Writing about unattractive characters

I’m wading my way through A Game with Sharpened Knives by Neil Belton and thinking about how people write unlikeable characters. When I say wading, I don’t mean that the book is badly written because it’s not; it’s an allusive, complex, disjointed narrative that opens up the lives of Erwin Shrodinger and his associates to scrutiny.

The issue is Shrodinger – he was a peculiar, weak, oddly ego-less but selfish person. His strange personal life (not to give anything away to those who don’t know his story) might have passed with less notice in a different age, but as a man whose scientific career straddled the two world wars, who spent some time looking like (but perhaps not actually being) a Nazi apologist and ended up marooned in an Ireland seeking an identity in its own neutrality during World War II he acted, bluntly speaking, appallingly. And I am finding Belton’s depiction of him painful, ugly and depressing.

On the other hand, I love the late and much lamented Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen – granted Zen is fictional, he appeals to me so much that I feel a tiny pang each time I remember that there will never be another Zen novel. Aurelio is equally weak, strange and badly behaved, but I adore the way Dibdin drew chis character. And yet … Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley leaves me cold. I know Ripley has an actual fan club, has been much adapted for film and TV etc, but I just find his kind of unpleasantness unbearable. And yet … I do love Hannibal Lecter – a serial killer with few redeeming features (as an aside, both he and Ripley love forms of music which do little for me so it’s not that) who has become an international film figure too. And yet ... and yet ...

So how do we write these nasty types? It seems to me that there’s a warmth to Lecter and Zen – not so much a warmth of depiction but a warmth within them, which is lacking in Ripley and Shrodinger – or perhaps the warmth isn’t in them - but they have a kind of warmth that resonates with me, while whatever warmth there may be in the other two (and surely there isn’t any warmth in Ripley?) doesn’t.

As I’m revising – with hideous slowness – a historical novel in which my lead character is pretty nasty in many ways, I’m trying to unpick what makes some unlovable characters work for me, while others don’t – but I’m coming to the conclusion that liking and hating may be more visceral than intellectual and that means that I should write my dubious hero for myself and hope that there’s enough other people out there who feel as I do if he ever sees print.

Aurelio Zen's Venice courtesy of ezioman at Flickr

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