected in them, we see our own. We’re all part light, part dark. But it’s the dark side of ourselves that we work hard at hiding. Most of the time we succeed, we’re good friends, loving parents. But in the right (or wrong) situation maybe we too would be capable of anything. This is the job of a thriller writer, to throw characters in to nightmarish situations and see how they react. As readers we might take offence because they don’t act the way we think we would in same circumstances, but the point is how can we ever truly know until we’re there?
Far better, I think, than creating likeable characters is creating ones we care for, or failing that, those that lure us into their web despite our better judgement. We might not agree with their behaviour, but we understand their motivation. These are the characters that make the story real, give it texture and spark. They demand answers of us, prod and probe us. They expose our prejudices and force us to question our judgement. In fiction, bad can definitely be good.
*Colette McBeth was a BBC TV reporter for ten years before turning her hand to write fiction. She is the author of two critically acclaimed psychological thrillers, Precious Thing, and The Life I Left Behind.