Characters Who Challenge You

Elychion at a restaurant 8.16.16

Elychion the cat wrestling with her gambling, football-watching, and drinking problem. 

I didn’t want to write about a drug-addicted surgeon who’d lost his license and resorted to performing illegal procedures in a back alley. But regardless of my intentions, he showed up on the page, told his story, and made me care about him.

Alas, I shelved the novel where he appeared–for other reasons, not because of him. Perhaps he’ll find a place in a different novel, but even if he stays on the shelf, writing from his point of view contributed to my growth in this craft.

Even the most resolute planners among us encounter surprises on the page (or screen). Like meals we hadn’t ordered, characters, props, and plot twists appear without our having sketched them out beforehand. As a dedicated pantser (a writer who does minimal pre-planning, preferring to go with the intuitive flow–and who ends up revising a lot), I’ve learned to appreciate the serendipitous. It doesn’t hurt to let it happen…I can always revise, which, as I said, I do a lot. Perhaps if I were the planning type, I wouldn’t need to revise as much, but my mind just doesn’t work that way, so I take the drawbacks with the benefits to my compositional style.

Trusting to this intuitive, revelatory aspect of the writer’s art, I find that the people who start populating a story are often challenging individuals. Multidimensional and intriguing they may be, but they’d also be difficult to get along with in real life. Prickly, domineering, principled to a fault or charmingly manipulative, engaged in activities I’d find reprehensible–both in writing and in acting, I enjoy rising to the challenge of entering heads very different from my own and then finding the common thread within them that causes me, and hopefully the reader, to empathize with them.

Here are some reasons why I savor the chance to create a difficult character.

Interesting people are often difficult. The other day, I was talking with a patient who observed that her weaknesses aren’t so much opposed to her strengths as they are a flip side to those strengths. I agreed with her. The very features that can make someone accomplished at what they do can also be hurdles to working and/or living with them. (I admire Mother Theresa, but can you imagine living with a saint?)

Let’s say your protagonist’s most salient characteristic is their persistence. They’ve gotten where they want to be through sheer dogged perseverance, and you and the reader can admire them for it. However, the reverse side of persistence is stubbornness, obduracy, even rigidity. They may persist with a battle they can never win, slamming into that brick wall again and again in the mistaken belief that it’s oh so close to crumbling. (Most likely, if it does, it’ll land on top of them and bury them.) A persistent individual may not come equipped with the discernment to know when they’re wasting their stick-to-itiveness on some futile situation where they’ll never make headway.

This virtue/flaw dynamic can make for engaging reading, provided that there’s 1) something there that the reader can identify with (even if it’s in a person they know) and 2) it sets the character up for troubles that generate the plot and keep it moving.

Difficult characters are dynamic. A hallmark of a well-written main or supporting character is dynamism: through the story’s events, the character changes. Characters who are challenging–in terms of personality, beliefs, circumstances, and choices–have more room for transformation than characters who are already self-actualized. (By definition, an enlightened, self-realized character leaves little room for more growth.)

The potential snag here is to allow your character’s sharp edges to manifest without making them so sharp that they’re off-putting to the reader. Here’s an example of how effortful it can be to strike that balance.

One of my favorite fantasy series is the now nine-volume Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen R. Donaldson. Back in the late ’70s, long before George R.R. Martin popularized gritty fantasy with the Song of Ice and Fire series, Lord Foul’s Bane transformed the genre with its tormented anti-hero, Thomas Covenant, who appears in a magical Land in the likeness of a legendary hero. The people he meets accord him respect because of this likeness, but they also expect him to save the Land–or why else would he have been transported there?  Covenant, however, believes that the Land is an elaborate delusion and giving in to it could destroy his health and life in the “real world.” In light of this logic, Covenant refuses to take heroic, or even principled, actions on behalf of the Land. To the contrary, he harms, sometimes violates, the people who place their trust in him.

As the story progresses, he changes from an embittered, rejected man who lashes out, to devastating effect, to an actively compassionate “doer.” However, I admit that sticking with him on this journey was hard work. To say he started as an unlikable character is an understatement. I couldn’t stand him. I yearned to kick him in the head. For a while, I persisted in reading only because the Land was so enchanting and the other characters so sympathetic.

From my experience with struggling to stay with Thomas Covenant on his quest, I decided that I needed to introduce my difficult characters’ redeeming qualities early on so that readers wouldn’t bail. If my character had a criminal, corrupt, or otherwise morally murky past, I now introduce them to readers at a point where they had already overcome their worst tendencies and only introduce their past crimes once the reader (hopefully) has started sympathizing with them.

This brings up another point:

Characters with hard-to-handle personalities make great antagonists, or at least obstacles for the protagonist. These clashes create internal and external friction that drives the protagonist’s decisions, colors their perspective, and complicates their life in ways that move the plot forward, or at least makes it thicken. Characters with obnoxious personality traits can be balanced by other traits that make them relatable, or at least interesting. This complexity helps the writer to avoid creating one-dimensional antagonists, the kind I’ve described before who, like the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, celebrate their own “beautiful wickedness.”

When I’m writing about someone who thinks and acts differently from me, it’s harder to use my novel to advance a political or personal agenda. It’s easy for characters to become mouthpieces and plots to become bullet points in a sermon. I’ve read some fantastic novels that make a point, but what makes a difference between mastery and clunky propaganda is that in the masterful example, the writer’s agenda never dominates over a winning story, intriguing characters, and a stellar writing style. One way to ensure that your novel doesn’t devolve into a pulpit in print, and prevents you from sticking a bullhorn into each character’s hands, is to give at least one of your viewpoint characters a perspective that differs from your own.

What better way is there to start understanding, and empathizing with, someone than to try getting into their head? For me, writing isn’t just a career–it’s also a path to self-growth. As social beings, our growth isn’t exclusively solitary. We grow when other people challenge us, either by encouraging us to hone our best qualities or by bumping up against us in ways that nudge us to rethink our responses, our beliefs, and our decisions. While I don’t advocate turning your family, co-workers, or friends into characters, some of their features can inspire your creations. As you explore what makes such an individual tick, perhaps that deeper perspective can redound in your real-world relationships and help you to understand those hard-to-like folks better.



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