Are Your Characters Despicable?

I requested reviews for my novel Sycophants, published late last year on Amazon, so it’s time to take some flak. Overall, the reviews aren’t bad, and much of the criticism is couched in compliments. Almost everyone thinks the writing is solid, the dialogue is snappy, and the story flows reasonably well. It’s the characters that seem to give critics heartburn. I meant to make them reasonably flawed, like real people. So how did some of them, even ones I don’t think are so bad myself, turn out downright despicable to more than a few readers?

The novel poses some questions about the nature of friendship. Can a relationship possibly be healthy if one of the participants possesses most of the charisma and power, possibly encouraging something that borders on hero worship? In Sycophants, there is a basic imbalance between the co-heroines, Imogene and Sara. They are former college roommates (as depicted in my 2007 novel, The Rock Star’s Homecoming) who team up years later for a movie-making venture. They pick up where they left off at school, with Sara the leader and Imogene the follower.

In their new situation, Sara is the boss of a production company with headquarters in New York City. Imogene has been hired not for any particular qualifications, but because they are old friends. Imogene jumps at the opportunity, having become disenchanted with the mostly clerical jobs she has held in the publishing industry. Her marriage to a young lawyer, also an unequal partnership,  is on the rocks. Somewhat naive and unprepared,  Imogene finds herself scrambling to gain a foothold in the high-powered company. She does manage to benefit from her business association with Sara, as she earns a decent salary, plays at being a publicist, and works toward acquiring some credits as a screenwriter. But there’s no way she can catch up to her friend.

It isn’t that Sara is the worst boss in the world. In fact, she is fairly generous in putting up with Imogene’s early miscues, for which another supervisor advocates firing her on the spot. Still, the super-busy Sara blows hot and cold. One moment she might chide Imogene for overstepping her authority; in the next breath, she might exhort her to develop more of a backbone. There are limits to how much Sara can prod Imogene toward success; the neophyte will have to do that herself.

I never intended Sara to be “despicable,” although she does tend to collect “sycophants” through the force of her personality. Her older brother Jake, a fading rock star, is the one who uses that word to describe his sister’s  relationships. He’s offended when Sara proposes to salvage his career by putting him in a movie, although his grumbling doesn’t prevent him from accepting her help.

Not every reader finds this friendship weird or the characters totally unlikable. Some comments fell along the lines of “flawed, not perfect, just as in real life.” Some thought the chemistry between Sara and Imogene had potential. Others felt the need to refer to the “friends” in quotes. To paraphrase one reader, “These people might be realistic, but I’m glad I don’t know them!” They are pegged as users, especially Sara. “Friendship to her is a one-way street,” another reader says, adding that Imogene is too much of a wimp to avoid being her prime victim. Why, these critics demand, can’t Imogene learn to stand up for herself, benefit from experience, and take responsibility? (I had hoped the story demonstrated her doing more of those things as time passed).

The most extreme reaction came from a reader who professed to like the writing, but not the book. She admitted to being predisposed against the “coming of age” genre (although that’s something of a stretch, as my characters start off in their late twenties, having left college about eight years before). For this reader, sycophantic behavior equates to being obsequious and brown-nosing. She concludes, “I’m not sure I’ve ever despised characters so thoroughly.” I’m kind of flattered that I evoked such a strong reaction, even if I didn’t exactly mean to!

I can understand why readers take Imogene to task for bad choices. One observes wisely, “Working for a good friend isn’t always a good idea; neither is blaming your husband for your career failures.” It’s always incumbent on authors to get readers to care what happens to their characters; not caring enough, as one critic says, tends to slow down the reading. Sara’s company is stacked with ambitious people besides herself, and blind ambition tends to make them all unlikable from the start, even before they get to be out-and-out sycophants. Imogene is also taken to task for assuming that her husband is cheating on her and acting accordingly, without real proof (although her suspicions turn out to be true).

To sum up, they are “all shallow, money-driven users with no redeeming qualities. No true villains but no heroes either.” It was suggested that if I had put in a few “true villains,” it might have made the “minor villains” seem less bad. I did introduce an armed kidnapper, but he might have come off as more deluded than evil. And maybe the perpetually drunk minor musicians, who are prone to settling their artistic differences with their fists, served more as comic relief.

Once in a while you get a criticism that you actually like! One reader thought I was emotionally distant from my characters, more in the vein of 19th century literature than modern writing. As a former English major who often prefers the old style myself, I really can’t get too upset about that. If it means my book is somewhat “literary,” I’m all for it.

I’d be interested to know how many of my fellow authors have taken a similar trip with their characters. Have you set out to make them realistically flawed, but perhaps gone too far and accidentally made them despicable?

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19 thoughts on “Are Your Characters Despicable?

  1. Did anyone say they weren’t able to identify with or root for any of your characters? That might be off-putting enough to account for some of the opinions. Main characters have to be “relatable” despite realistic flaws. Or at least some of the supporting characters, if it’s important that a main character is not sympathetic. We writers know our characters inside-out and may be aware of things not perceived by our readers. The main character of my 4-book series probably does seem unsympathetic to some (maybe most?) of my readers, but since he narrates only one of the four books (they’re all in first person), the narrators make up for that.

