When I was growing up, I always read to escape. The thing was, my escapes weren’t exactly what you might expect. I used to go to bed at night reading R.L. Stine. I devoured vampire stories the way Dracula would take down a pint of O Positive after fasting for a month. Scary stories were my escape, and the protagonists were people who fascinated me.
When I think about Nora Goode from the Fear Street Saga or Alisa from Christopher Pike’s Last Vampire series, they weren’t always admirable people. Half the people in Fear Street had some sort of ulterior motives, and Alisa was five thousand years old. Not a whole lot an eight-year-old kid could relate to.
I read them anyway. I loved those characters. Even Daniel Fear, who had a distinctively murderous side.
Over the years, I’ve read a lot of less-than-desirable characters in books and watched them in movies.
I started writing my first serious novel when I was in high school. The characters were almost all noble, kind, and happy — or sardonic in a friendly sort of way. I got about a hundred and fifty pages into it before I realized that the whole thing felt naïve, and it was years before I figured out why.
People aren’t like that. The Super Shiny Folks in real life bug me just as much as they do in stories. Real human beings have inner (and outer) conflicts. They’re not perfect. Real humans have dust bunnies under the bed, skeletons in the closet, and pores that show when they look closely at themselves in the mirror.
Characters should be like real people. Sure, they might have superpowers or live in a zombie wasteland or prance about with fairies and unicorns, but they should be like people. They should have idiosyncrasies and nervous tics, soft spots for kitten bellies and saltwater taffy.
I also think that even the darkest protagonists (or the worst behaved) have aspects we can admire. Tenacity, maybe. Or the ability to speak their minds however over the top or larger than life their opinions really are. Characters can be role models even when they’re not admirable ones.
The next couple books I attempted took my characters to darker places. Gave them more nuance and depth and scuffed away at their shiny faςades. When I first finished watching all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I wanted to BE Buffy Summers.
Here’s the kicker: Buffy goes through some serious crap. She suffers tremendously. She gives up her life — twice — to save her loved ones and the world. She also makes the occasional very selfish decision and sometimes horribly treats the people she loves. And I still wanted to be her. She may be the archetypal hero, but she’s also a very flawed human being.
My goal as a writer is to create characters readers want to continue to go back to. Characters that pull readers into their world, into the muck and the torment that awaits them at the hands of plot. The only reason this works is because there’s some part of us that connects with these flawed, fictional personages. We might not want to model our lives after them, but we might admire the way they exercise their agency where we would fear to assert ourselves. We might wish we had their candor, their courage, their ability to shut it off and do what needs to be done.
So bring on the scruffy, the world-weary, the duty-worn, the heavy drinkers and the brazen narcissists — just give me a part of them that clicks with a part of me.
Which less-than-admirable characters do you relate to? Who keeps you coming back for more?