The best fictional characters are neither all good nor all bad, but rather that complex mix of positive and negative that we all are. It takes a talented author to make us see all of the sides of a character, especially if that character is a basically unpleasant and unsympathetic person. But it’s an important goal because if characters are too uni-dimensional we lose interest in them. It’s really more interesting if even unpleasant characters have at least some positive quality.
Some of Agatha Christie’s novels include characters like that. For instance, in Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the stabbing murder of the 4th Baron Edgware. The most likely suspect is Edgware’s wife actress Jane Wilkinson. She wanted a divorce from her husband so she could marry the Duke of Merton and what’s more, she threatened her husband in front of witnesses. And on the night of the murder, someone looking exactly like her and giving her name to the butler was seen going to Edgware’s study. The only problem with that theory of the crime is that Jane Wilkinson claims she was at a dinner in another part of London at the time of the murder. Twelve people who also attended that dinner swear that she was there. So Poirot and Hastings have to look elsewhere for the murderer. The Duke of Merton’s mother, the Dowager Duchess of Merton, is terribly upset about the murder because now Jane Wilkinson is free to marry her son and she wants to prevent that at all costs. So she goes to Poirot to try to persuade him to prevent the marriage. The duchess is a very unpleasant person. She’s rude, autocratic, manipulative and a snob. Hastings refers to her as “a tartar” and he’s right. And yet she’s not entirely unsympathetic. Poirot points out that she is among other things a mother who cares about her son. Despite her unpleasantness, she has at least that one positive trait – something we can appreciate.
Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine features Mallory and Kate Lawson and their daughter Polly. When Mallory’s elderly cousin Carey dies, the Lawsons discover that they have inherited a fortune in money as well as Carey Lawson’s beautiful home in the village of Forbes Abbot. The only proviso is that Carey’s companion Benny Frayle must have a permanent home on the property, and Mallory and Kate are only too happy to comply. Not only is Benny a pleasant if eccentric person, but she’s also eager to help them fulfill their dream of starting an independent publishing outfit. Then the Lawsons’ financial advisor Dennis Brinkley is killed in what looks like a tragic accident with one of the medieval war machines he collected. But Benny Frayle doesn’t believe Brinkley died by accident. She is sure that he was murdered and tries, at first unsuccessfully, to get DCI Tom Barnaby and his team to look into the death. They finally do when there’s another, related death. One of the suspects is twenty-year-old Polly Lawson. She’s extremely bitter because her share of Carey Lawson’s estate doesn’t come to her until she’s twenty-one. Brinkley tried to explain that he couldn’t do anything about giving her the money and she refused to take “no” for an answer. Polly’s in many ways an unpleasant character. She’s spoiled, inconsiderate, too impulsive and disrespectful. There’s really not a lot to like about her. At the same time though, she’s very much in love with life; we can really appreciate her energy and vitality. We can also appreciate her sense of independence and her courage; she really doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her and in a way that adds to her power as a character.
And then there’s C.J. Box’s Cody Hoyt, whom we meet in Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. Hoyt is a Denver cop who has anger issues and other personal demons. He also drinks too much and is more willing than he ought to be to cut corners with police policy in order to “get his man.” He’s been in trouble more than once with the department and to be blunt, he “plays dirty.” When Hoyt’s friend Jack McGuane and Jack’s wife Melissa get the devastating news that they will have to surrender their adopted daughter Angelina to her biological father, Hoyt’s incensed. No-one can imagine at first why eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland would want to assert his parental rights since up to now he’s shown absolutely no interest in his biological daughter. The McGuanes decide to do whatever it takes to keep Angelina even though it means they have to go up against powerful Judge John Moreland, Garrett Moreland’s father. Hoyt promises to help the McGuanes and that loyalty, despite the odd against his friends, is admirable. In some ways Cody Hoyt is an unpleasant character. But we can really appreciate his determination to keep Angelina McGuane safe and help his friends. We can also appreciate his straightforwardness and courage. Hoyt appears again by the way in Back of Beyond, in which he investigates the death of his friend and Alcoholics Anonymous mentor Hank Winters.
Elizabeth Spann Craig’s amateur sleuth Myrtle Clover is a retired teacher who now writes a column for the Bradley Bugle, which serves the small North Carolina town where she lives. One of the banes of Myrtle Clover’s existence is her next-door-neighbour Erma Sherman. Among other things Erma is meddlesome and nosey and can’t resist any opportunity to dictate her neighbour’s life. She even peeps through her window shades to check on Myrtle’s comings and goings. In fact, Myrtle finds her so annoying in so many ways that she takes every precaution she can to avoid Erma and it’s hard to blame her. Erma is, to put it bluntly, an annoying person. But she’s not completely awful. Despite the fact that she’s not very likeable we can respect that she really means well. She cares about her neighbour in her own way and she’s not malicious. She’s just…really annoying.
Sometimes even extremely unlikeable characters have something about them that keeps them from being “cardboard cutout bad guys.” Such a character is Y.A. Erskine’s Tasmania police commissioner Ron Chalmers whom we meet in The Brotherhood. Chalmers has a lot of thoroughly unpleasant characteristics. He’s a sexist and a racist, and doesn’t see why policing shouldn’t be done “the way we’ve always done it.” He’s alienated two of his three children and has no patience whatever with people he thinks are “too soft.” He can be extremely rude and he’s got a temper. In fact, most of the members of the police force dislike him intensely. And yet, he’s not so completely horrible that we can’t believe him as a real person. When Sergeant John White, one of Chalmers’ best men, is murdered at the scene of a burglary, Chalmers is as upset as anyone is. The most likely suspect in the murder is Darren Rowley, a part-Aboriginal teen who’s been in and out of trouble for years. Chalmers knows that the media will make much of this case since the suspect is part Aborigine and he’s tired of the police being painted as brutes when at the same time, as he sees it, hoodlums like Rowley are protected by the system. Chalmers’ views of non-Whites and the poor are repugnant to most people. They are part of what make him unpleasant. But we can appreciate the fact that one of his best cops has been murdered and there seems little public interest in bringing his killer to justice.
It’s not easy to make people want to read about characters such as Ron Chalmers. Some characters are just simply unpleasant people. But when an author gives an annoying or unlikeable character some human quality – something even a little positive – those characters are more realistic. Which unlikeable characters have you been able to accept because they’re at least a little human? If you’re a writer, how do you make your unpleasant characters palatable?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Smokey Robinson’s You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.