    1. Thanks for your insights! One or two readers did say that they had trouble identifying with any of my characters. Since most of them work a high-powered company, they tend to be insanely ambitious. Imogene, my main character, was drowning in that atmosphere at first, so I thought readers might sympathize with her struggles. Some did, but others wrote her off as a complaining wimp!

  2. I know I’m okay – some people have actually commented how much they like the villain! She has her reasons for stepping over a couple of lines too far, and her own share of woes.

    I also need to have at least one character to identify with, and don’t watch shows on TV where all the characters are despicable – they may be artistic and well done, but the gorge rises too high. But that’s just me – my husband has no trouble watching drug dealer shows like Breaking Bad.

    But getting readers to comment specifically in writing is the Holy Grail. Good job!

    1. Thank you! I think your book demonstrated the “flawed but not totally unsympathetic” formula quite well.

      I watched the entire “Breaking Bad” series on Netflix. It wasn’t easy at times! Still, I thought it demonstrated how a basically decent man, facing his untimely demise, might be moved to commit acts he would never have contemplated if his life had remained normal.

      1. Yeah, but husband says the point of BB is that he finally admits he LIKES what he’s done (not sure I bought that, even when I saw it happen), he LIKES having the power, etc.

        He watched that series twice. Then Narcos, and Queen of the South…

        I stole from those shows the premise that children are the week point in the armor of some of the bad guys – back as far as The Godfather.

        In real life, many of them just bring their kids into the ‘family business’ because blood makes them more trustworthy. Or so they think.

        In principle, I believe all people are redeemable. In practice, it is very hard, and few make it back to any kind of decency.

      2. Another example of an evil but complex character was Tony Soprano. He wanted desperately to keep his kids out of the business, and even tried to send his son to military school. It was revealed during Tony’s therapy that one of the reasons he hated his mother (his “mudder,” as he called her) was that while he was growing up, she discouraged Tony’s father from leaving the business when he had a chance at a legitimate job.

      3. Sympathetic characters don’t kill at random. Pseudo-sympathetic ones – Soprano and the BB guy and so many others – merely show you that even bad guys have mothers, wives/husbands, kids – and suffer life’s vicissitudes.

        But you can’t rear children with that kind of example, and expect it not to ruin their lives. Because who their parents are, and how they live, rubs off on the kids.

        The minute someone steps over the line to the crime side “because I’m doing it for the kids” is the minute someone will find out coming back is incredibly hard. If it’s possible at all.

        The current generation of Mafia bosses (replace with your favorite group of bad guys) came from somewhere.

  3. It really seems as if you have stirred up your readers, which is great but so many of us escape into a novel to get away from unpleasant characters, even if we do like thrillers that I can see why they might want ‘someone to love.’ Not having read your book I can only guess that the emotion Imogene makes people feel is pity, rather than identification. Now you’ve made me curious!

    1. Yes, she evidently came off as a wimp at times! That might be why I identify with her myself–I have often struggled when removed from my comfort zone. Still, I hope readers will recognize that Imogene, in her own understated way, triumphs in the end.

  4. I think your book gets such strong reactions because you are somewhere in the middle of that literary and commercial range. In some ways there is this modern setting and yet a feel of the drawing room comes through, almost a detachment that is so often found in literary works. I see it in your blogging style as well but to be honest I haven’t read this book yet. Just put on tbr (which incidentally is out of control).I have been reading a lot of commercial styles to work out my own place in this writing environment. I think its great you got the reactions. I would love reviews and reactions whatever they are, but strong ones are very special and show you have a voice. You have a voice and through you so do your characters. Does it matter if they are liked? Keep it up

  5. Here’s my take on this: most people don’t know how to effectively critique or review. They let their emotions or personal preferences completely dictate whether a book gets a good grade or not. That to me is sort of erroneous. Readers being able to connect with characters is important, but a lot of people seem to think characters should always be models for morality which they often are not. I have noticed that people like to talk about having characters who are flawed and believable but when you give your characters serious flaws those same people often don’t like it. Despicable sounds to me like an extreme word to describe your characters. But, provoking a powerful reaction is always good in the literary world, isn’t it? 🙂

    1. Yes! I was flattered that there were some strong reactions to my characters. And you make an excellent point that people bring their own biases and emotions to their reading.

  6. Yep. From one reviewer (Kirkus): That said, Hunt successfully conjures the story’s time and a place in masterful detail. Jonathan and Scott are not quite likable, but they are recognizable as the kind of ruthlessly creative types who find success only when they can keep their demons in check.
    An expansive historical novel that ably evokes its time and place.
    So, good writing, but not likable characters. Scott was to have been tragic. Jonathan was to have righted himself in the end, but I think I lost sight of the difference between plot and story and leaned on the plot too much. So, I know exactly what that’s like.

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