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Characters We Love to Loathe

No, not the Evil Warlord or his minions. I’m thinking of the characters that spice up a story by being Good but Irritating, or even Morally Neutral but Obnoxious. The ones that keep you reading not just because you want to see your hero save the world, but because you want to see Obnoxious meet his comeuppance, or because you laugh every time Monumentally Tactless splashes the other characters’ social strategies in their faces, or because it looks as though Good but Irritating may frustrate the hero’s personal desires even while helping him save the world.

It’s not always necessary to teeter the universe on the brink of destruction, or to tie the hero to a ticking bomb, to keep a reader engaged with the story.

And frequently those unlovable characters are oh, so memorable. I could not, now, name the protagonists of the books in which she appears, but I’ll never forget Angela Thirkell’s Gradka, the Mixo-Lydian refugee, forcing the rest of the characters to buy rather limp and soiled bits of Mixo-Lydian embroidery at a bazaar or telling them more than they want to hear about her country’s bloodstained history. Czy provka, provka, provka! Or, to take a more recent example, what about Byerly Vorrutyer’s migration from drunken Vor town clown to secret agent in Lois McMaster Bujold’s later Vorkosigan books? She may have created a plot arc in which his character is shown to be much better than it seems on first impressions, but the bits I remember are those in which he manages in twenty-five words or less to present himself as somebody you don’t even want in the same room as your daughter.

And then there’s Jane Austen: Mr. Collins, Mrs. Norris, Mary Musgrove: the plots of Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Persuasion might limp along without these characters, but the books would be inconceivably poorer.

Obviously one’s more likely to find these characters sprinkling sand in the gears of gentle social comedies like Angela Thirkell’s books, where no Evil Warlord (except, maybe, Hitler, kept firmly offstage) need appear and you need something to generate a little conflict. When your characters are worried about saving the world rather than about who’s coming to afternoon tea, it’s dangerously easy to make them homogeneous. To let the Good Guys all be variants of people you’d quite like to spend the day with, and have all the Bad Guys be malevolent orcs. I’m not suggesting for a minute that anyone frequenting this blog writes stories that simplistic. But I do think it’s worth spending a little time to think up those annoying, frustrating, plot-tangling characters who, without being evil, cause the hero plenty of secondary problems. They’re fun to write, they add sparkle to the story; what have we got to lose?

And having said that, I’m now going to take myself off and brood about introducing a shatter-brained society gossip or a malicious dandy into the current book, which is getting a bit too light and fluffy even for me. Or maybe I’ll just expand the part of the main supernatural character; the Hob is cross-grained enough to irritate everybody in a ten-block radius. Possibilities abound!

5 Comments
  1. I have a rather obnoxious and irritating character through several of the Luna City books – an obsessed and spectacularly unsuccessful treasure hunter named Xavier Gunnison Penn (who was named after a rather obnoxious Canadian troll of one of the websites I contribute to). He pestered the heck out of several major characters, got bitten on the ass by an outraged llama during an all-hands fracas at the old hippy colony campground … but has returned again, somewhat redeemed by the affection of a local historian, and the prospect of actually being on the trail of a real treasure this time. I’ve had fun with him as a character. He will continue being obsessed and irritating, though.

    August 22, 2019
  2. The Bad Guys are much more fun when they are your terrible boss, asshole neighbor, nightmarish landlord and dreaded mother-in-law in the form of malevolent orcs. That would be neat.

    August 22, 2019
  3. Mary #

    Good but irritating characters — I’m afraid many that I’ve run across look like the writer trying to get even with a good character in someone else’s work by portraying him spitefully.

    August 22, 2019
  4. Ana #

    Angela Thirkell… Didn’t know about her, after a quick search in Goodreads seems I’ll be reading some of her books when I finish the Georgette Heyer books I have available in the library, thanks! At least her ebooks are cheaper than Heyer’s ebooks

    August 24, 2019
    • Angela Thirkell is amazing! And yes – a good follow-on to Heyer. And she did redeem some of her awful characters, or at least made them somewhat more sympathetically human.
      And a good look backwards at what England was in the 30ies-50ies…

      August 24, 2019

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