Anne here, and today I'm responding to a question that Annette N. sent in — and for that she will receive a free book. Thanks, Annette.
Her question was: "Is it hard to write characters you don't like? Do you run into people in your stories who simply are not someone you want to know well? I can see enjoying writing characters who are fun and charming and simply nice people. But, how difficult is it to spend time with someone you dislike — a lot? And if they are supposed to be villainous, how evil do you make them?"
I like to have a variety of characters in my books — it makes for a more realistic setting — so invariably there are some unlikable characters. I think if everyone were nice in a book, it would get boring.
Unlikable characters, nasty or just difficult people, and outright villains are grist to a storyteller's mill. They can make a story more interesting or exciting, and when you have your hero or heroine come up against them, whether it's an imperious dowager, a waspish society shrew, or an evil villain lurking behind a smooth facade, confronting them brings out aspects of the hero or heroine's character that might not otherwise take place. (I'm not saying that Maggie Smith's dowager countess is unlikable — indeed most of us love her — but she is difficult, and doesn't that add to our enjoyment?)
To be honest, I generally enjoy writing the nasty ones — it's a nice break from writing characters I want readers to love. I can have fun with them. For instance I often include lovable and eccentric old ladies in my books, but in my Convenient Marriage series it was fun to have an old lady, Aunt Agatha, who was a right old tartar.
For instance when the soldier hero asks for her help with his orphaned young half-sisters she writes this:
My dear Ashendon
I received your letter—and what a piece of impertinence it was! Do you imagine I have nothing better to do than to rush down to Bath—of all dreary and unfashionable places—to relieve you of your responsibilities? Do you think I have no life of my own? They are your half sisters—deal with them. I said no good would come of your father’s second marriage—no fool like an old fool—and now, see how right I was.
Your loving aunt,
Agatha, Lady Salter
Later Aunt Agatha greets George, her newly-discovered great niece, with blunt criticism — and George retorts in a typical George manner.
She watched critically as they hastily curtseyed, and snorted when they were finished. “You, gel at the end, where did you learn to curtsey? You’re about as graceful as a bear.”
George lifted her chin. “Thank you,” she said. “I like bears.”
The old lady stiffened. “Cheek! I suppose you’re Henry’s bastard.”
George clenched her fists. Emm placed a soothing hand on George’s shoulder and said, “This is Lady Georgiana Rutherford, your nephew Henry’s perfectly legitimate daughter. Tragically lost to the family for some years, but we’re thrilled to have her here, where she belongs—with us—aren’t we, girls?”
Aunt Agatha continues to be critical and scathing, but Emm, our heroine, is more than a match for her, and refuses to be bullied. She meets rudeness with clever and unsquashable politeness — and ends up the victor in every verbal skirmish, eventually earning the old lady's reluctant respect. For instance, in this exchange:
Lady Salter sniffed and glanced at the girls. She pointed her lorgnette at Lily. “That one could do without her luncheon. Put her on a reducing diet—potatoes boiled in vinegar was what did it for Byron. Give her nothing but potatoes in vinegar for a month; then she might look—”
Emm put her arm around Lily. “Nonsense,” she said briskly. “Lily is a beautiful girl and we love her just exactly the way she is. I would no more think of putting her on a reducing diet than”—she smiled sweetly—“trying to fatten you up, after your long illness.”
“What illness? I’ve never been ill a day in my life.”
“Oh?” said Emm with false sympathy. “I thought you must have been ill. So many recovering invalids are excessively thin and crabby and bad-tempered. I’m so glad it’s not illness that has caused it.”
The old lady’s flinty gray eyes narrowed, her thin bosom swelled and Emm decided to get the girls out of the way before the explosion came.
Writing that kind of duel of manners is fun. But as the old saying goes, "to know all is to understand all," and sometimes an initially nasty character can grow on you. Toward the end of that book, and series, we'd started to know Aunt Agatha and a bit about her background, and I, and some readers, had become quite fond of the old dragon. Some readers even wrote to ask for her to be given a romantic happy ending.
I also enjoy giving the occasional heroine one or two dreadful and persistent suitors — pompous bores, excessively vain peacocks, righteous prigs — men with deeply unattractive personalities. (Mr Collins, anyone?) Watching the heroine — and the hero— deal with these fellows is entertaining and informative.
As for villains, they can range from "bad eggs" to out-and-out villains. The challenge there is firstly to try to make them real instead of a caricature or "stock villain" while still showing them as truly villainous. And it's fascinating trying to work out what makes them tick — because a writer needs to work out the backstory of the baddies just as much as the goodies. Motivation is all. A good villain can be a real asset to a story.
The other challenge is to give each villain an ending they deserve—and make it different for each one. I try to come up with a punishment that fits the crime, and they've ranged from death to banishment, or some other more particular and fitting fate. I've had a couple die by convenient accident — I can't have the hero or heroine commit murder, nor do I want my characters to have a trial hanging over their heads — but you can't repeat that plot event too often. So finding the right punishment is a new challenge with each villain. (Photo on the left by Jon Tyson on Unsplash)
Conflict is at the heart of all good fiction and stories in which everyone was nice would end up being dull, I think. The friction between our "nice" characters and the not-so-nice ones makes for fun fiction, and sometimes good drama. I hope that answers your question, Annette.
And here's a question for readers: can you think of a villain in fiction who was really memorable? What was it about him/her that grabbed your imagination? What do you think the book would be like without the villain?