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The Back-up Antagonist
We recently had a guest join us to talk about creating characters with good character. If you haven’t read that post, I strongly suggest you do, since creating likable characters is always a hot topic with writers. However, it turns out I’m a contrarian. I’m crazy about unlikable characters that run from those skirting the edges of being jerks, to the ones that cross the line into the realm of the truly hated! I’m also one of those writers who’s nuts about secondary characters in general, the ones that were never meant for story center stage, but often find a way to steal a chunk of the spotlight anyway. So put these two traits together and give me an unlikable secondary character and I’m in heaven.
I’ve been thinking about this composite character for over a year now, ever since I started writing a book featuring a bunch of teen criminals, and it turns out that when secondary characters are pompous, shady and egotistical, they serve a number of important story functions. These characters fall into some predictable patterns, too many to count, but here are four of my personal favorites.
Pirates and Mercenaries: When characters don’t care about being liked, they can say and do all the things the hero can’t. Since they tend to look out for number one, they don’t share the value of sugar-coating the truth for the sake of others. This character never lets the reader forget the stakes. They become the voice of the devil’s advocate. They up the tension and sometimes offer comic relief with the forces of their self-serving agenda and natural pessimism. Jayne from Firefly is the perfect example of this character, being unabashedly rude and the first one to speak up when a plan sounds stupid, or just lacking in financial gain.
Tough Love Mentors: Sure, everyone thinks they want a mentor who is kind, supportive and praising, but not all mentors are cut out to be that way. Mentors are who they are often because of wisdom gained through a lifetime of hard work and often harder knocks, and that can change a person. Tough love mentors are bitter, and callous, unwilling to trust. They hide behind a wall of ice, or in some cases, alcohol. Hamish from The Hunger Games is the perfect example. After watching countless tributes under his sponsorship die, he has given up caring about himself or others. That is until he finally believes he might have a shot at bringing a tribute home alive.
The Absentee Antagonist’s Understudies: It’s easy to forget that in the Harry Potter series many of the unlikable characters are story stand-ins for the missing in action Lord V. The Dursleys, Crabbe, Fudge, Umbridge, even little Mrs. Norris are only there to provide obstacles, and in the end most of them never cause Harry any lasting harm. I like Argus Filch, he is a character who just oozes animosity and frankly looks like he smells bad, but underneath it all he is just venerable and scared of his own secrets getting out.
Kindness Killers: From high atop their sturdy soapbox, and speaking in a voice too high for mere mortals to hear, this character rains down upon a story with moral fortitude and impressive list of righteous conventions. This character strives to create change for what they think are all the right reasons, but they’ve gone terribly wrong. I think my favorite literary example is Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice, but who can forget Marianne Bryant in Easy A. She is just the right nasty blend of know-it-all faith and insufficient grace.
I love a large cast in stories. Give me groups of heroes or packs of story-helping characters, and if a few of them are quirky, creepy, and downright morally busted, all the better! If you don’t already have one of these powerhouse characters in your story, you might be missing out on something big. If you have a favorite unlikable character, please share them in the comments.
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