Writing Tips

When A Character Does Something You Dislike

I read a lot. I also read reviews, though I tend to read reviews after I have read a book myself. Why? Well, I used to rely on reviews to pick books, but now I tend to rely on a trusted few (and my own gut) to pick and choose. Even so, my interest in reviews never completely faded, so I tend to set time aside after I finish reading to skim book reviews.

One of the reasons I stopped reading book reviews was the obsession with tearing characters apart.

Don’t get me wrong. Characters are so, so important in fiction. However, I think many have forgotten that characters are supposed to reflect real-life people. They aren’t supposed to be perfect. They shouldn’t do things you agree with on every page. They will make mistakes, even mistakes that seem ridiculous to you.

Sometimes, your hero isn’t going to act very heroic.

Staying on the path of “when characters make mistakes that seem ridiculous to you”: As the reader, you might know more than the character. Or you might understand the tropes of your genre, so you expect certain things to happen (ex. a best friend’s betrayal, a love triangle admission, a mentor figure’s sudden death). However, to that character, they live in a world that doesn’t come with trope warnings (just like we don’t). So when their best friend betrays them and they’re shocked (and you’re not), I don’t think it’s fair to call that character stupid or naïve or etc. Even with dozens of clues, that character loves their best friend. They trust their best friend. As humans, we often lie to ourselves when the truth is looking us in the face. We make mistakes.

As much as characters are designed to entertain, they are also designed to be honest, ugly, thought provoking, loving, twisted, and more. In fact, if you design a character really well, they will be all of those things—sometimes in one scene.

As an example, I recently finished Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, and holy hell, I love it. I thought the voice was so honest, even though Dumplin has some seriously shallow thoughts. This was the main complaint I saw in reviews. Many called her hypocritical and hard to cheer on. And guess what? Of course she’s hypocritical. Of course she’s hard to cheer on sometimes. And that’s what made her believable. Dumplin’ is a teenage girl struggling with how the world judges her weight. Between that and the recent death of her beloved aunt, her contemptuous relationship with her mother, and her first (confusing) summer fling, I completely understood and sympathized with Dumplin’s emotional struggles. Does that mean I agreed with everything she did and said in every scene? Hell no! But I don’t have to agree with a character in every scene to love them in the end.

How many times has your sister annoyed you, bothered you, done something you thought was incredibly thoughtless? How about your parents? Your grandparents? Your best friends? But you still love them in the end. You give them second chances. You let go of the idea that everyone in your life must take your advice to heart. You understand everyone lives their own life their own way, and that sometimes you won’t agree with it, but that no one needs your approval. In fact, how many times have you done something that wasn’t perfect? How many times have you done something out of character? I know I’ve disappointed myself before. I still do. I’m human. I have moments of selfishness, of jealousy, of anger, of irrational depression. But does that make me worth tearing apart? I would hope not.

I expect characters to disappoint me at some point. I try to sympathize with flaws, but also understand that some flaws are going to be out of my realm. I cheer them on when they’re good and hope they redeem themselves when they’re bad. (And sometimes, I enjoy a good story where a character is never redeemed.) All I ask for is consistency—a sense that, no matter what the character does or believes, I understand them in that moment, even in the moments where they aren’t quite themselves. I need to believe they are real, and if I can believe that, I will more than likely enjoy the journey.

In the end, I want to enjoy the story—and sometimes, stories are told by those you might not understand. Maybe even by someone you would hate. But that doesn’t automatically mean the story is unlikeable.

Let’s be a little kinder to characters, especially character flaws.

We all have them.


18 thoughts on “When A Character Does Something You Dislike

  1. Absolutely! One of my first experiences was with this book I can’t remember the name of. The MC was horrible; bitter, and depraved. Not in the Guardians of the Galaxy, you’re bad but you’re cheeky style, he literally had no redeeming features. But he ended up saving the world because otherwise, he would die. He literally did the least he could do at every turn. I loved it because I found it refreshing not to have this polished MC, my childhood friend didn’t because she didn’t like the character. Even though that was the point. It’s why I like The Thomas Covenant series. A brash and battered man sent to a world where everyone is pristine, but he never knows if it’s real.

    1. I’ve been searching for MCs that are on the rougher side lightly. I love a good book that makes me stop every once in a while and think, “Whoa, I’m actually cheering this person on, even though I hate them.” It’s kind of a great moment. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Although I generally agree with you, I’ve also seen sloppy work. If a character is built up to be super intelligent, for example, I find it hard to swallow when they do something incredibly stupid just to keep the plot moving along. Sorry,but I’ve seen this over and over.

