Writing characters who aren’t good

Guest Post by Amanda Steel

I’m not sure whether it’s a new trend, or something I failed to notice before. In the past year, I’ve read numerous books where the characters (both main and supporting) are not typically good people; either bad or just extremely flawed in some way.

I co-host a book review podcast, and I struggled to review some of these. The Creative Writing MA I am halfway through made me realise this doesn’t automatically make them bad books. However. In one (I won’t name the specific books I didn’t like) the character whinged the whole way through. To be fair, he was in the middle of a zombie outbreak, and I would whinge a bit too. Do people want to read a book where the character complains and feels sorry for himself though?

Another book I read was about a character who lost his memory. The person who he discovered he was, turned out to be a cheat and a creep. He was a much better person without his memory. The other characters were no better. This left me with nobody to root for. I couldn’t bring myself to care what happened to any of them. I knew then, something was missing from the main character. Even as a bad guy, he needed something to make the reader want to carry on reading.

After that, I read a book where the main character was someone I was able to feel for (in part) as she continued to make a series of bad choices – digging herself deeper and deeper into trouble. She was more than a little self-absorbed, which was off putting, but she suffered for the things she had done before getting her happy-for-now ending.

These books all helped me to learn what doesn’t work in a bad or not typically good character. Self-obsession is off putting, unless the character has somehow transformed by the end of the book. She/he doesn’t have to become a saint and can still be a little selfish, but character growth is important.

Using a range of characters with little or no redeeming qualities can be hard to get away with too. I’m not saying it can’t be done in a successful way, but the authors of the books mentioned above haven’t achieved it. Having someone good, or much further down the scale of bad is likely to be helpful in keeping readers, otherwise adding charm or an endearing trait to the character could also help.

The most recent book I read where the character wasn’t good, or at least she didn’t do good things, showed me how this can work. Jane Doe is written by Victoria Helen Stone. The book is about a sociopath who wants revenge, even if that revenge might be murder. She’s prepared to kill if she has to. The character is more complex than just being a potential killer though. She wants revenge for a friend, which at least shows she is capable of caring for another person, even if that leads to actions which many people wouldn’t consider. She’s loyal, determined and funny, even though she doesn’t mean to be humorous. There is a raw charm in her personality. The other characters are not sociopaths, but the author has portrayed them as more twisted and deserving of punishment than Jane. So, Jane was the one I was rooting for and I genuinely wanted to keep reading, as I hoped things would work out for her no matter what she chose to do in the end.

Reading these books has shown me as a writer how to (or how not to) write flawed characters who can hook the reader. This is why writers should also be readers. We can learn from so much from books, even bad ones. That’s why Stephen King says that if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.

Amanda Steel is a multi-genre author, sometimes writing under the pen name Aleesha Black. She is the co-host of “Reading in Bed” with her partner, Andy. For more information about Amanda, visit her website. www.amandasteelwriter.com

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