    1. I think we’re still on the same page? I don’t want a character who messes up for no reason (or, like you said, just to move the plot forward). I just want a believable character, and sometimes that means they make a realistic mistake. I definitely don’t want to encourage “sloppy” work. 🙂

  3. Perhaps you’d find this most in readers who explicitly read to “escape.” They don’t want realistic fiction, they want to take sides (the “right side” of course) with characters whose motivations are clear (both heroes and villains) and in the end they want simple answers. And I guess, if that’s what they need, then how should I tell them they’re wrong?

    They just need to realize that writers don’t OWE them that.

    But… Have you ever played Dragon Age 2? It came out in 2011, so I’m sure this won’t be a spoiler. But one of the main companions and romantic interests, Anders, is a revolutionary whose anger leads him to commit essentially a terrorist bombing that wipes away everyone who could have prevented a war. My character was completely in love, trusted him, and was devastated that he used her as part of his plot. And she did the one thing she never would do — killed her own companion and lover for his horrifying betrayal.

    Like you, I only read reviews later, so I was blind-sided by the end game. Only after did I see the fan chatter about Anders and how many players truly hate him. As a novelist, I thought the writing of that game was brilliant and I respect the game writers’ vision. But I cried a whole lot, though.

    Then I replayed with a different love interest, because we gamers like a “better ending” too.

    1. This is totally true! I should’ve mentioned that I believe readers are allowed to review a novel however they want to, including if they want to tear characters apart for whatever reason. (It’s just the reason I, personally, stopped relying on book reviews as much.) Escape fiction, HEA, wish fulfillment, etc. are valid reasons to love (or dislike) a book. You know, your story about Dragon Age 2 makes me wonder if authors will start including alternate endings or extras to go along with books that they know might upset their fan base. Those “choose your own adventure” stories are getting extremely popular in fan fiction and/or story cell phone games. It would be interesting to see if this trend could take off in novels, too.

      1. I think that “choosing your own ending” works in video games because you’re able to replay from a saved game. The game writers know people will want options in their romances and will want to shape an ending.

        With novels, I don’t think there’s the same expectation. Even when authors are really approachable online and may solicit reader reactions, people know it’s still one person’s story and not collaborative. So I’d expect that “choose your own endings” will remain more of a niche product in printed media.

      2. I suspect you are correct! A great breakdown on the differences in the two mediums and why it works in one (and probably wouldn’t in the other). I always enjoy your insight, Deby!

  4. I don’t think I’ve ever read a review of a book before, much less to judge whether or not I want to read said book. It’s the story and/or author that entices me to reading a book.

    And you’re right, characters will make mistakes. But, I also don’t think there’s anything wrong in stereotypical archetypes if they’re done correctly (i.e. a hero being a hero always, a heroine being a heroine always, a villain being a villain always, etc.) I think that is one of the reasons why fairy tales and the like have survived for all these years.

    1. Absolutely! Some readers LOVE alpha males, for instance. Or heroes who always save the day at the last minute, no matter what. I have my days where I seek HEA out, because I need some cheer in my life. And some of the cheesiest, most outlandish tales can be my favorites. 🙂

  5. I love this post, and the sense of it goes all the way back to the Greek Classics – a character had to have a moment of hubris (apologies if I’m teaching you to suck eggs here) which is basically a moment of arrogance, pride, belief that you are better than the gods. Essentially it boils down to the fact that as you say, a character has to be flawed to be believable, which is also why the mythologies of Ancient Greece and Rome are so enjoyable. Because the gods themselves have flaws, making them more human – they are jealous, they are angry, they are vain, they are vengeful, just on a much more epic scale 😉 It’s basically the difference between turning someone into a daffodil, or giving someone the silent treatment – same motivation, different era! 🙂

    1. OMG, you GET me. I LOVE Greek mythology, just because the gods are even more twisted than the humans. I always thought that brought a believability to it (and an entertainment factor) that many other stories didn’t consider. Basically, I am a huge fan of flaws, because everyone has them. It makes the story feel more real.

  6. I believe, even in loving to escape into stories, people DO want flaws. I suppose the audience doesn’t want too many, as characters are extreme examples of personality (and therefore need the main one to ultimately be heroic).
    I’ve recently been ruminating on how much I love Katniss because Suzanne Collins made her RUN AWAY AND HIDE, get sick, and avoid emotionally-straining things.
    (Now that I’ve pointed it out, I see that she also made Katniss step up and shine when she needed to.)

    1. Yes! I actually really loved how Collins did the opposite of most books: her character became less brave from book 1 to 3, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t have brave moments or still be a hero in the end. She felt so real, even in her ugliest times.

  7. Excellent point! I just finished reading a story that I was enjoying when the protagonist revealed that he’d made a grievous error in judgment when he was young. I was so ticked. Changed my idea of him–and he is a now (grown up) a strong, intelligent, professonal. Okay–I’ll chill.

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